Nothing underscores the Obama administration’s failure on race relations more than its reaction to the wounding by gunfire in the wee hours last Thursday of two St. Louis-area cops at a Ferguson demonstration. Police Saturday night arrested Jeffrey Williams, a 20-year-old black who admitted to firing the shots but claimed he was aiming at someone else. Civil rights activists, predictably, are condemning Williams and denouncing “racist” police. The Department of Justice, which helped create this situation, is responding similarly. The outcome could be a nationwide law enforcement disaster.
Ferguson, a north side St. Louis suburb of about 20,000 residents, two-thirds of them black, for months has been a nationwide flash point. As I have chronicled in lengthy NLPC articles (here, here and here), and in a new book, Sharpton: A Demagogue’s Rise, the aggressive allegations of racial motivation behind the police shooting death last summer of a violent 18-year-old local black, Michael Brown, amounts to abuse of our legal system traveling under the banner of “justice.” This politically-driven campaign has ulterior motives that extend well beyond Ferguson’s boundaries: 1) the subjection of state and local law enforcement agencies across the nation to affirmative action quotas when making traffic stops, arrests, convictions and sentencing; and 2) the removal of public officials who object. A misguided new study by the Justice Department may raise the chances for success. It already has triggered the resignations of Ferguson City Manager John Shaw, Police Chief Thomas Jackson, and Municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer.
To recap: About 11:50 A.M. last August 9, a white Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of the force, while slowly cruising through a residential neighborhood, encountered a pair of black youths walking in the middle of the street. Wilson got out of his vehicle and told the pair to move to the sidewalk. It was a reasonable directive. Jaywalking can be dangerous to pedestrian and motorist alike. And Officer Wilson’s words and tone revealed nothing in the way of a racial motive. There is no reason to believe he would have behaved any differently had the pair been white. Michael Brown, a veritable food giant at 6’4,” 292 lbs., rather than comply, decided to test his luck. Brown quickly approached Wilson, who by then had returned to his vehicle, reached through the driver’s window, and sucker-punched Wilson. He then attempted to steal Wilson’s gun, with the obvious intention of shooting him. Officer Wilson, in the ensuing scuffle, Wilson fired a shot, hitting Brown on the hand. Though media outlets covering the case typically refer to Brown as “unarmed,” as if to imply he was harmless, he was anything but that. Had Wilson not hung on to his revolver, he likely would have been murdered. After avenging the imagined slight, Brown ran away. Wilson once again got out of his car. Brown, rather than continue walking, explosively wheeled around and charged at Wilson at top speed. Once again, Officer Wilson faced a life-and-death situation. This time, however, he was prepared. He fired off several rounds that hit Brown, though without much effect. He then got off a shot that killed Brown, who would lay dead on the street. Due to the increasingly agitated reaction by local residents that would would have placed an EMT crew in harm’s way, police did not immediately call for an ambulance.
Initial accounts, especially the statement provided by Michael Brown’s companion that day, Dorian Johnson, indicated that Officer Wilson had shot Brown from behind, and moreover, did so while Brown was raising his hands in surrender. Many people chose to believe this story. With warp speed, “hands up, don’t shoot” became a protest chant around the U.S. Blacks from Ferguson, other St. Louis-area communities and even beyond assembled in the streets of Ferguson for the following two weeks, protesting by day and rioting by night. Some rioters torched a pair of convenience stores including one Brown robbed only minutes before his fatal encounter. Ferguson resembled a war zone.
Under enormous pressure from the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights leaders, St. Louis County prosecutors convened a grand jury to decide whether to indict Officer Wilson. The police department, also under enormous pressure, released Officer Wilson’s name to the public, causing him only several weeks later to resign from the force for his own safety. For three months, the grand jury pored over countless documents and photos, and heard testimony from dozens of witnesses. Yet as information from the probe leaked out, the case appeared increasingly thin. In November, the grand jury reported its decision: It would not indict Officer Wilson. This was a sound conclusion. Virtually all statements claiming a police “murder” had occurred were sketchy, contradictory or invented out of thin air. The claim that Wilson had shot a surrendering Brown from behind turned out to be a complete hoax.
Local blacks, uninterested in facts much less any connection between cause and effect, once again responded with a riot – and more devastating than those back in August. Mobs looted, vandalized and burned a Ferguson commercial strip; targets of arson included an entire row of vehicles for sale at a car dealer. Yet these hoodlums did not operate in a vacuum. On some level, they knew they had a green light by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his close ally, Reverend Al Sharpton. Sharpton, in fact, had run a virtual New York-to-St. Louis shuttle during the period between the Brown shooting and the grand jury announcement, openly demanding the arrest of cop and the release of his name to the public. That the officer, Darren Wilson, likely had acted in self-defense apparently did not matter. Neither did the possibility that exposing his identity was tantamount to putting a target on his back to potential killers. As for Attorney General Holder, he arrived in the St. Louis area less than two weeks after the shooting to express his views. In a speech at Florissant Valley Community College (located in Ferguson), he stated: “I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man.” The guilt or innocence of a white suspect appeared to be of secondary importance.
While the County of St. Louis case was underway, Holder had launched his own investigation. He informed the public via online message to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the Justice Department had assigned 40 FBI agents to the case, in addition to federal prosecutors in St. Louis, to investigate the possibility of whether Officer Wilson had violated Brown’s civil rights. By the end of August, agents already had interviewed hundreds of people. Yet in the end, the trophy hunt failed. On March 4, the Justice Department announced that it would not file civil rights charges. Its report admitted: “Some of these (eyewitness) accounts are inaccurate because they are inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence; some of those accounts are materially inconsistent with that witness’s own prior statements with no explanation. Although some witnesses state that Brown held his hands up shoulder level with his palms facing outward for a brief moment, these same witnesses describe him then dropping his hands and ‘charging’ at Wilson.”
Even Eric Holder and fellow “civil rights” activists at the Justice Department had to admit a prosecution wouldn’t fly. But they had another ace up their sleeves: disparate impact. Ferguson police, they reasoned, might not have intentionally treated blacks more harshly, but they could be found guilty of discrimination anyway because even the most race-neutral policies could be producing wide disparities in racial outcomes. Once armed with evidence of disparities, the Justice Department could pressure the Ferguson police department to alter its practices. This doctrine of disparate impact, established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971), effectively launched affirmative action as official policy. It has legitimized anti-white quotas and timetables in employment, college admissions and federal contracting. Applying it to police work as well didn’t seem too much of a stretch. And as the Obama-era Justice Department on several occasions has forced huge financial settlements upon banks with “discriminatory” mortgage practices, it could forced major concessions from the Ferguson Police Department, and even better, establish a model for monitoring law enforcement agencies everywhere in the U.S. By seeking equality of result rather than equality of treatment under the law, America could realize its overdue racial “healing.” So went the argument.
Hoping to find that elusive smoking gun, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division initiated a study of recent Ferguson police and court records. The discovery process was long and exhaustive. Finally, on March 4, the same date as the announcement that Wilson would not be indicted, the department released its Ferguson police study. The report states: “Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014 shows that African-Americans account for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67 percent of Ferguson’s population.” The study also notes: “African-Americans are at least 50 percent more likely to have their cases lead to an arrest warrant, and accounted for 92 percent of cases in which an arrest warrant was issued by the Ferguson Municipal Court in 2013.” As “direct evidence of racial bias,” the report cites seven e-mails sent by Ferguson cops during 2008-11 that allegedly were offensive to blacks, women, Muslims, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Holder was convinced he had struck gold. The Justice Department, he announced at a press conference, is “prepared to use all the powers that we have” to ensure change in Ferguson. When asked by a reporter if dismantling the local police force was an alternative, Holder responded: “If that’s what’s necessary, we’re prepared to do that.” Vanita Gupta, acting head of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, emphasizes that the federal government is committed to reaching a court-enforceable agreement to address Ferguson’s supposedly unconstitutional practices. She recently stated that a team of DOJ staffers will travel to Ferguson to talk to residents about whether to reform the department or disband it. One can be fairly certain about the kinds of residents to whom Ms. Gupta prefers to speak.
Given the federal government’s deep pockets and fanatic determination to root out “racism” from every nook and cranny of American life, Justice Department lawyers are more than likely to intimidate the City of Ferguson into a consent decree that will be both costly and time-consuming. Moreover, the end result likely will jeopardize rather than promote public safety. Supporters of the DOJ report, including many in the media, are referring to it as “damning,” “devastating” and “scathing.” To the contrary, it is a tempest in a teapot hatched in a fit of vindictiveness following the St. Louis County grand jury’s decision last fall not to indict Officer Wilson. For all intents and purposes, it is worthless.
First, Ferguson, as mentioned earlier, is 67 percent black. All other things held equal, the arrest and traffic stop percentages for blacks also would be 67 percent. Yes, the percentages for blacks are higher than that. But is this discrimination? Or is it a product of the fact, as reflected in official statistics and widespread personal experiences, that blacks proportionately commit far more serious crime than whites do? Second, given that white Ferguson residents tend to be middle-aged and elderly homeowners, the percentages for blacks, if anything, may be too low. Heather Mac Donald, a research fellow with the Manhattan Institute who has written extensively on urban police behavior, argued:
There are few criminal laws that do not have a disparate impact on blacks, because the black crime rate is more elevated than the white crime rate. Black males between the ages of 14 and 17, for example, die from homicide nationally at nearly ten times the rate of white and Hispanic males of the same ages combined, because the black youth homicide rate is similarly skewed. Blacks commit property crimes at about three times the rate of their presence in the national population, according to arrest data. And although the topic has been virtually taboo in research circles, the few studies that have looked at driving behavior, including in New Jersey and North Carolina, suggest that black drivers violate traffic laws at a higher rate than whites do.
Such details escaped the crowds assembling in Ferguson streets last Wednesday evening, March 11. They were there to protest the “racism” allegedly uncovered by the Holder report; celebrate the resignations of City Manager John Shaw, Police Chief Thomas Jackson and Municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer; and demand the resignation of Mayor James Knowles III. Several dozen police officers from multiple departments kept protestors from storming the Ferguson station. Then, shortly after midnight, as the demonstrations were winding down, shots rang out. Suddenly, the crowd was in a state of panic. Many were fleeing the scene. Journalist Bradley Rayford gave a first-hand account: “We heard, like, a firework – we thought it was a firework – it was loud. You couldn’t even see where it was coming from, but you saw the muzzle flash from up the hill. The bullets went right past my head.”
These gunshots did more than create noise and panic. They struck two unnamed cops, one working for St. Louis County and the other for the south county municipality of Webster Groves. The County officer, Scott Brown, age 41, had been shot just below the right eye, with the bullet lodging in his ear. The Webster Groves officer, Cameron McKay, age 32, had been shot in the shoulder, with the bullet exiting through his back. They were lucky; they lived. “We could have buried two police officers next week over this,” remarked St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, adding that the shooter, rather than being stationed on a hill, likely was part of the demonstration. “I don’t know who did the shooting…but somehow they were embedded in that group of folks,” he said. The two wounded officers were rushed to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, where they were treated and released several hours later.
County police recovered shell casings, concluding that the shooter used a .40-caliber handgun and that the bullets traveled more than 100 yards. Acting on a tip during an intensive manhunt, SWAT units surrounded a house in Ferguson several blocks away, climbed onto the roof, gained access through a vent, and took two men and a woman in for questioning. When it was clear they were not involved in the shootings, police released the trio hours later. On Saturday night, acting on a more reliable tip, the cops got what appears to be their man. His name is Jeffrey L. Williams, 20, a black north county resident. Williams, already on probation for possession of stolen property, admitted to firing the weapon but said that he was aiming at someone else with whom he had a quarrel. Police charged him with two counts of first-degree assault, one count of firing a weapon from a vehicle, and three counts of armed criminal activity. They set bond at $300,000. Appearing in court on Monday, Williams told the judge that he planned to hire a private attorney. One wonders how he might afford an attorney. Williams, who lives with a grandmother, did not graduate from high school and does not hold a steady job. A ladies’ man (of a sort), he has two children and a third on the way.
Even before the arrest, local and national civil rights activists were in a public relations quandary. Recognizing that the shootings could undermine their credibility as healing forces, they exercised damage control. The culprit was an outsider, they insisted, not a “real” demonstrator. Attorney General Holder weighed in on Thursday, March 12: “What happened last night was a pure ambush. This wasn’t someone trying to bring healing to Ferguson. This was a damn punk who was trying to sow discord.” That same day, Al Sharpton, whose visits to the St. Louis area since the Brown shooting helped harden anti-police sentiment among local blacks, as a guest on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, declared:
You know, just hours before the attorney for the family of Michael Brown, Benjamin Crump, was on ‘PoliticsNation’ [Sharpton’s own MSNBC news show] with me in Chicago. And we were saying how the protests helped to lead to a climate where the Justice Department would come in the first place. There wouldn’t have been an investigation. And we were commenting a lot on those who had continued those protests, nonviolently. And then this happens. Now, we don’t know whether – we will find out later. Let’s be real clear. We’re not saying the protestors had anything to do with the shooting or not. We don’t know. But absolutely, unequivocably, no one I know involved in the protests or the Brown family would condone shooting at police.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a noted black author and weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on the American Urban Radio Network, offered a similar line. “There is always the real fear among protestors,” wrote Hutchinson, “that all it takes is the crazed act of one unhinged individual to derail the growing recognition on the part of a wide body of the public and many public officials that police violence is a major legal and public policy issue that cannot be ignored. Indeed, a day (actually it was eight days) before the Ferguson shooting, the Justice Department had issued one of the most scathing indictments of a police department in living memory.” Apparently, the attack by Michael Brown against Officer Darren Wilson wasn’t “unhinged.”
President Barack Obama also was eager to convey a sense of moral equivalence. And he took it to the world of entertainment television. Appearing on the taped March 12 segment of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” President Obama declared that while there was “no excuse” for violence against police, the City of Ferguson’s law enforcement practices were “oppressive and objectionable.” The president elaborated:
Whoever fired those shots should not detract from the issue. They are criminals. They need to be arrested. And then what we need to do is make sure that like-minded, good-spirited people on both sides – law enforcement, who have a terrifically tough job, and people who understandably don’t want to be stopped and harassed just because of their race – that they are able to work together to come up with some good answers.
Street demonstrators likewise believed the gunman wasn’t one of them. “The shooter was not with the protestors,” said frequent demonstrator DeRay McKesson. “The shooter was atop the hill.” Aside from considering the possibility that the shooter came from within the crowd, McKesson perhaps can ask himself why the shooter had fired off shots in the first place. Some demonstrators, in their own repellent way, revealed a desire to rationalize the crime. A video taken while shots rang out inadvertently recorded one person as saying: “Acknowledgment nine months ago would have kept that from happening.” Presumably, that person was speaking of the shooting death of a criminal, Michael Brown, which occurred seven months earlier — so much for an ability to count. Several other persons, via tweets, expressed outright support for this would-be cop killer. One tweet stated: “After what the Ferguson Police Dep has done does anyone REAALLY care that three pigs were shot? #NoLOL.” Another tweet conveyed this view: “Hopefully they’ll be off the street for a long time. Two less pigs out harassing & kidnapping people. #Ferguson.” Is this what passes for “healing?”
The goal of civil rights activists, whether in federal suites or Ferguson streets, is to make white police in heavily black communities wary about applying basic procedures to prevent and apprehend crime. No individual police officer or department wants to be prosecuted, sued or driven out of work. The proposed civil rights “reforms” would heighten crime. Indeed, they would serve as an open invitation for assaulting cops. The wounding of the two St. Louis-area police officers, the murder in December of two New York City cops (by a man claiming to be enraged over the police “murders” in Ferguson and New York), and the assault by Michael Brown upon Officer Darren Wilson last August, aren’t misguided reactions to the central problem; they are the central problem. “Idealistic” civil rights protestors, such as Al Sharpton, hold the same warped views as the “crazies.” They’re just less impulsive in the way they go about expressing those views. And the end result in either case is livable communities transformed into zones of fear and loathing.
Sharpton’s role in all this should not be underestimated. Since last August he has sought to criminalize Ferguson police, since they “discriminate” against blacks. And he rationalizes committing acts of street violence if that doesn’t happen. For decades, this has been Reverend Al’s modus operandi. The tag line of his nonprofit group, National Action Network (NAN), after all, is “No justice, no peace.” By implication, any denial of justice, real or imagined, constitutes a license to go to war – at the very least, a war of words. The Obama administration, especially Attorney General Eric Holder, the plenary speaker at NAN’s 2012 convention, is determined to use the legal system to hamstring local police across the U.S. His Obama-nominated and Sharpton-vetted replacement, U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, is of the same mind. More than ever, the Justice Department is revealing itself to have a highly selective definition of justice.