Whether Darren Wilson Is Indicted or Not, the Entire System Is Guilty

An indictment of the Ferguson police officer who killed Michael Brown would not prove that black lives matter in America.

Mariame Kaba

(Sarah Jane Rhee, loveandstrugglephotos.com)

Every­one I know is on edge. Will a grand jury in St. Louis indict or not? How will res­i­dents of Fer­gu­son react if (as many expect) the grand jury advis­es against an indict­ment of Dar­ren Wil­son, the offi­cer who killed Mike Brown? What will be the response of the St. Louis and Fer­gu­son police? Pho­tos of MRAPs and board­ed up busi­ness­es pro­lif­er­ate on social media. Arti­cles sug­gest that St. Louis police have been recent­ly stock­pil­ing riot gear and mil­i­tary grade weapons. It’s war, but that’s not new. Every­one is hold­ing their breath.

I am not against indicting killer cops. I just know that indictments won’t and can’t end oppressive policing which is rooted in anti-blackness, social control and containment.

On the oth­er hand, what’s next if the grand jury does decide that Wil­son should stand tri­al? So much psy­chic, emo­tion­al, and spir­i­tu­al ener­gy is focused on a suc­cess­ful indict­ment. I imag­ine the sighs of relief. I antic­i­pate the count­less social media posts cry­ing out jus­tice!” I imag­ine that many exhaust­ed pro­test­ers will decide that their work is done. I fear a return to our seduc­tive slum­ber and to complacency.

I’m not invest­ed in indict­ing Dar­ren Wil­son though I under­stand its (sym­bol­ic) import to many peo­ple, most espe­cial­ly Mike Brown’s fam­i­ly and friends. Vin­cent War­ren of the Cen­ter on Con­sti­tu­tion­al Rights speaks for many, I think, when he writes:

With­out account­abil­i­ty, there can be no rule of law. If Wil­son is not indict­ed, or is under-indict­ed, the clear mes­sage is that it is open sea­son on peo­ple of col­or, that St. Louis has declared that Dar­ren Wil­son is not a crim­i­nal but that the peo­ple who live under the thumbs of the Dar­ren Wilsons of this coun­try are. It would say to the cry that Black lives mat­ter” that, no, in fact, they do not.

I under­stand the sen­ti­ment that War­ren express­es. Yet I don’t believe that an indict­ment of Wil­son would be evi­dence that black lives do in fact mat­ter to any­one oth­er than black peo­ple. Nor do I think his indict­ment would mean that it was no longer open sea­son on peo­ple of col­or in this coun­try. If we are to take seri­ous­ly that oppres­sive polic­ing is not a prob­lem of indi­vid­ual bad apple” cops then it must fol­low that a sin­gu­lar indict­ment will have lit­tle to no impact on end­ing police vio­lence. As I type, I can already feel the impa­tience and frus­tra­tion of some who will read these words.

It feels blas­phe­mous to sug­gest that one is dis­in­vest­ed from the out­come of the grand jury delib­er­a­tions. Don’t you care about account­abil­i­ty for harm caused?” some will ask. What about jus­tice?” oth­ers will accuse. My response is always the same: I am not against indict­ing killer cops. I just know that indict­ments won’t and can’t end oppres­sive polic­ing which is root­ed in anti-black­ness, social con­trol and con­tain­ment. Polic­ing is deriv­a­tive of a broad­er social jus­tice. It’s impos­si­ble for non-oppres­sive polic­ing to exist in a fun­da­men­tal­ly oppres­sive and unjust soci­ety. The truth is that as the authors of Strug­gle for Jus­tice wrote in 1971 with­out a rad­i­cal change in our val­ues and a dras­tic restruc­tur­ing of our social and eco­nom­ic insti­tu­tions” we can only achieve mod­est reforms of the crim­i­nal pun­ish­ment sys­tem (includ­ing policing).

The pat­tern after police killings is all too famil­iar. Per­son X is shot & killed. Per­son X is usu­al­ly black (or less fre­quent­ly brown). Com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers (some­times) take to the streets in protest. They are (some­times) bru­tal­ly sup­pressed. The press calls for inves­ti­ga­tions. Advo­cates call for reforms sug­gest­ing that the cur­rent prac­tices and sys­tems are bro­ken’ and/​or unjust. There is a (racist) back­lash by peo­ple who sup­port” the police. A very few peo­ple whis­per that the essen­tial nature of polic­ing is oppres­sive and is not sus­cep­ti­ble to any reforms, thus only abo­li­tion is real­is­tic. These peo­ple are con­sid­ered heretic by most. I’ve spent years par­tic­i­pat­ing in one way or anoth­er in this cycle.

Know­ing all of this, what can/​should we do to end oppres­sive polic­ing? We have to take var­i­ous actions in the short, medi­um and long term. We have to act at the indi­vid­ual, com­mu­ni­ty, insti­tu­tion­al, and soci­etal levels.

For my own part, I start by nev­er call­ing the cops. I hope more peo­ple will join me in that prac­tice. It demands that we feel for the edge of our imag­i­na­tions to stop rely­ing on the police. It takes prac­tice to do this. As such, we need pop­u­lar edu­ca­tion with­in our com­mu­ni­ties about the need to cre­ate alter­na­tives to polic­ing.

I vocal­ly and active­ly oppose any calls for increased police pres­ence as a response to harm in my com­mu­ni­ty and in my city. At bud­get time, I pay atten­tion to how much mon­ey is allo­cat­ed to law enforce­ment. I press my local elect­ed offi­cials to oppose any increas­es in that amount and to instead advo­cate for a DECREASE in the police department’s bud­get. I sup­port cam­paigns for repa­ra­tions to police tor­ture & vio­lence vic­tims. I sup­port elect­ed civil­ian police account­abil­i­ty coun­cils and boards (know­ing full well that they are bandaids). I believe that we need grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions in every town & city that doc­u­ment and pub­li­cize the cas­es of peo­ple who have suf­fered from police vio­lence. These orga­ni­za­tions should use all levers of pow­er to seek redress for those vic­tims and their families.

I list these actions with the under­stand­ing that togeth­er they aren’t enough to end oppres­sive polic­ing. They will lessen the harm to be sure but only build­ing pow­er among those most mar­gin­al­ized in soci­ety holds the pos­si­bil­i­ty of rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. And that’s an end­less quest for jus­tice. That’s a strug­gle rather than a goal. Only move­ments can build pow­er. We need a move­ment for trans­for­ma­tive justice.

To the young peo­ple who have tak­en to the streets across the coun­try and are agi­tat­ing for some jus­tice’ in this moment, I hope that you don’t invest too deeply in the Fer­gu­son indict­ment deci­sion. Don’t let a non­in­dict­ment crush your spir­it and steal your hope. Hope is a dis­ci­pline. And frankly, the actions you have and are tak­ing inspire so many dai­ly. On the oth­er hand, a deci­sion to indict Dar­ren Wil­son isn’t a vic­to­ry for jus­tice’ or an end. As I’ve already said, an indict­ment won’t end police vio­lence or pre­vent the death of anoth­er Mike Brown or Rekia Boyd or Dominique Franklin. We must orga­nize with those most impact­ed by oppres­sion while also mak­ing room for oth­ers who want to join the strug­gle too as com­rades. As Kwame Ture often said: We need each oth­er. We have to have each oth­er for our sur­vival.” Take this admo­ni­tion seri­ous­ly. We should use the occa­sion of the indict­ment announce­ment to gath­er and to con­tin­ue to build pow­er togeth­er. This is how we will win.

Mari­ame Kaba is the founder and direc­tor of Project NIA, a grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion with a vision to end youth incar­cer­a­tion. She blogs at Prison Cul­ture; fol­low her on Twit­ter @prisonculture.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH