Rethinking Ferguson

Rethinking Ferguson

“The reality is that no group of countries has any grounds for complacency

 about its own human rights performance and

no group of countries does itself justice

by automatically slipping into the “victim” mode . . . .”

 Kofi Annan

As a collective society, we share common core values as to fundamental human rights and a vision that they govern our leadership.

This past August, 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.  Michael Brown was not and never will be a statistic. He had a family and friends. He was a young man just embarking upon the journey we call adulthood.  No doubt he had hopes and dreams as to what the future might bring.  At the time of his death, Michael Brown was unarmed.  Michael Brown was also African-American.  He was Black.

Unlike 1954, when the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. The Board of Education, prompting widespread divisiveness and even violence, Michael Brown’s death created unity.  Countless unnamed citizens came together demanding that our Nation’s Constitution be upheld.  Human rights had, for the first time, triumphed over deep-seated racial and religious bias.  The unequivocal message sent by the majority of citizens in a democratized nation was that we no longer willing to accept flagrant civil rights violations.

Protests that began immediately after Michael Brown’s death have continued without pause.  Unlike Nigeria, where we all seemed to have forgotten about the “bringing the girls back” this time the majority was insistent that elected officials honor the trust bestowed upon them through the electorate process.  This time, media coverage proved unrelenting.

The global spotlight was now firmly focused on the United States, long revered as the champion of democracy, precipitating a federal grand jury investigation into Michael Brown’s death.

For months, the world stood waiting, anticipating the United States would continue as a beacon of democracy by holding the public servant accountable for what was not only a senseless death breaching our Constitution but also an act that may have contravened international human rights treaties to which it is a signatory.

Meanwhile, human rights violations have continued unmercifully all across our world.  Quite tragically, they are all too often characterized by physical violence and even the loss of life. The victims are often defenseless, such as the poor, the elderly, the infirm, and our children and women.  Many of these atrocities may later be determined to have been war crimes. The media has cast its gaze on Gaza, Syria and Afghanistan, leaving human rights abuses largely unchecked, such as rampant racial discrimination in Brasil, and China’s persecution of Ilham Tohti, a Muslim scholar whose only crime was his advocacy on behalf of the Muslim people in a remote Chinese province.

Our Humanity has never been so desperate for peace.

Ferguson gave the World hope.

Last night, the grand jury failed to issue an indictment against the police officer.

The energy created by what is most certainly a historical event is electrifying.

Almost contemporaneously with the issuance of this unfortunate opinion, our Nation expressed its dissatisfaction through the many protests convened. Organizers, de facto defenders of the public trust and true peacekeepers, had anticipated this black day in American history by having laid the foundation for organized and peaceful protests spanning the continent to take place this evening, which were widely publicized minutes after the decision was made public. This did not satiate the public. In the less than 24 hours that have passed, there has been escalating violence, sparking concern of collateral damage, without any guarantee that there will not be the loss of another life, at the hands of the very same government elected by the protestors to keep them safe, thereby creating a now seemingly endless cycle of violence.

There is an obviously disconnect between the majority position collectively espoused and the grand jury, with the later having been crafted by our founder’s to reflect the majority.

A review of historical cases involving police brutality, racism and civil rights violations reflects that our government does not always honor our public trust but also that we, as individuals, do not openly speak the truth to our leadership.

“Freedom must be defended and demanded, by those who have been denied it and by those who are already free.”  Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The problem with freedom, even to those of us fortunate enough to have been born in a democratized nation, is that we are often feel oppressed rather than empowered.  Oppression is rooted in fear.  We fear losing our family, friends, homes, jobs and all the other things that we categorize as the “good life”.  So, when called upon to defend and demand freedom we shirk from our responsibility as citizens to publicly speak the truth to those who we have imbued with our public trust it is breached. We do so not out of acquiescence but because to do so jeopardizes our own personal freedom rendering us complacent victims of our own fear. This fear is not something we are born into but something that we are taught by those who came before us.

“Words like freedom, justice, democracy are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.” James Baldwin 

In considering what has transpired, I was reminded of a federal civil rights action brought by an esteemed and fearless attorney who has dedicated his life to championing the rights of the underdog.  Hugh “Buck” Davis, has been one of my many teachers and the dearest of friends.  What he has impressed upon me is to be fearless, to know the law and to be better prepared than the other side, lessons I have learned to heed and which, today, have kept me safe from harm.

His success, for many, would be measured in terms of the number of “wins” but, to me, he is a success because he has always spoken the truth, oftentimes taking cases no one else would touch.  For many years, until precluded by advancing age, Buck represented my family’s interests on a pro bono or “free” basis knowing that my family had also been subjected to civil rights violations.  And for the last decade, I have often visiting with him at his offices; classic and strong like him, constructed of marble, granite and mahogany.

During our visits, he referenced a police brutality case he had been handling for the brother of William C. Scozzari, an African-American man fatally shot at close range by Clare Michigan Police Chief Dwayne Miedzianowski.

According the federal district court:

Scozzari was a hermit and had not allowed anyone, not even family, to enter his cabin in years…While Scozzari loved to collect knives and hatchets, he had no police record, and…had never…engage in any threatening behavior.  Scozzari would not talk to people, he only “grunted.” ….[E]verybody in the department knew Scozzari…

He had been forced out of his cabin without a warrant, raising constitutional issues.  The officers “attempted to kick in his door and order him out of his cabin in order to arrest him.” [1].

“Aside from being schizophrenic, William Scozzari was blind in one eye and hard of hearing, court records show.  He stood 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighed 113 pounds and was known in the community as a recluse who wore a winter coat in the summer and walked around town with his boots untied…”[2]

Mr. Scozzari was fatally wounded by multiple bullets fired by Police Chief Dwayne Miedzianowski, who chose not to retreat or make any attempt to otherwise subdue Mr. Scozzari, but elected to take a human life.

After years of pretrial proceedings, the case went to trial.  The jury that returned an unfavorable verdict[3], just as the grand jury in Michael Brown’s case refused to issue an indictment.

Trying to understand, I have asked myself “why”.

This is what I know for sure. While most public officials want to “do good” there are those who are for whatever reason incapable of honoring the trust with which they have been bestowed.  To hold those breaching our trust accountable, we have a system of “checks and balances”.  Enforcement is the responsibility of each and every one of us.  To this end, we have collectively failed.

It is only when the majority can anonymously voice its opinion that it is more than willing to uphold its duty. If, however, there is any personal risk, fear holds sway. Fear is generated by being seated as a grand jury member or juror in a high profile civil rights case as those citizens are called upon to hold accountable individuals and entities having the potential to deprive they and their loved ones of the “good life”.

“You cannot make yourself feel something you do not feel, but you can make yourself do right in spite of your feelings.” Pearl S. Buck

We have been conditioned to respond to that which we fear rather than to act consistent with what we know is right. This is precisely what happened in Ferguson. The grand jury was to have honored the majority’s needs, wants and desires to dwell in a harmonious, respectful and peaceful society consistent with our Constitution.  The members of that grand jury failed to do so, not because they were bad people but because conditioned fear held sway.  The same was true in Mr. Scozzari’s case.

In both cases, along with hundreds of others, “We the People” have sent a message to those susceptible to malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance that they may continue breaching our trust because we are to fearful to heed our inner voice and honor our duty to always speak the truth to our leadership[4].

Ferguson represented shift as it was the first case in which the majority has taken a strong and unified collective position. In that sense perhaps we might conceptualize Ferguson as a partial victory. We need to continue moving forward as a unified Nation, respectful of differences and trusting in one another to defend and demand freedom for those whom it has been or could be denied.

In the words of former President Jimmy Carter:

We will have an unchallenged, open, panoramic opportunity on a global scale to demonstrate the finest aspects of what we know in this country: peace, freedom, democracy, human rights, benevolent sharing, love, the easing of human suffering. Is that going to be our list of priorities or not?

http://appearoo.com/DeverouxCleary


[1] Scozzari  v. City of Clare, 723 F. Supp.2d 945 (E.D. Mich. 2010)(references omitted)

[2] http://www.mlive.com/news/bay-city/index.ssf/2010/11/attorney_for_clare_man_killed.html

[3] Scozzari v. Miedzianowski, 454 F. App’x 455 (6th Cir. 2012)

[4] The application of this blog post to the tragedy that has so terribly impacted my family and me can be best understand in the context of the November 18, 2014 post found at http://cynthialardner.blogspot.com/2014/11/forgiveness-is-bridge-to-resolution.html

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