It now seems likely that “Ferguson” will endure as a synonym for injustice — lingering racial injustice that is real and tragic enough in America today.
But the bitter (and apparently forbidden) truth is that Ferguson’s unique and special infamy in this regard actually results from another injustice — a cruel slander perpetrated against former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, and by extension against the Missouri town and police department that put him on the streets.
What’s worse, to judge from events earlier this month — and with tensions rising anew after last week’s shooting of two cops — that slander may never be frankly retracted.
Wilson, a white patrolman, was accused last August of just about the most heinous crime imaginable. He had allegedly executed an unarmed black teenager in cold blood and broad daylight as the unoffending young man tried to surrender, his hands in the air.
The horrifying accusation was spread around the world by saturation media coverage, which only intensified as nationwide protests ensued and “hands up, don’t shoot” became a new battle cry against police brutality and racial inequity everywhere.
Trouble is, we now know — with as much clarity as is possible in such matters — that the accusations against Wilson were false or utterly unsubstantiated in every important detail.
Federal prosecutors at the Obama administration’s Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a detailed 86-page report this month declining to prosecute Wilson. In just one of many unambiguous statements, the prosecutors wrote:
“There is no credible evidence to refute Wilson’s stated subjective belief that he was acting in self-defense. … Wilson’s account is corroborated by physical evidence and his perception of a threat posed by Brown is corroborated by other credible eyewitness accounts.”
The DOJ’s emphatic conclusions confirm the findings of a Missouri grand jury that refused to indict Wilson. That proceeding, and the prosecutor involved, had come in for severe skepticism months ago. The final federal word on the case seems to be getting more respect.
But while few seem inclined to dispute the federal prosecutors’ report, something that almost looked like a media spin campaign unfolded in early March and partly drowned out and diluted the exoneration of Wilson.
The main ingredient was a DOJ report on a broader investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. That report revealed a department (and municipality) guilty not of coldblooded executions but of many other abuses, largely involving the excessive and predatory issuing of traffic and parking tickets, along with routine racial profiling.
The “scathing” report, as noted in news reports, is comparable to findings DOJ has issued in recent years against more than 20 other police departments around the country. But this one received stupendous, multiple-day media coverage as its contents leaked out in advance before it was made public simultaneously with the report on the “hands up” case.
In a statement on the simultaneous releases, Attorney General Eric Holder explicitly linked the two reports, saying the Ferguson department’s abuses may help explain why the now-discredited accusations against Wilson were “accepted so readily” by many.
In any case, the department report dominated news coverage for days. On March 2, the New York Times had run a front-page story — “Justice Report to Fault Police in Ferguson” — previewing the allegations. On March 4, the day of the releases, the Times carried yet another preview — “Police Routinely Violate Rights of Blacks in Ferguson.”
The Star Tribune, like papers across the country, reprinted that story on its own front page.
Finally, on March 5, the day after both reports were released, the Times provided a package of front-page stories under the large headline “FERGUSON POLICE TAINTED BY BIAS, JUSTICE DEPT. SAYS.”
Only in one of the small headlines underneath this banner did the Times demurely report: “On Civil Rights, No Case Against Officer.”
The Star Tribune didn’t carry the story of Wilson’s exoneration on its front page. A short wire service report appeared at the bottom of Page A4.
A Star Tribune editorial that day lamented the Ferguson department’s now-documented bias — without mentioning DOJ’s strong rejection of the shocking accusations that had brought the town to national attention.
The next day, March 6, President Obama weighed in. At a town-hall forum, he held forth on DOJ’s finding in the Wilson case.
“The finding that was made,” Obama said, “was that it was not unreasonable to determine that there was not sufficient evidence to charge Officer Wilson.” He added: “We may never know exactly what happened. But Officer Wilson, like anybody else who is charged with a crime, benefits from due process and a reasonable-doubt standard. And if there is uncertainty about what happened, then you can’t just charge them anyway just because what happened was tragic.”
This lawyerly obfuscation, still implying wrongdoing, simply misrepresents the DOJ report, which found little uncertainty and “no credible evidence” to contradict Wilson’s self-defense claim.
But what of the constitutional abuses and routine racial profiling the DOJ found in Ferguson? Well, they are troubling and intolerable. The police chief, city manager and other officials have resigned. But such injustices are still a far cry from a supposed nightmare in which innocent African-Americans are gunned down for no reason with impunity. They cannot justify false accusations (or persistent pettifogging insinuations) of that kind of reign of terror.
It’s been widely noted that the problems identified in Ferguson are far from unique — that bias and conflict between police and minority communities plague many American cities. I’ve used the Ferguson story myself as a taking-off point to discuss these important broader issues of race and law enforcement.
But the nationwide discussion last August’s tragedy started can prove healthy only if we remember that the search for justice must always begin with a fearless embrace of the truth.
And the truth, we now know, is that Darren Wilson and Ferguson, Mo., became Exhibit As for all that is wrong with race relations in America only because of a false accusation.
It is discouraging that the American press, and America’s leaders, can’t state that truth more plainly.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.