Commentary: Why Michael Brown Never Had a Chance for Justice in Ferguson

The grand jury's decision was as disappointing as it was predictable.

I spent most of my childhood in Florissant, Mo., next door to Ferguson. What happened there Monday night was not typical, but it was the culmination of years of history that led to that point.

It was a history that included St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch's ill-advised decision to announce the grand jury results in a long-winded, defensive speech in the dark of night.

It was a history that included Gov. Jay Nixon's decision not to remove McCulloch as the lead prosecutor in the case, although McCulloch had shown a long bias in favor of police officers, including his attack on the governor for bringing in the National Guard to replace them during the protests in August. "To denigrate the men and women of the county police department is shameful," McCulloch declared back then.

It was a history that included McCulloch's decision to convene a grand jury in the first place. The residents of Ferguson were inexplicably expected to put their faith in a white prosecutor whose police officer father had been killed by a Black man. All this trust was to be invested in McCulloch as his office worked through a secret tribunal with no public opportunity to see the witnesses or review the prosecution's case.

It was a history that included McCulloch's decision to convene a grand jury in a earlier police shooting of two unarmed civilians that also resulted in no indictment, even though it is statistically incredibly rare for a grand jury not to indict a suspect if the prosecutor wants them to do so.

It was a history for McCulloch who had lost a leg to cancer as a teenager and missed his opportunity to become a cop himself, and who identified so much with cops that he viewed his position as a functional equivalent. "I couldn’t become a policeman, so being county prosecutor is the next best thing," he once said.

But the history also included the life of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old who grew up in a neighborhood accustomed to police harassment, where 86 percent of the people stopped by cops were Black. Brown lived in a community where African-Americans made up only half of the population when he was four years old but two-thirds of the population by the time he was a teenager, as thousands of whites had fled to other neighborhoods.

Michael Brown's history included learning to live in a community built on modern-day apartheid with a Black majority that was still ruled by a virtually all-white power structure, including a white mayor, a nearly all-white school board, a nearly all-white city council and a police force where Blacks made up only 6 percent of officers.

Of course, the history also included the life story of Darren Wilson, a 6-foot-4, 210 pound police officer with a gun and a car, who told the grand jury he felt like a five-year-old child fighting Hulk Hogan when he confronted unarmed Michael Brown for jaywalking.

It was a history that led Wilson to Ferguson after serving on the police force of the nearby community of Jennings, which had so much tension between white officers and black residents that the city council finally decided to disband the department.

But there was also a history for the African-American community, which had seen the lawless lynching and justifiable killing of unarmed Blacks from slavery to segregation to the present. We had complained of police brutality for more than a century and those complaints were largely ignored by white America until someone with a video camera finally recorded the fateful beating of Rodney King.

We knew the killings were never about the victim's size. It didn't matter if you were a tall, skinny Black teenager like Trayvon Martin, who was killed two years ago, or a doe-eyed 12-year-old boy like Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed last week.

We knew it was never about a weapon, not as long as unarmed civilians like Amadou Diallo could be shot 41 times in front of his Bronx apartment building in 1999 and "totally innocent" unarmed 28-year-old Akai Gurley could be gunned down by police in the stairwell of a Brooklyn apartment building just this week.

It didn't matter what the circumstances turned out to be. When a white authority figure killed a Black person, there was always an explanation that white people were willing to believe.

That's the history that led people to the streets of Ferguson Monday night. Given that history, the outcome was as disappointing as it was predictable. Given that history, it was not surprising that McCulloch's grand jury would decline to indict Darren Wilson, essentially determining that the killing of an unarmed Black teen was not even worthy of a trial.

And given that history, that long and sordid past of racial distrust and white supremacy, it was not surprising that Black people in Ferguson and beyond would finally react with rage. 

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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