On Riots


“A prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.”–Former New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachtler

“Hands up, don’t shoot!” — cry of Ferguson protesters.

My curmudgeon friend and I were at our usual Friday evening hang out, grousing over a Guinness and whiskey on the state of the world which, truth to tell, is the only way to grouse. My curmudgeon friend is a political oddball, loathing Republicans and Democrats in about equal measure, and not too keen on progressives, either.

He lit a cigarette and stared at the overhead television.

“Look at them!”

I looked. Images of a Ferguson police car smoldering in the wake of last week’s riot appeared. He took a sip of whiskey.

“The police or the protestors?” I asked.

“The protestors! What do they hope to accomplish, burning down their own block?”

I’d been hearing the same question posed with different variations since Monday evening.

“Maybe accomplish isn’t the right word,” I said. “I was digging around the Bureau of Justice Statistics site the other day and found some remarkable stats on U.S. attorney indictments. Get this, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in just 11 of them. Way less than 1%. What does that mean? It means Wilson’s non-indictment is as rare as an albino chipmunk. Except in one instance. Cops.”


“Right. Cops, police. Cases involving police shootings are an exception to the general indictment rule. We don’t have a riot problem, we have a cop problem. Riots are a symptom of the disease, which is a justice system that does not apply the rule of law equally.”

The curmudgeon looked at me skeptically, again, “That’s a pretty damn sweeping statement. A little evidence, please?”

“Sure. Like I said, I’ve been researching…So a Houston Chronicle investigation found that police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment. Again, less than one percent. Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson after an exhaustive study found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings. The long and short of it is this: cops get away with murder. Routinely. They get away with the use of excessive force, many times with zero repercussions. There are examples of police using SWAT teams for home searches that end up killing babies, accidentally. Anyone indicted? Nope. Anyone lose their jobs? Nope. Anyone get a reprimand or change the way they handle routine searches? Nope. That’s just one example, but there are hundreds. Last week, police shot a kid named Tamir Rice for the crime of holding a toy gun. They shot him within 2 seconds of arriving on the scene, then refused to give him first aid. Remember John Crawford, shot to death in a Wal-Mart while holding a toy gun, too? No indictment there, either. In many of these situations they don’t just suffer less under the rule of law; they avoid the rule of law, entirely. So it’s not a riot problem, it’s a cop problem, aggravated by racial discrepancies. Situations like Ferguson are anomalous not because a cop managed to kill another innocent or use force indiscriminately, but because the national media started paying attention…. And even with the glaring spotlight on this case nothing happened. That’s why you have rioting, my friend, because the law to which you pay such careful deference simply has not applied and apparently will not be applied when a cop is in the docket. So the rioters have learned the lesson prosecuting attorney Robert Mccullough has taught them: ‘the rule of law does not apply.’”

“Yeah,” said my friend, “but they’re still burning down their own block.” He swigged back his whiskey and rested his shot glass down on the bar.

“Now let me ask you a question. What could the rioters possibly hope to accomplish with this activity? Don’t they know how this works? Their violence sweeps the headline while the underlying problems get buried.”

“True, but it’s not like ‘the protestors’ are all that unified. There’s real tension between the rioters who are breaking and burning things and the rest. Looters are simply opportunistic thieves, taking advantage of the chaos. Consider the timing of the announcement: 9 p.m., with no advance notice to peace activists who wanted to control the crowd. It was practically designed to kick off riots, and then looting. And, of course, the undirected chaos offers a wonderful smoke screen for the media discussion that should have been about police violence, unaccountability in blue, and the militarization of our civilian forces. Instead, we’re talking about the irrationality of rioting, but not why an unarmed black man was shot to death in broad daylight and left to lie in the sun for four hours. Nor why no one was charged, or indicted. You know what? I’d say the Ferguson Police Department is very happy about these riots. I’d say, they got exactly what they wanted.”

Curmudgeon had no reply, so I took a swallow of whiskey and added, “But believe it or not, I’m optimistic.”

He looked at me like I’d dropped in from Mars, “For godsakes, why?”

“Because this will not end with a couple of burnt out store fronts. On Thanksgiving Day, protestors in New York City stopped the Thanksgiving Day parade. Demonstrators boycotting Black Friday staged a Mass Die-In at the St. Louis Galleria. Now officials say the mall is closed indefinitely. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, George Zimmerman, Darren Wilson. People know what those names mean now. The change won’t come overnight, but you’ll see it. Police patrols required to wear body cameras. New regulations on the use of deadly force. But most importantly, one day they’ll figure out that independent commissions or an agency needs to be set up to investigate police shootings and excessive use of force. They’ve already passed laws requiring this in Wisconsin. They need to do it across the nation. Why are police departments still in the business of investigating themselves, after all? Someday there might be sufficient levels of trust so that no weapons will be needed. Police in Great Britain used to rarely carry firearms, and they still prefer policing by respect and consent rather than at the point of a gun. Imagine that! Cops walking a beat, like any other citizen. No Darth Vader armor, no hip hugging side arm, ready to drop a belligerent citizen unbowed enough to disobey. You know what that would be like for the average citizen who has to deal with these guys? That would be like freedom.”

“Hmmph”, said the curmudgeon. He finished off his whiskey and squinted at the television, which now featured a peroxide blonde breathlessly intoning on the weather, “They tell me that’s what America is all about.”

“What we strive for, or say we do… And when it doesn’t happen, and the system doesn’t work, the street makes itself known. It’s like what Martin Luther King said: ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’ Riots are one way of being known, but there are other ways, and I bet we’ll be hearing more of them soon.”

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