Only one thing is certain from the violence and chaos that has overtaken Ferguson, Mo.: Nothing good can come of it. Such disorder makes life worse for each civilized, law-abiding citizen, each honest policeman, each good community activist, each child, parent, student, and shopkeeper, and our society as whole. Some cities, such as Newark, N.J., that went through riots in the 1960s simply never recovered.
Only two groups of people can benefit from the looting, the violence, and the destruction of small, black-owned businesses: white racists who wish to paint African Americans as criminals who must be kept at bay by riot police and small-time hoodlums who thrive in an environment of chaos.
People who throw concrete slabs through the neighbors’ plate-glass windows do nothing to advance any form of justice. They discredit themselves, their families, and their friends. They make strangers suspicious, destroy the property of innocent people, and make others afraid to drive through the neighborhoods — much less invest or shop there. Rioters feed into the very stereotypes and fuel the prejudices they claim to challenge.
As a former prosecutor and now defense attorney, one of us knows that they taint the local jury pool, and make it likely that the only way for truth and justice to prevail is to have the trial in some place far away from the hostile and enraged community.
We don’t yet know all the facts of the original encounter between Officer Darren Wilson and 18-year old Michael Brown, and it may be weeks or more before we do. It’s far too easy for people to jump to conclusions based on their own personal experiences or what they think they know.
Those of us who have suffered from urban crime — no matter their skin color — might assume at the outset that Mr. Brown was a drug-addled street thug who provoked a policeman to panic — and their assumption will be fed by the fact that he strong-armed a helpless convenience store clerk in a theft just minutes before he was shot. If your goal was to disarm and diffuse any knee-jerk reaction, why would you gather Brown’s supporters and lead them to riot in the streets?
Those of us who have been subject to high-handed mistreatment by agents of the government are likely to side with the unarmed young man who died. The local government only feeds such anti-government sentiments by filling its streets with militarized officers whose equipment is better suited to Mosul than Missouri.
Did a police officer “execute” a harmless, compliant pedestrian? Or did the imposing Michael Brown assault a police officer and try to take his gun? We simply don’t know yet. That is what investigations and trials are for — to answer such questions in a rational and civilized setting.
The only presumption with any validity right now is that of innocence. We must assume that both Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson are innocent of a crime or any wrongdoing until it is proven according to fairly applied legal standards.