Ferguson Grand Jury Protests Send a Troubling Message

The idea that the judicial system should be subjected to popular pressure would set a horrible precedent.
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The idea that the judicial system should be subjected to popular pressure would set a horrible precedent.
Al Sharpton

Whenever the Supreme Court hears arguments in a hotly-contested case, protesters invariably gather outside the courthouse to make their voices heard. But as heartening as democracy in action can be, it's strange that the branch of government that's supposed to be the most insulated from popular passions would be a target of politically-minded demonstrators. This is why all federal and many state judges are appointed for life. Whatever political baggage they bring with them to the bench, they'll never have to appease voters because their constituency is the law, however they may interpret it.

This is what makes calls for demonstrations and protests amid the forthcoming grand jury decision in nearby Clayton, Mo. troubling. Right now, a jury of 12 individuals is deciding whether there are sufficient grounds to proceed with a criminal case against Officer Darren Wilson, who shot Michael Brown in August. That jury will weigh the evidence on its merits and make a decision accordingly, but this isn't good enough for some. As the AP reported,

"It is important that we have a fair and impartial proceeding," [Al] Sharpton said at a news conference at National Action Network headquarters in Harlem. "And it is clear that neither the family nor the community has confidence in the local prosecutor."

He added: "We are prepared to continue to mobilize. We are calling for everyone to act in a strategic, disciplined, non-violent way, but do not allow either decision to feel like the case is over."

If his past body of work is any indication, Sharpton wants an "impartial proceeding" to the extent that it results in an indictment. Anything else and he will consider it a moral outrage and a miscarriage of justice.

Beyond this, to what end is Sharpton and company "prepared to continue mobilize"? If the grand jury fails to muster the nine votes necessary to indict, there is no further recourse at the state level. Prosecutors could decide to take another run at another grand jury, but unless new evidence comes to light, the result is likely to be the same. There is of course, an ongoing federal investigation being conducted by the Department of Justice into the shooting, but this too should be insulated from the declamations of outsiders seeking to pressure investigators into acquiescing to their will.

What happened on August 9 when Wilson shot Brown is very much in dispute, which is what makes the act of anyone not associated with the case declaring Wilson guilty or not guilty of murder absurd. Yet this is the unfortunate reality: Every new incident with apparent racial undertones almost inevitably becomes a political issue, with conservatives and liberals setting up camp in the usual locations.

Obviously, racism remains a problem in the United States on both individual and structural levels. And this often goes double for law enforcement, which holds a monopoly on the principle means of legitimate violence. But just because there is racial profiling sometimes does not mean there is racial profiling all of the time. Michael Brown may have been shot because he was black, or he may have been shot in self-defense. Either way, we don't know, and to insist otherwise is to engage in the sort of reckless and emotion-driven speculation that the justice system was designed to abrogate in the first place.

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