After protests, occasional violence and a national controversy that has lasted for months, the case of Officer Darren Wilson ended Wednesday as the Department of Justice announced he will not face federal charges in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man, in Ferguson, Mo. last August. But the case began when Wilson told Brown and a friend to stop walking in the street and to get on the sidewalk.
Investigators found "no evidence upon which prosecutors can rely to disprove Wilson's stated subjective belief that he feared for his safety." In other words, Wilson believed his life was in danger. Yet what if Wilson hadn't said anything to Brown in the first place?
One remarkable statistic included in the newly released federal report on the Ferguson Police Department reveals that when police officers make arrests for jaywalking, the suspect is almost always black. Although blacks account for two thirds of Ferguson's population, fully 95 percent of those charged with the violating the the municipal ordinance on "manner of walking along roadway" are black.
Of course, white people jaywalk, too. Yet the federal report describes numerous instances in which police officers used this innocuous ordinance, which requires people to walk on the sidewalk or on the left side of the street if there is none, to retaliate against civilians (most of them black) whom the police felt were being disrespectful.
"Officers in Ferguson also use their arrest power to retaliate against individuals for using language that, while disrespectful, is protected by the Constitution," the report said.
In one case, a black man was walking late at night along West Florissant Ave. when an officer asked him to stop, believing he might be drunk or high. The man continued walking, and the officer tackled him, stunned him twice with an electronic control weapon (presumably a Taser), and then arrested him for manner of walking and failing to comply with an officer's orders. The man was 5'5" and weighed 135 pounds.
"There is no indication in the report that he was in fact impaired or indeed doing anything other than walking down the street when approached by the officer," the federal investigators concluded.
To be sure, statistics about police arrests never tell the whole story. Police spend more of their time in neighborhoods where crime is common, which also tend to be the neighborhoods where people of color live due to their lack of economic mobility. And if the public at large is more suspicious of blacks, they'll be less likely to call police when they see whites acting suspiciously. As a result, it's unsurprising that blacks are more likely to face arrest.
Ferguson police, however, can't blame the large share of jaywalking charges against blacks on society at large. There is more than enough evidence of explicit racism among city officials, not to mention the specific examples cited in the federal report.
It's pointless to speculate about what might have happened had Brown not been born black. All the circumstances of his short life would have been completely different. Still, it seems all too likely that Wilson would never have said anything to Brown about his manner of walking had he been white.