Mike Brown

I don’t know if the grand jury investigation into former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson’s actions in shooting and killing Mike Brown was a sham. A big part of me thinks it was. I don’t think that the flood of more than a thousand pages of documents to the grand jury was reasonable. In fact, I think it was a debilitating hindrance for those responsible for drawing meaning from the chaos of Aug. 9. I don’t think that the lack of diversity of the members of the grand jury created the greatest opportunity for justice to be served. Furthermore, its composition of nine white members and three black members certainly didn’t put the watching masses in a position to trust its decision. These factors have greatly swayed my view of the grand jury’s proceedings, but I remain unresolved for one important reason: I don’t believe that anyone knows what actually happened when Michael Brown met Darren Wilson because of the abundance of conflicting testimonies from eyewitnesses whose words could have had sovereign power, if only they had all said the same thing. In that regard, at least, the proceedings of the grand jury undoubtedly failed. I wish I knew if the grand jury of Darren Wilson saw justice served, but I don’t. Whether in the riots that followed the grand jury’s decision or in the courtroom itself, I think people are working for the interests of their own group when we should be working together.

I don’t believe that Michael Brown deserved to die because he shoplifted a pack of cigarillos and assaulted the store clerk, a charge that has been laid against those who, like me, continue to question exactly what happened that day. Many have argued that Wilson should not have shot to kill, a heavy-handed charge on the coattails of the irrefutable fact that there is too much police brutality. If it was a fight to the death, as Wilson asserted, I couldn’t agree that he shouldn’t have exercised his maximum potential for self-defense. But I do believe that Brown’s fate was written the minute he reached for Wilson’s gun, and that’s because our society has empowered the police to make that decision time and again. Herein lies the true problem with which our society must wrestle as we move forward.

I don’t believe that the riots in Ferguson are about Michael Brown. I believe that the crowd’s rage is about a deeper problem in America that the crowd is responding to — maybe an institutional problem or a social problem, but probably both. A mob does not decide someone’s innocence or guilt; a jury does. I believe that owing to a mix of past social and institutional grievances, the crowd isn’t able to trust the legitimacy of the grand jury’s decision. Such widespread civilian suspicion is formidable. The law is supposed to serve and protect all of its citizens. It is a powerful systemic failure when citizens can’t believe that it does.

So why aren’t we talking about it? A true dialogue about race in America isn’t taking place in an instance that demonstrates a tremendous need for it, just fumbling narratives by newscasters wrestling with the affair’s complexity and radio silence from American leadership. It’s no secret that America’s legacy of subordination of minorities has created an atmosphere in which whites and minority groups cannot talk frankly about contemporary race relations. Living in the 21st century, it is remarkable that it persists but the burn of Ferguson’s riots and national rage is a blistering reminder of how closed off racial groups in America are to each other. As a white woman, in the face of so much rage because of the injustices and harm that my racial group has caused, I feel, and have been made to feel by my peers, that I am not entitled to have an opinion and certainly not entitled to express it. That feeling, which I am sure has been experienced by members of every racial group in America, will perpetuate inter-community silence, which is a tremendous danger to our collective future. The riots in Ferguson as well as Dallas and Austin are a polarizing force. They have a destructive capacity far greater than any quantifiable damage in the riots themselves. The rage of the rioting and silencing capacity of white guilt has closed the conversation before it could even start. For whatever reason, American leadership has allowed a legitimate dialogue to stay unhad, but we can’t let it continue. We have a dire need to understand the mistakes happening every day, every hour. We have a desperate need to fix them so that we are never faced with the ethical quagmire of Michael Brown’s shooting and Darren Wilson’s questionable grand jury again. But we aren’t having that conversation.

I am mad about what’s going on in my country. I am not mad at the rioters — my feeling would be better characterized as profound disappointment at the squandering of finite American sympathy — but I am furious at the continuation of a racial war that Americans have too much heart and promise to let continue. I am ashamed of what’s happening in my country. I am sad. But most importantly, no matter your color or mine, I am with you. Let me show you. Let’s talk.

Smith is a history junior from Austin.

On July 26, 2013, Larry Eugene Jackson Jr. went to Benchmark Bank on West 35th Street. The Austin Police Department’s then-Detective Charles Kleinert, who was investigating an unrelated robbery that occurred earlier in the day, began questioning Jackson. Jackson then left and Kleinert chased after him on foot, eventually commandeering a civilian vehicle (meaning he stopped a car, got in, and ordered the motorist to continue the chase). Kleinert hunted Jackson to underneath the Shoal Creek bridge at 38th Street and shot him in the back of the neck, killing him. Jackson’s autopsy report showed that he had two fractured ribs and several contusions, and that Kleinert’s gun had been pressed to his neck when the shot was fired, which provides serious doubts about Kleinert’s claim to Internal Affairs that the shot was accidental. 

Jackson was unarmed, had committed no crime, and was black. In Austin and cities across the country, not just Ferguson, there is a Mike Brown: an innocent person gunned down by the police for being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong skin color.

APD immediately undertook a campaign to smear Jackson and defend Kleinert. Jackson was planning to pick up his children later that day, and when he didn’t show, his mother filed a missing person’s report. APD stalled for a full day before informing her about the shooting of her son. APD Assistant Chief Brian Manley argued, without evidence, that Jackson was at the bank to “commit a fraud.” Presumably, this somehow justified the following chase, assault and murder. Notably, while Jackson’s intentions were heavily scrutinized (despite his innocence), Kleinert’s were not, despite his unwarranted violence. According to the Austin Chronicle, the motorist (whose car was commandeered) was “unnerved” by Kleinert, who “did not effectively identify himself” or explain the situation, and instead shouted “Go! Go! Go!” to drive after Jackson, who “was merely walking along the sidewalk.” Despite this erratic, unwarranted behavior, APD pushed a narrative which aimed to ensure that, as Larry’s older sister and only sibling LaKiza Fowler explained, “the black man has his reputation smeared.”

The APD’s defense of Kleinert went further than simply smearing Jackson. Despite his potentially criminal actions, Kleinert was allowed to fully retire in October 2013. This caused all three official investigations into his killing of Jackson, and any potential disciplinary action, to be canceled. There were two ongoing investigations at the time, by APD and by the Citizen Review Panel, the latter of which reviews deadly use-of-force cases. The third and already concluded investigation was by Internal Affairs. Kleinert’s retirement meant that the city could not release the Internal Affairs investigation’s file and conclusions. Moreover, Kleinert will still receive his police pension, which amounts to more than $70,000 annually.

This metaphorical Austin-Ferguson connection underlies a broader point about the prevalence of violent racism in the US. This is empirically reflected in the 2012 Operation Ghetto Storm report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, which found that there were 313 extrajudicial killings of black people by police, security guards, and vigilantes in 2012, averaging one every 28 hours. And because of the lack of federal and local police accountability on recording such killings, 313 is likely an underestimate.

However, the metaphor of Ferguson is not simply about the murder of Mike Brown – it is also about the new generation of young, multiracial activists, organizations and communities which began fighting back against police violence. The same is true in Austin. An Austin-based organization called the People’s Task Force (PTF), formed after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, began working with the Jackson family. PTF has held rallies, marches and teach-ins to spread awareness about the police murder of Larry Jackson. According to UT alum and PTF organizer Lucian Villasenor, their petition (online and physical), which calls for a trial, no plea deal and the firing of APD chief Art Acevedo, has received more than 900 signatures. As a result of this political organizing by the Jackson family and PTF, Kleinert was indicted on charges of manslaughter in May 2014 for the killing of Jackson. According to KXAN, Kleinert’s attorney attested to this, saying he was “not surprised” by the indictment because of “all of the publicity” around the shooting.

As such, serious discussions on Ferguson, racism or police violence are incomplete without addressing the resistance, especially because these struggles are ongoing. The Jackson family, well over a year after Larry was killed, is still waiting for justice despite the indictment. Kleinert’s pre-trial hearing has been postponed four times since the original date of June 24, 2014. This is likely because of negotiations for a plea deal, which would simply give Kleinert a slap on the wrist instead of a full trial and potential conviction. This also means the Travis County District Attorney and other official institutions, not simply APD, are involved in bargaining for Kleinert’s benefit, rather than carrying out justice against racism. Admirably, LaKiza Fowler continues to fight for her brother, telling The Austin Chronicle that “Kleinert needs to be in prison” to set an example and show that “black and brown people shouldn’t have to fear for their lives every time they walk out the door… Their lives matter.” LaKiza will speak about the killing of her brother on Thursday on campus, and PTF is calling for a rally outside the Travis County Courthouse at Kleinert’s rescheduled pre-trial hearing on Friday.

Rathi is a computer science honors junior from Austin.