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“It is Officially Open Season on Black Folks”: Legal Expert Decries Handling of Wilson Grand Jury

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On Monday St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced the grand jury had found “that no probable cause exists” to charge Officer Darren Wilson with any crime in the death of Michael Brown. The jury deliberated for three months and heard dozens of hours of testimony, including from Wilson himself. But did they hear the full story? McCulloch himself had faced public scrutiny throughout the grand jury investigation, with calls for him to resign over allegations of a pro-police bias and questions raised about an unusual grand jury process that resembled a trial. We speak to Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who is just back from Ferguson. “I don’t think we can take away anything from this decision not to indict other than that it is now officially open season on black folks when it comes to police violence,” Warren says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re in Clayton, Missouri, right next to Ferguson, Missouri, where we spent all last night. Today we’re standing in front of, well, the Clayton Courthouse, where the grand jury has deliberated close to two dozen times over the last few months, before they came out with their decision yesterday, announced by the prosecutor, Bob McCulloch.

Our guests right now—in New York, we’re joined by Vince Warren. H’s the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who will help us decide—will help us understand the decision that the grand jury made. And with me here in subfreezing weather here in Clayton is Osagyefo Sekou. He is the pastor from the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, dispatched to Ferguson by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He went to high school here in St. Louis and has family in Ferguson. We’re going to go first to Vince Warren.

Vince, can you explain the grand jury decision?

VINCENT WARREN: Yes. Thanks, Amy, and good to see you, Sekou. It is almost inexplicable. The first thing we have to remember is that this is not a verdict. This hasn’t gotten to verdict. This was an indictment. So the grand jury was asked to consider evidence in order to prefer charges so that the police officer could go to trial. But they didn’t do that.

What was so strange about it is I’ve never seen—in my years, I’ve never seen a prosecutor take such a hands-off approach. And to listen to that press conference, Amy, you would think that he had just sort of spread out the pieces of paper on the table and said, “Grand jury, do your thing.” Let me tell you, prosecutors never do that. There’s a reason why they say prosecutors can indict a ham sandwich. It’s because they entirely—can entirely control that process.

Now, they did release some of the transcripts yesterday, and I took a look at some of them. And what I saw, which people need to know, is that this wasn’t just the grand jurors listening to the testimony idly. The prosecutors are framing the evidence. And as you heard in that press conference yesterday, there was more talk about what Mike Brown did than there was about what Darren Wilson did. It was almost as if, in that grand jury process looking to charge Darren Wilson, that they were really charging Mike Brown. And I also noticed in some of the transcripts that they were setting up—the prosecutors were setting up this sense of fear, even asking the police sergeant, when he got to Mike Brown’s body, when he first got there, leading them into the testimony to say, “Yeah, there were people that were agitated, there were people that were upset, there were people that were moving around.” And of course people were agitated, because Mike Brown’s body was on the ground. But they were setting this up so that—essentially, to play into the defense of Darren Wilson, that he acted reasonably out of fear for his life, A; B, that he acted reasonably and pursuant to the law, because he thought that Mike Brown was breaking the law.

So, what we have is a grand jury system that for most people in the world seems to play out like it was, “Gosh, what can we do? The evidence was really overwhelming.” But I don’t think the evidence was. You only have one side of that story. And unfortunately, in this process, Mike Brown’s side of the story never gets told. And what we do know is that we know that the prosecutors were setting this up so that it was in the best light, in my view—it was, from what I’ve seen, in the best light for the police officer and his, quote-unquote, “reasonable belief” that his life was in danger, so that’s why he shot.

I don’t think we can take away anything from this decision not to indict other than that it is now officially open season on black folks when it comes to police violence. You know, that feeling that most of us had yesterday when we were listening to the decision, that feeling in your stomach, that unsettling feeling like there’s nothing we can do—that’s what injustice feels like. And we have to remember that the folks on the ground feel that same way, but they felt this for a long time. This is not a media event. This is life for people in the black community in urban areas. This is life for people in Ferguson. And so, yes, people are upset. People are acting out. People are disrupting the status quo. People want to shut it down. And frankly, I think that they should.

You know, these are—we should be thinking about the folks in Ferguson as pro-democracy protesters. We should be thinking about them as anti-structural racism protesters, because when you think about what they’re challenging on that big a scale, we know that a grand jury decision one way or the other isn’t going to solve the structural racism problem. What solves the structural racism problem is getting to people like Bob McCulloch, so that he can’t do the thing that he did in that press conference. If you noticed, he, on the one hand, said this was a justified shooting by the police officer, but then, on the other hand, said, “Oh, but we have to change the system.” Now, those are completely inconsistent. It makes no sense. It makes no sense legally, and it certainly doesn’t make any sense politically.

And what we have here with the protesters—and I’m happy that the Center for Constitutional Rights and Arch City Defenders, locally on the ground, the National Lawyers Guild and Advancement Project have organized 300 lawyers to come down to be able to help represent the protesters, because this is what our democracy looks like. Let’s not think about this as these people are burning folks here, these people are throwing rocks here. That entire picture that you’re looking at, Amy, that you’re involved in, that is the state, the representation of the state of our democracy for black folks in America. It is messy. It can be ugly. It’s full of passion. But people should not turn away from it. People should not try to tamp it down and control it. People should begin to understand if that’s what we’re dealing with, if that’s where we are as a society, we need to think about structural changes in order to make—to change the status quo.

AMY GOODMAN: Vincent Warren, the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office, as you said, has released Darren Wilson’s testimony to the grand jury, showing the officer described the 18-year-old Michael Brown as looking like a, quote, “demon” on the day of the shooting. Wilson said, quote, “And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” Wilson went on to claim that Brown punched him twice, and was concerned the third punch would be fatal or knock him unconscious. He defended his decision to shoot Brown multiple times. Wilson said, quote, “At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.” In addition to the testimony, the prosecutors released the images of Darren Wilson in the hospital after the altercation. One of his cheeks was red, but wasn’t heavily bruised. So, here we have Darren Wilson, you know, four hours of testimony. Mike Brown was not there to give his side of the story.

VINCENT WARREN: No, that’s right, Amy. And it’s important to recognize that at this moment we have to become clear as a society that police officers can commit crimes even while on duty. And police officers can and do lie, particularly—particularly in these types of legal proceedings.

I mean, I would note that the—I was looking through some of the sergeant testimony, and when he first talked to Darren Wilson, when the sergeant got to the scene, he talked to him about what happened, but he didn’t write it down. And the reason why he said he didn’t write it down was because he was multitasking. Now, that kind of evidence collection becomes critically important, because it gives—if you don’t have it, it gives the police officer the opportunity to change his story, to present the facts in the light that’s more favorable to them. And you can certainly do that in a criminal trial when you’re the criminal defendant. But remember, police officers have two duties. One is that they have to preserve the evidence in order for people to find out what happened. But it sounds to me like Darren Wilson was afforded the opportunity to create an evidentiary narrative that supported his version of the events.

This is a huge problem, and it’s not unique to Ferguson. This happens all over the country in every criminal context that we can think of. Ask any defense attorney about this, and they will tell you that the way this went down with the prosecutor’s office, with the police department, was so shady, it was so shady that you can’t have any confidence, any confidence whatsoever, that the story that Darren Wilson told is in fact what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Vince Warren, I want to thank you for being with us. Stay with us. We’re going to go to break, and then we’re going to be joined by Reverend Sekou here in Ferguson, though usually in Massachusetts. He’s been here for months organizing on the ground. We’ll also be joined by Jelani Cobb, a professor at University of Connecticut, head of Africana Studies, writes for The New Yorker, has been writing extensively about Ferguson. Yeah, we were with him last night on the streets of Ferguson. Ferguson has erupted. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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