Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ferguson: The Justice Brothers

SOMETHING HAPPENED Wednesday in Ferguson, Mo., a mini-event that pretty much slipped the surly bonds of mainstream media comprehension. It was a very transient thing; if a mike was on it was just barely audible, and hardly what the media was listening for.

But in a few words, the two officials most responsible for easing the current tension (and investigating the incident that exploded that tension, and its root causes, into the national vision) gave us a clue of how personal law enforcement can be for an African American cop. Whether that cop is a highway patrolman or the Attorney General of the United States.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder went to Ferguson, in a serious show of just how far the Justice Department was prepared to go, from the jump, to get to the bottom of the multiple-gunshot killing of Michael Brown Jr. at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.

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It would’ve been only natural for Holder to meet with his fellow prosecutor in the case, the district attorney, to discuss aspects of the case — at least for an all-hands photo-op. But the citizens of Ferguson and judicial analysts have problems with St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, whose past and current personal associations with law enforcement make them suspect his ability to prosecute this case impartially.

Meeting McCulloch apparently didn’t happen. But during a meet-and-greet with Ferguson residents at the highly regarded Drake’s Place restaurant, Holder encountered Capt. Ron Johnson, the African American Missouri Highway Patrol officer tasked by Gov. Jay Nixon with maintaining security in Ferguson.

“My man! You are the man!” Holder said, walking toward him.

“We’re trying to make it better,” Johnson said.

The Daily Mail (UK), citing a tweet by a Huffington Post writer, reported that this repartee contained a light Holder jab at Johnson on the occasion of the captain’s 26th wedding anniversary. “You didn't forget, my brother,” Holder reportedly said. “Oh, no! We'll write you a note, how about that?”

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EARLIER, HOLDER spoke before students at the Florissant Valley Campus of St. Louis Community College and got personal and national at the same time.

Holder told them that the history of racism “simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson” explaining how he came to that conclusion, and its poisonous consequences, himself. “I understand that mistrust,” Holder told the students. “I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man.”

“I can remember being stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike on two occasions and accused of speeding,” he said. “I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me.”

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And then there was that time in D.C.:

“I think about my time in Georgetown — a nice neighborhood of Washington — and I am running to a picture movie at about 8 o’clock at night. I am running with my cousin. Police car comes driving up, flashes his lights, yells ‘where you going? Hold it!’ I say ‘Woah, I’m going to a movie.’”

“Now my cousin started mouthing off. I’m like, ‘This is not where we want to go. Keep quiet.’ I’m angry and upset. We negotiate the whole thing and we walk to our movie. At the time that he stopped me, I was a federal prosecutor. I wasn’t a kid. I was a federal prosecutor. I worked at the United States Department of Justice. So I’ve confronted this myself.”

No one could appreciate this personal touch like the family of Michael Brown, and Holder met with them too, for 20 minutes, privately. We don’t know what was said but it can’t have been other than a chance to make the promise, legally required and morally obligated, to find out definitively what happened on Aug. 9.

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BET.COM filed a story Monday with insights on Johnson’s background: “In many ways, Johnson, who is 51 and was raised in Ferguson, grew up in a typical suburban, middle-class African-American household. He was raised in a home where his father worked in campus security for St. Louis University and a mother who worked as a chemical receiving clerk. Johnson wanted to be a police officer from the time he was a child.

“Soon after graduating from Florissant Valley College, he joined the Missouri Highway Patrol in 1987. He rose quickly through the ranks and was made a captain on the force in 2002. He now lives in Florissant, adjacent to Ferguson, with his wife. He has a son and daughter, both in their 20s.”

Elsewhere in the story, it got personal for Johnson too. “This is my neighborhood,” Johnson said to a cheering crowd. “You are my family, friends. And I am you. I will stand to protect you, to protect your right to protest.”

“The last 24 hours have been tough for me. I did an interview last night and the reporter said, ‘Something is wrong, your tone has changed. Are you tired or is something bothering you?’ I said ‘my heart is heavy.’ Last night I met members of Michael Brown’s family. They brought tears to my eyes.”

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Leslie Savan at The Nation observed on Aug. 16: “Such a charismatic black male was not around in the aftermath of previous police and would-be police shootings of young black men, not for Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis, when their deaths became potential teaching moments. Those stories ended up as yet another nasty excuse to battle publicly over the nature of black men—are they choir boys or thugs?”

Put it together, then, and you start to get what made Wednesday’s events so special, or at least so unusual in the history on deadly police-on-black incidents.

There’s the immediate involvement of the federal government; a personal visit from the nation’s top law enforcement official; and a visible African American kinship between that official and another, a commonality of racial experience that transcends the formalities of officialdom, arousing the possibility of something meaningful in the works: not just defusing the immediately combustible situation, but also taking steps to deal with the underlying issues that sparked that situation, the better to keep it from happening again.

The two officers of the law directly responsible for securing justice in this case, federally and locally, are two Americans with their skin in the game, two men who know, intimately, how hard justice is come by for people who look like them.

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THE MICHAEL Brown family will soon face the brutal finality of a funeral. Their son will be laid to rest Monday at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. His uncle, the Rev. Charles Ewing, will deliver the eulogy, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, the MSNBC host, is scheduled to speak.

A grand jury in the Brown case convened on Wednesday. McCulloch, the prosecutor, said the “target date” for completion of his presentation was for some time in the “middle of October.” It’s apparently a case he plans to be a part of.

McCulloch has rebuffed calls for him to shift the case to a special prosecutor, something the NAACP called for. A petition drive to get him off the case garnered more than 70,000 signatures by late Thursday. But McCulloch said in a Wednesday radio interview that he has “no intention of walking away from my duties and responsibilities,” Politico reported.

Neither, apparently, does Eric Holder. “The same kid who got stopped on the New Jersey freeway is now the attorney general of the United States,” Holder told the students at St. Louis Community College.

“This country is capable of change. But change doesn't happen by itself.”

Image credits: Holder and Johnson: Associated Press. Michael Brown Jr.: the Brown family. Johnson: AP/Jeff Roberson.

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