More than ten days have passed since the first protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson. The case has expanded into a broader controversy about the relationship of the police to protestors, racial minorities, and the media. That’s because of the response of local police forces to the angry residents of Missouri – a response which lurched from one extreme to the other, as authorities seemed genuinely unsure of how to manage the protests without rubber bullets, tear gas, heavy weapons, violent threats against unarmed civilians, and the abuse and detention of journalists.
Jamelle Bouie, reporting from Ferguson, says that as police have finally begun to shift tactics, things are starting to calm down: “After a week of outrageous, disproportionate responses, police appear to have finally learned to create order without pointing weapons, using tear gas, or threatening mass arrests.” But as Bouie notes, there are still “unanswered questions and concerns, including the whereabouts of [officer Darren] Wilson.”
The status of Wilson, including the question of whether he’ll face criminal charges, is likely to be a source of controversy in days to come. If Wilson doesn’t face charges, police in Ferguson will only have a harder time shaking the impression of both brutality and impunity. But as Jonathan Cohn notes, the grand jury responsible for deciding whether to indict Wilson is likely to “just follow the lead of prosecutors, giving them enormous leeway.” That’s because prosecutors decide the charges, the evidence, and the method of presentation, and there’s no opposing attorney to present the other side. And the prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County is Bob McCollough, the son of a slain police officer and just about the only person who seemed to think the St. Louis County Police didn’t need to be replaced in the early days of the protests. As Cohn reports: “Community leaders, including several elected officials, have called upon Nixon to replace McCollough with a special prosecutor,” but the governor has declined to do so, and “McCollough, for his part, has said the questions about his integrity are nonsense.”
Lastly, report Dahlia Lithwick and Daria Roithmayr, regardless of what happens to Darren Wilson and the reporters arrested in Ferguson, the city has other serious constitutional problems—ones that will linger long after media attention has moved elsewhere. While the crackdown on protestors and reporters was a high-profile violation of First Amendment rights to freedom of assembly and the press, reports were less likely to note a range of Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations, or the town’s apparent practice of using “trivial violations by blacks to bankroll the city.” The attention-grabbing spectacle of militarized police officers, however shocking, doesn’t capture the day-to-day reality of how this city, likes countless others, treats racial minorities. “Ferguson,” they argue, “will not be a freer, better, or more just place when the protesters are allowed to gather without cops in riot gear down the block. It will be the same constitutional nightmare it has evidently been for years.”