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Ferguson's grievance

The rioting and violence that erupted in Ferguson, Mo., after the news Monday night that a white police officer would not be indicted in the shooting death of an unarmed black teen were inexcusable. The cause of racial justice will not be advanced by protesters wreaking wanton destruction on their own community. But the anger that followed St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch's announcement that the grand jury had decided not to charge Officer Darren Wilson is entirely understandable. This case was always about much more than the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. It was about a predominantly African-American community who felt marginalized not once but perpetually by a predominantly white power structure, and almost everything that followed Brown's death has only made matters worse.

It is difficult to second-guess the decision of the grand jury, which had nine white members and three African-Americans. Its members listened to 70 hours of testimony and deliberated for two days, poring over physical evidence and parsing conflicting eye-witness accounts. According to transcripts released by Mr. McCulloch, witnesses offered a wide range of testimony question of whether Mr. Brown was attempting to surrender or charge when Mr. Wilson fired the fatal shots. Mr. McCulloch said some whose eyewitness accounts of the event were initially most damning of the officer changed their stories after they were contradicted by forensic evidence. Most fundamentally, though, police officers are given wide latitude to use deadly force, and the bar for an indictment, much less a conviction, of an officer in such a case is high. The old saying that a prosecutor could get a grand jury could indict a ham sandwich doesn't necessarily hold true when the case revolves around a police shooting.

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The question in this case, though, is whether the prosecutor really wanted to get an indictment in the first place. Mr. McCulloch presented an unusually broad array of evidence to the grand jury — including four hours of testimony from the Mr. Wilson — as if to leave the entire question of potential criminal culpability up to 12 ordinary citizens, rather than taking on a prosecutor's usual role as an advocate for indictment. He solemnized Monday night that "the duty of the grand jury is to separate fact from fiction," but that's not exactly true. Their job is to determine whether there is probable cause to think a crime may have been committed. Determining the truth is a matter for a trial in which both sides of the question of guilt are vigorously advocated. What happened in the grand jury proceedings in St. Louis County was a highly unusual case of Mr. McCulloch's office acting as both prosecutors and defense attorneys — the transcripts showed that his deputies were not shy about poking holes in what would be their own case if the matter went to trial.

Under those circumstances, the questions of whether Mr. McCulloch should have recused himself in the first place have extra resonance. He has a reputation for being close with the police; indeed, his father was a police officer and was killed by an African-American in the line of duty. His moralizing news conference Monday night only made matters worse. Calling witnesses liars and asserting that the unrest was the product of social media and the 24-hour news cycle — as opposed to outrage over the killing of an unarmed teen — only legitimized the feelings of marginalization among a community with long-simmering grievances. It's entirely possible, given the contradictory evidence and Missouri's strong state laws defending officers who claim self defense, that a grand jury would not have indicted no matter who brought the case. But given the fact that the uproar in Ferguson was precisely the result of a feeling that the powers-that-be routinely failed to give African-Americans fair treatment, the chances that the result would be accepted could only have been higher had a special prosecutor been appointed to handle the case.

Compounding matters was the bizarre decision to hold a news conference announcing the grand jury's decision at 8 p.m. rather than waiting until the morning. That Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon had announced a state of emergency the previous week and called in the National Guard — the very sort of militarized response that had shocked the world in the aftermath of Mr. Brown's killing in August — sapped any effectiveness his last-minute exhortations for peace and calm might have had. It is as if the leaders in Missouri and St. Louis County had learned nothing from what happened this summer.

But those protesters who resorted to violence in Ferguson Monday night appear to have learned nothing either. If there is a case in America's tragic history of racial injustice when rioting led to a positive outcome, we are unaware of it. Demonstrations have erupted across the nation, including at least three today in Baltimore, in response to the grand jury's decision. So far, they have been peaceful. Just as residents here express solidarity with those in Ferguson, we hope members of that community will channel their anger and frustration into non-violent protest and political action. That is the only way to ensure that Michael Brown's death will not have been in vain.

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