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Professors weigh in on Ferguson decision

A protester shouts at the National Guard standing on duty outside the Ferguson Police Department after the grand jury verdict in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, November 26, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young
A protester shouts at the National Guard standing on duty outside the Ferguson Police Department after the grand jury verdict in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, November 26, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young

As a human being, Aram Sinnreich said he likes other human beings. He deplores violence, especially by institutions against individuals.

Sinnreich, an assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, along with other Rutgers professors, reacted to Darren Wilson — the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager — and the grand jury decision not to indict him.

According to The New York Times, Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. On Nov. 24, the St. Louis County prosecutor announced the grand jury decision not to indict Wilson, igniting protests across the nation.

“Generally speaking, I think it’s abundantly clear that we have a problem with institutionalized racism in this country, and it costs a great many lives and ruins a great many more,” Sinnreich said.

Sinnreich called racism “America’s original sin,” dating back to the days of slavery, a bad decision he said this country is still paying for.

Aside from racism, another problem in the Ferguson case rests in the conflict of interest that exists when prosecutors bring police officers before a grand jury, said Douglas Greenberg, distinguished professor in the Department of History at Rutgers.

Prosecutors and police officers work closely, Greenberg said, mentioning the television show “Law and Order” as an example of this relationship. The problem does not lie within the jurors themselves, but with the prosecutor’s relationship with the police, which makes it impossible for the jurors to represent the people’s view of what constitutes a crime.

“It ought to be a democratic institution,” he said.

With respect to the prosecution of police, Greenberg said grand juries historically served as more of a tool to prosecutors than as a “barrier of malicious prosecution.”

Lisa Miller, associate professor in the Department of Political Science, echoed this sentiment, saying that the grand jury is really the “prosecutor’s domain,” as the prosecutor chooses how to frame the case to the 12 jurors.

A potential solution would be for a special prosecutor to be appointed for cases involving accusations against a police officer, Greenberg said. Special prosecutors have been famously appointed in the past, such as during the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

Though appointing a special prosecutor for such cases is a potential solution, Greenberg said that still does not address the “much deeper and more profound problem” of racism in American society.

“[The] deeper problem is constructing a society and culture in which these things don’t happen,” Greenberg said, adding that Michael Brown and Eric Garner are still dead regardless of whether there is a special prosecutor.

“It’s not about how white folks and black folks get along. It’s about how white police officers treat African Americans and other people of color,” he said.

Miller also highlighted the fact that the 12 jurors do not decide whether the defendant is innocent or guilty. Instead they decide if there is probable cause that a crime was committed and if the person being charged was involved in that crime.

It troubles many people to think that the grand jury decides upon the innocence or guilt of a defendant, Miller said, when the reality is that they do not.

Aside from having the power to present the case in a certain light, the indictment is also the prosecutor’s domain because the defense attorney and defendant cannot be there unless the prosecutor calls upon them to testify, she said. 

“It’s not very difficult for a prosecutor to get a grand jury to indict when there is at least some evidence,” she said. “ ... The deck is stacked so heavily in favor of the prosecutor in grand juries that it really allows prosecutors to indict without much difficulty.”

In the Ferguson case, Miller said a lot of stock was put into the fact that Brown was threatening Wilson’s life in some way. 

Miller said as a society, we should be cautious about assuming any racial bias on the part of the jurors because we can’t be sure what they were told by the prosecutor and how the facts were presented.

Sinnreich does most of his research on the subject of power and resistance and the relationships between individuals and institutions. Though his research does not deal directly with police violence or institutional racism, he focuses on the broader terrain of human rights in an institutional context.

On a personal level, Sinnreich spoke of his two children, who are black, one of which is a few years away from being a teenager.

“It scares the hell out of me to think about the dangers that he confronts in America,” he said.

The day after the grand jury decision, Sinnreich had a class that started at noon and felt he might not be the only one walking into class with more on his mind than that day’s readings.

He allowed the nearly 50 undergraduates in his class discuss the case, a discussion he called “educational and cathartic.” 

Sinnreich has black students in his class who were “justifiably angry” and felt victimized by the failure of the system to indict Wilson. Other students felt the rule of the law has prevailed, and, as a society, we need to support the grand jury’s decision.

Even though Sinnreich’s students were deeply invested in their own opinions, he stressed that they were intelligent and respectful of one another.

Sinnreich was not the only professor who saw Ferguson as an opportunity for educational discussion. 

Jennifer Mittelstadt, an associate professor in the Department of History, has been following #TeachingFerguson on Twitter and said the social media site has become a place for high school teachers and scholars to share materials for teaching.

Ferguson is in no way unique, but instead a story about racial segregation and inequality that has been told before in cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York and Cleveland, Mittelstadt said. The past 15 years have seen countless stories of unarmed black people being injured or fatally shot by police.

“The story of Ferguson, when you look deep in it, is a story that tells us a lot about inequality in the United States,” she said.

For much of American history, Mittelstadt said police brutality has been a problem for non-white groups and has especially broad ramifications with the militarization of the police.

Racism in St. Louis is also nothing new, she said. White people hold most civil service positions, like police officers, firefighters and teachers, and have been in those positions of power since the 1960s. To this day, the police force and city council force remain very white.

The schools in Ferguson are comprised mostly of black students, yet those in school board positions are white, Mittelstadt said.

“There are still white people in school board positions in a way that doesn’t give power over their own community to the citizens who actually live there,” she said.

Donna Murch, an associate professor in the Department of History, zeroed in on how students have reacted to Brown’s killing and the subsequent decision not to indict Darren Wilson.

Murch, who has been teaching since the mid-1990s, has observed students becoming especially politicized since about 2006. She called today’s 18- to 30-year-olds the most political she’s seen in her lifetime. 

She is thrilled to see young people protesting state violence and embracing the unifying idea that black lives matter. 

Murch has watched some of the media coverage of Ferguson on networks like CNN and MSNBC, but has gotten most new information from social media. She joined Twitter because of Ferguson, where she’s been following hashtags like #BobMcCullough, #Blackstruggle, #Handsup and #Millenialyouth.

Chelsea Chang, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, also has not gotten a lot of her information on the Ferguson case from television news, expressing her feeling that the news tends to be “a little skewed in that the opinions are a little biased,” she said.

Chang, who identifies as an African-American woman, said incidents like those of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner are not isolated.

“I feel like police brutality with African Americans happens more often, and I feel like the system is corrupt. There’s a lot of injustice,” she said.

Though the grand jury did not indict Wilson, Murch said the United States Department of Justice can make this a federal case and has the power to indict him for violating Brown’s civil rights.

The broader issue is trying to figure out how to put federal pressure on local police departments so cases like these do not continue happening. Murch suggested the need for a federal database to keep track of police brutality cases resulting in the deaths of citizens.

Murch also spoke to the conflict of interest that Greenberg talked about between prosecutors and police departments. 

Trying to use local prosecutors to prosecute police when they are so closely interrelated with each other presents a problem, and Murch proposed an independent attorney to deal with police killings.

She also talked about other larger possible solutions to police brutality, like the demilitarization of police, and said on campus, students should think about forming a political organization to address the larger issues of the loss of civil liberties and structural racism.

In the end, Miller said the fact that so many unarmed citizens who have been killed after committing “trivial” crimes have been disproportionately black, raising questions about the legitimacy of law enforcement.

“No one wants to live in a society where one never knows when a police encounter will result in the death of an unarmed civilian,” she said.

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