America's Ferguson protests put police authority on trial

The grand jury verdict in Ferguson, Mo., not only set off a night of rioting and protest across the U.S., but also showed the extent to which society has granted police effective immunity for their actions. Is that really a good thing, Neil Macdonald asks.

Night of protest shows the two solitudes when it comes to dealing with police

Police officers advance on demonstrators in Oakland, Calif., on Monday night as protests and riots sprung up across the U.S. in the wake of the grand jury decision in the Ferguson, Mo., shooting of Michael Brown. (Stephen Lam / Reuters)

Years ago, a fellow journalist affixed what I thought was a terribly clever sticker to his bumper.

"Question Authority," it proclaimed in capitalized yellow letters.

I adored that bumper sticker. It seemed a most elegant assertion of individual rights in a democracy.

It also turned out to be a magnet for impassive traffic cops intent on writing tickets for the slightest infraction.

Of course it did.

What happened in Ferguson, Mo., last summer was a great deal more serious than being rousted for a smart-alecky bumper sticker, but it began the same way — somebody questioning a cop's authority.

Officer Darren Wilson told grand jurors that when he told Michael Brown and his friend to walk on the sidewalk that Saturday afternoon instead of down the middle of the road, Brown replied "fuck what you have to say."

Eventually, they tussled at the window of Wilson's cruiser. Finally, with both of them outside on the street and facing one another, Wilson shot the unarmed teenager to death.

There are different accounts of what happened in those final seconds. Wilson testified Brown, already wounded in the hand, charged at him and looked "like a demon."

And the grand jury declined to indict Wilson. Of course it did.

Enforcers of the status quo

Most police despise any challenge to their authority. Some will abuse it, if necessary, to protect that authority, and the system can allow them to do that.

Some police are bright, professional and educated. Some are louts. Some are racists. You never know which variety you're facing.

But what they all have in common (outside Great Britain) is the weapon at their hip, and the implicit threat of its ultimate use to settle matters.

Let me acknowledge the obvious: I'm a privileged male Caucasian and I have no idea what it's like to be a young black man in a mostly black American city where the police are mostly white. Pretty nasty at times, I imagine.

A protester stands in the street after being treated with milk for tear gas exposure on Monday night after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

But I've had my share of dealings with police, in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere in the world, and there is a universal truth: when police demand submission, it's best to submit.

You can complain later. In democracies like America, actually in America in particular, people enjoy individual rights and judicial recourse against arbitrary behaviour.

But as the family of Michael Brown, and so many others in this country have discovered, police are more than enforcers of the law.

They are enforcers of the status quo that provides their employment and power, and the system they protect has conferred upon them something very close to an immunity, which can be a terrifying reality, especially for underprivileged minorities.

Jenny Durkan, a former U.S. attorney in Seattle, wrote convincingly about this in the Washington Post after the grand jury verdict in the Michael Brown case on Monday.

She described trying to rein in a police department that had a pattern of abusive behaviour toward minorities, and running into a wall of legal protection.

Basically, a prosecutor must prove a policeman wasn't acting in good faith in the moment in question, which ranges from difficult to impossible.

When a Seattle officer shot and killed a Native American woodcarver who failed to drop his carving tool quickly enough, an inquest jury found the policeman was not in danger, and that he hadn't given the woodcarver enough time to drop it.

A criminal jury, though, acquitted the officer, finding that he, indeed, did believe the woodcarver was a threat.

Fear factor

Durkan's office then tried to assess whether the Seattle police had been violating federal civil rights in some of these cases, which is what Justice Department officials are doing in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson now that local prosecutors stand accused of steering the grand jury away from an indictment.

But, writes Durkan, "federal law sets a very high bar, and essentially requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that an officer intended to deprive a person of his civil rights … It is exceedingly difficult to prove such specific motivation."

And why does society grant such effective immunity to police? Fear.

Fear of evil, fear of the other, fear that the membrane between civil society and barbarity is easily ruptured, as the looters and arsonists among the civil rights protesters in Ferguson managed to prove, with theatrical irony, after the verdict.

Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson, shown here shortly after the Aug. 9, 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. (St. Louis County Prosecutor's Office / Reuters)

Clearly, there are people with well-grounded anger at class divisions who feel the appropriate response is to go out and help themselves to some shop owner's goods, or burn down a building.

And there are actually "advocates" willing to defend that kind of action. ("You can rebuild a shop, but you can't bring a young man back to life.")

All such behaviour does, of course, is deepen the system's willingness to let police behave as they see fit.

It's a safe bet that my fellow privileged white folks felt a whiff of fear, and gratitude for their local police as they watched the post-verdict rioting in Ferguson and elsewhere.

But the Ferguson story, with its pictures of militarized white cops training their combat weaponry at the crowds, has also brought the issue of race and class into awfully sharp relief.

Everybody, including President Barack Obama and Robert McCullough, the prosecutor who announced the grand jury verdict, agreed something has to be done.

Obama, who seemed unable to hide his disappointment at the verdict, talked about a system "in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion."

But both men offered only bromides about holding a public discussion on accountability. As though that's going to change anything.

The best practical suggestion came from Michael Brown's family: Ensure that every police officer working the streets of America wears a body camera. That would certainly help.

Many police cruisers are already equipped with dash cameras. And the Ferguson case demonstrated the fallibility of eyewitness accounts.

So why not pin digital cams on uniforms? They would act as impassive, accurate monitors, both in cases of police abuse and when someone falsely claims police abuse.

I suspect police here will probably resist the idea, though. Nothing questions authority like hard video evidence.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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