Mon | Oct 22, 2018

America inflamed

Published:Sunday | November 30, 2014 | 12:00 AM

John Rapley, Columnist

It was always too much to expect that a black president would suffice to heal America's racial wound. But in a week in which the protests at a police killing of a black man in St Louis have reached all the way here in London, one can be forgiven for wondering if anything can.

That the killing of Michael Brown was going to be a thorny case was clear from the start. Witness accounts varied greatly, and the context - a predominantly black community policed by an overwhelmingly white force - was fraught with tension. All that could be reasonably expected was that Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Mr Brown, would have his day in court to defend his innocence.

He, of course, didn't. He didn't need to. It was pretty clear the county prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, was happy to do that for him. McCulloch started off by taking the unusual step of absconding and not recommending an indictment to the grand jury - the panel which, in American law, can recommend that a case go to court. Instead, he turned the evidence over to the grand jury, and let it decide for itself.

Close ties to law enforcement

That sealed the deal. McCulloch has a long history of close ties to law-enforcement agencies, and of sympathy with police officers when cases come against them. All one has to do - as many are now doing - is to glance at the evidence and it becomes woefully apparent that the dossier got massaged in favour of the accused. Wilson himself got a fairly easy ride in questioning. The same largely went for those witnesses who corroborated his account. Witnesses who contradicted his account, however, were more likely to be subjected to cross-examination so as to reveal inconsistencies in their testimony.

So the file presented to the grand jury was tilted in Wilson's favour. Then when it came time to announce the decision, McCulloch did not acquit himself with any great distinction. Instead, he launched into a somewhat bizarre critique of the news media, as if it was somehow at fault for the tensions in Ferguson.

Possible federal charges

The case might not end there. Washington is still looking into federal charges on civil-rights violation, although there is some doubt as to how successful that particular case would be. The family of Michael Brown can also sue for wrongful death. There is an inquiry under way into the policing of Ferguson which, one can hope, might lead to changes elsewhere as well. And one small but positive development is that a cross-party consensus seems to be forming that the militarisation of America's streets, a result of a Department of Defence programme to donate surplus military hardware to police forces across the land, has reached absurd and dangerous proportions.

But the fundamental problem remains. The United States (US) is probably the most individualistic country in the Western world, and a very substantial part of the population simply can't wrap its mind around the fact that it is too much to expect individual initiative to emancipate everyone from a collective injustice. Yes, some brave souls will rise to the top, but the statistics speak clearly. Black people in America suffer disproportionately high rates of arrest, incarceration, and stop-and-search, just as they suffer from relatively low wages, rates of employment, and net wealth.

To expect a young man to get ahead just by keeping his nose clean is a lot to ask when the system seems determined to bloody it at every turn it gets. Too many Americans just don't get it. Not surprisingly, the US's enemies, usually on the receiving end of American condemnations for human-rights violations, are having a field day with Ferguson.

John Rapley lectures at the Centre of Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. Email feedback to