taking the words of Jesus seriously


As the nation reels in response to the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson, it is important to remember that the civil rights community and justice-seeking faith community never asked for the officer to be proven guilty first. And we have never advocated the madness of mob violence as a means to address a misguided judicial system. It is too early for us to critique the specific ways in which the evidence was processed, but we have, nonetheless, several initial thoughts on the case as a whole.


The question before the Grand Jury, and in some ways before the nation, was whether or not an indictment to have the case properly adjudicated in the courts would occur. The DA could have done that himself. Any DA has the authority to do that him or herself. I want to talk about what that has meant in this case.


Our prayers continue to go out to the family, friends and neighbors of Michael Brown. The senseless death of yet another African-American at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve the community where he lived is heartbreaking.


The NAACP is calling on the community to act collectively and calmly until we secure justice for Michael Brown’s family.


The NAACP is advocating for new leadership of the Ferguson police department. Justice for Michael Brown’s family and the Ferguson community, however, cannot be solely delivered in the forced resignation of the police chief. The Ferguson Police Department needs not only new leadership, but also new reforms related to police practice and culture.


The NAACP and our allies will not stand down until accountability and justice in cases of police misconduct are served for Michael Brown and the countless other men and women who lost their lives to such police discrimination.


This killing in Missouri did not occur in a vacuum. It is one in a sequence of tragedies that have seared the names of Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, and Rekia Boyd into our collective memory.


The death of Michael Brown and actions by the Ferguson Police Department underscore a distressing symptom of the untested and overaggressive policing culture that has become commonplace in communities of color – all across the country – for too long; a symptom of the dehumanization of black teens, in which it seems normal to compare an eighteen-year-old to a “demon.” So we must protest with power against the abuse of power—realizing, at the same time, that the more than 200, 000 people who descended on Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, proved that protests don’t need to be violent to be powerful.


From the Boston Tea Party to the Montgomery bus boycotts to Moral Mondays, the ability to protest is woven into the very fabric of our nation and should not be stifled. What we want is justice, and we must manifest our moral outrage through peaceful protests to win meaningful change. This is a national movement that goes far beyond this one moment.


In reality, the non-indictment of Officer Wilson is an indictment of and a charge against a system that is not willing to fully address the racial and discriminatory flaws that still exist.


It is an indictment of a DA who is supposed to be an advocate for the people and for the search for truth as opposed to an advocate for the perpetrator. What we learned from the DA’s presentation Monday night is that Michael Brown’s family did not have an advocate before the Grand Jury. The attorney, instead, took a series of unusual steps.


First, he convened a grand jury and did not appoint a special prosecutor, which we called for early on in the case.


Second, he allowed the defendant to take the stand for four hours.


Third, he refused to make a recommendation of any charge, and often seemed more like Darren Wilson’s defense attorney than a prosecutor.


Lastly, a grand jury generally has to find probable cause to determine a charge. It should NOT have been difficult to indict someone who took the life of an unarmed adolescent—even for lesser charges.


Many legal experts have criticized these abnormalities.


Alex Little, a former federal prosecutor who spent six years trying violent crimes, including homicides, said in August that the strategy raised concerns about Attorney McCulloch’s commitment to seeking justice in the case:


So when a District Attorney says, in effect, ‘we’ll present the evidence and let the grand jury decide, ’ that’s malarkey. If he takes that approach, then he’s already decided to abdicate his role in the process as an advocate for justice. At that point, there’s no longer a prosecutor in the room guiding the grand jurors, and — more importantly — no state official acting on behalf of the victim, Michael Brown…


The National Bar Association also released a statement “questioning how the Grand Jury, considering the evidence before them, could reach the conclusion that Darren Wilson should not be indicted and tried for the shooting death of Michael Brown.” The National Bar Association’s President Pamela J. Meanes expressed “her sincere disappointment with the outcome of the Grand Jury’s decision” and said, “We will not rest until Michael Brown and his family has justice.”


What we saw Monday night is an indictment of a DA who told the rest of the nation, in essence, that a kid – a possible suspect in some form of a robbery – who is unarmed is a justifiable candidate for death. It’s an indictment against that kind of rationale. By this standard, no suspect would make it to jail. What we saw last night was an indictment of a system that still has not answered this fundamental question: how far was Michael Brown from the officer when he was shot unarmed in the head?


It’s an indictment of a system that admits on camera that there were conflicting reports, conflicting testimony, and because it’s conflicting, that’s a justification for not having an indictment and allowing the conflicts to be worked out in the confines of the courtroom.


Many legal experts say that in every case there are conflicting testimonies. That’s why you have a court system where you can have cross-examination and a complete examination of all of the facts. In the more than 162, 500 cases prosecuted by U.S. attorneys from 2009 to 2010, grand juries voted not to return an indictment in just eleven.


This non-indictment is an indictment of a system that tolerates and perpetuates discrimination in the carrying out of judicial mandates within our system. For instance, in St. Louis county there are 90 municipalities. In St. Louis County, they issued 29, 072 tickets for traffic offenses. Florissant collected about $3 million in fines and county costs in the fiscal year 2013 and 13% of its 2013 revenue came from traffic tickets. Florissant’s municipal court also held more than 11, 000 outstanding arrest warrants. The system is set up to disproportionately discriminate against and profile the poor because that’s how the system helps to fund the county municipality.


This is an indictment of the criminal justice system that still refuses to deal with some very real facts–and not just in Ferguson. The fact is that racially biased police violence has become the status quo.


A 2012 study produced by the Every 36 Hours Campaign revealed that police officers, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes killed at least 313 African Americans that year alone. That means that a Black person was killed at the hands of some law enforcement or others every 28 hours.


This is an indictment of a system that has created what Michelle Alexander has called the New Jim Crow, where “Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. There are millions of African-Americans now cycling in and out of prisons and jails or under correctional control. In major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”


This is an indictment of America’s continuing refusal to deal fully with the realities of racial discrimination and profiling in our criminal justice system.


This is an indictment of a system in which there are too many in policy positions who operate from the Bell Curve perspective, which comes from the racist book by Charles Murray that actually suggested that you need an enormous number of prisons and you have to racially profile and there’s no need to work at changing the structure of communities because black and brown people are genetically predisposed to criminality. Some of the same language and not-so-ambiguous suggestions are being made by some now.


Earlier this year, the NAACP published a report entitled Born Suspect. This report details statistically the reality of having to deal with being guilty before proven innocent just because of the accident of birth and color. It concludes:

At its core, racial profiling is based on the assumption that people of specific groups are more likely to commit certain kinds of crimes than others. Be it the targeting of motorists for “driving while black or brown” (DWB), stopping, questioning and searching pedestrians, targeting individuals for extra screening at airports, or conducting unconstitutional and unsubstantiated surveillance of people in their home, places of worship or within their communities, these abuses are all too commonplace and wrongly accepted as an inevitable and necessary strategy of law enforcement in America.


We’re plagued by it. Racial profiling is real in my home state of North Carolina. We have shootings by police that are still under investigation in Fayetteville and Durham. We have a criminal justice system that is racially biased. According to one study, North Carolina police are 3 times more likely to arrest African Americans for seat-belt violations and are more than twice as likely to search African Americans than whites after a speeding stop. Even where the courts have said that race is used in the application of the death penalty, we have legislators who repealed the Racial Justice Act. This is in a state where we have had more than 5 black men on death row who were found innocent, who would have been murdered by the state in our name, and who have now been released. We don’t know how many innocent people are still out there and we don’t know how many innocent people have already been killed. What we know is that we have a system—according to the courts, not according to us—that still utilizes race in the application of the death penalty.


This is an indictment of the system that would lock James Johnson up, accusing him of murder, for 4 years without a trial, only later to release him as innocent. It’s an indictment of a system where a son of this state, John McNeil, shot an armed intruder on his property in Georgia, and two white police officers said it was self-defense, only to have, 274 days later, a rogue DA decide to prosecute him and send John to prison for life. It took us and his wife, on her deathbed, six years to free him.


It’s an indictment of a system that would see a black boy hanging in a predominantly white community in Bladenboro, and quickly close the case without taking pictures of the scene and without a thorough investigation.


And when you add to this racial discrimination in the judicial system, overaggressive policing, the deaths of the unarmed, and too many episodes of police overreacting–when we see the devaluation of black boys and black men and the power given to police to walk into your house with a warrant and remove any member of your family–it’s too much power for an inexperienced and trigger-happy officer.


When you add to the systemic flaws in the criminal justice system, a tax on the poor, the sick, immigrants, the unemployed, and public education, in Ferguson and here in North Carolina, it is clear that America must, in some ways, indict herself. Or at least those who are refusing to deal with this issue. And those of us, black, brown and white, who recognize that we can no longer push this under the rug, must declare that it is time for America—not just black America—to reach the verdict that we must deal with the continuing flaws of racial injustice in this country. America must do this.


This indictment must be made in the court of public opinion and the halls of our government. We must finally render the verdict that the time to address this problem is now.


That’s why, first, the NAACP stands with the family of Mike Brown and all others in that city who have been victims. Let us not forget that St. Louis is where a man was falsely arrested, beaten and bled on an officer’s uniform, and then was charged with destroying government’s property.


Second, we have issued a guide to strategic responses to the situation in our nation with about 20 other civil rights organizations. We are also calling for a federal investigation.


We believe that without national standards on the use of force by the police, a national ban on racial profiling and effective state and local laws against these practices, law enforcement officers are free to engage in unchecked racial profiling and violence, threatening the very communities they swore to protect.


Racial profiling, when used by law enforcement, is a waste of resources and attention and abuse of constitutional rights. It has no place in America today. Racial profiling does not serve law enforcement’s goal of maintaining public safety. It ultimately does not work.


We’re calling for mandatory training on racial bias and police use of force. We’re calling for the required use of police officer body-worn cameras to record every police-civilian encounter. We’re calling for better accountability of the use and potential distribution of federal military weapons by law enforcement. We’re calling for greater oversight of police officers through the formation of a national police commission. We’re calling for true citizen review boards in communities across this country. We’re calling for it from governors’ offices to the Congress and all the way to the White House.


That is why, this Saturday, November 29, the NAACP and its youth and college division will begin a 120-mile march from Ferguson to Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital, to dramatize not only what is happening in Missouri, but what is happening across this nation.


We, as a delegation, are planning to go there on the 28th and to be at the start of that march with other members from the state of North Carolina. On the day of its conclusion, we plan to have some special time of solidarity with those who are going to fight for the transformation of America in this area.


What we are seeing is an indictment of a system that too often wants to dismiss the evidence, in both statistics and actual cases, that proves that our theories about racial disparities in the criminal justice are not figments of people’s imaginations but rooted in legitimate discontent. While we strongly disagree with those who would promote violence to deal with violence, there is, as Dr. King would say, legitimate discontent. Riots are often the voice of the unheard.


So we must stand against violence, but we must hear the sincere nonviolent protest and voices being raised by the majority of those in Ferguson and around the nation and not turn a deaf ear to what is being said. In forensic science, we are taught that wounds talk. And as Coretta Scott King said, there is another kind of violence. In her words: “Poverty can produce a most deadly kind of violence. In this society violence against poor people and minority groups is routine. I remind you that starving a child is violence; suppressing a culture is violence; neglecting schoolchildren is violence; discrimination against a working man is violence; ghetto house is violence; ignoring medical needs is violence; contempt for equality is violence; even a lack of will power to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence.”


And that’s why, all over America, you are hearing what was heard the first Christmas, when brown and black babies were being killed by flawed judicial rulings by a king called Herod. The first Christmas was not lights and cute images of red and white. The first Christmas was filled with blood of innocent boys. The Scripture declares: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” You are hearing the voice of Rachel—the voice of Mike Brown’s momma and daddy, the voice of Trayvon’s momma, of Lennon Lacy’s momma, the voice of people from California to Missouri to North Carolina to New York, crying and refusing to be comforted and saying, “We can no longer just allow funeral after funeral after funeral, and killing after killing after killing to go on.” No! America must render a verdict on herself that it’s time to address the continuing inequalities in our criminal justice system. We, God’s people, cannot be comforted; cannot be satisfied until justice comes; until the breaches are repaired; until the terrible pain leads to the power of transformation; until we are one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all; until parents like me of young black boys don’t have to worry about them being killed by the foolishness of gangs or the frightening possibility of police brutality and shooting. We cannot be comforted until everyone’s humanity is respected and everyone’s life valued. We cannot and will not be comforted until then.


About The Author


The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church and President of Repairers of the Breach. He has served as president of the North Carolina NAACP, the largest state conference in the South, since 2006 and sits on the National NAACP Board of Directors. A former Mel King Fellow at MIT, he is currently Visiting Professor of Public Theology and Activism at Union Theological Seminary and is a Senior Fellow at Auburn Seminary. Rev. Barber is author of the best-selling The Third Reconstruction: How A Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear.

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