“How Do We Move Forward?” A Ferguson Reading List


More than three months after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed teenager Mike Brown, a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri has announced that Wilson will not be indicted. The news unleashed a fresh wave of frustration, anger, and sadness, some expressed in action, some expressed in words. Here is a survey of essential writing on Ferguson, from August until now — the protests, the police response, the sickening totality of American racism, the broken justice system, and what comes next.

“The Front Lines of Ferguson,” by Rembert Browne

A dispatch from the protests, and the militarized police force’s response to them, at their peak.

I kept running. I didn’t know where I was running, but I was running. Now there were explosions and sirens and smoke and gunshots and a helicopter shining its light through the neighborhood. We scattered like roaches, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the cops thought of us that way.

Image Credit: Skip Sterling

“The Talk,” by Bijan Stephen

In an essay published in August, 11 days after Michael Brown’s death, Stephen recounts his parents’ attempts to explain American racism, and anticipates having that same conversation with his own children someday.

It’s odd to grow up not really believing that the various protections enshrined in law apply to you — or rather, that they only apply to you when it’s convenient. That’s really what the Talk is about: It’s pragmatism for a society that doesn’t consider you fully human.

“America Is Not for Black People,” by Greg Howard

Why Ferguson is not an exception, and why Mike Brown’s death was not an anomaly, in 21st-century urban America.

If officers are soldiers, it follows that the neighborhoods they patrol are battlefields. And if they’re working battlefields, it follows that the population is the enemy. And because of correlations, rooted in historical injustice, between crime and income and income and race, the enemy population will consist largely of people of color, and especially of black men. Throughout the country, police officers are capturing, imprisoning, and killing black males at a ridiculous clip, waging a very literal war on people like Michael Brown.

“Ferguson Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch’s Long History of Siding with the Police,” by Pema Levy

Vital background on the prosecutor who announced the grand jury decision last night, including his personal and professional history with the St. Louis police — and an accurate prediction of last night’s verdict.

It’s one thing for a prosecutor to defend cops he relies on to do his job. But the dynamics in St. Louis County are more complicated: a racially divided area in which white police forces stand accused of abusing the black communities they are supposed to protect. McCulloch didn’t create this dynamic, but he has become a symbol of it.

“Justifying Homicide: Why Darren Wilson was never going to be indicted for killing Michael Brown,” by Jamelle Bouie

Bouie explains the shockingly low legal threshold for justifying police shootings, pointing out that the problem is less the grand jury than the legal system it’s a part of.

It would have been powerful to see charges filed against Darren Wilson. At the same time, actual justice for Michael Brown—a world in which young men like Michael Brown can’t be gunned down without consequences—won’t come from the criminal justice system. Our courts and juries aren’t impartial arbiters—they exist inside society, not outside of it—and they can only provide as much justice as society is willing to give.

“It’s Incredibly Rare for a Grand Jury to Do What Ferguson’s Just Did,” by Ben Casselman

On the flip side, Casselman shows that indictment is typically a formality — as long as the case doesn’t involve a law enforcement officer.

A recent Houston Chronicle investigationfound that “police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings” in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment. Separate research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings, although it didn’t look at grand jury indictments specifically.

“Chronicle of a Riot Foretold,” by Jelani Cobb

Cobb, who has written some of Ferguson’s most poignant on-the-ground reporting since August, provides his account of last night’s response.

A line of police officers in military fatigues and gas masks turned a corner and began moving north toward the police building. There were four hundred protesters and nearly that many police officers filling an American street, one side demanding justice, one side demanding order, both recognizing that neither of those things was in the offing that night.

“Only Words,” by Roxane Gay

The Bad Feminist author and the Internet’s foremost source of compassion and reason reacts to the verdict, Mike Brown’s parents, and President Obama’s statement.

How do we move forward? How do we survive this egregious legacy we all inherited? I have words, but today they come mostly in the form of questions. I have no idea what to say. Words are failing me. I am not surprised by the grand jury’s decision but I am stunned and heartbroken. I am worried because there will be a next time and a next time, and words will still be inadequate.

“Michael Brown: May 20, 1996 – August 9, 2014,” by Jazmine Hughes

For those of us outside of Ferguson who have been frustrated by our inability to take action, Hughes reminds her readers that we can, in fact, do something.

First and foremost, always and forever, register to vote. There is no excuse. You can contact your local representatives to implore them to require body cameras on every cop. You can sign petitions like the ACLU’s against racial profiling, orChange.org‘s to protect communities from police violence. You can donate: organizations like Black Lives Matter and Operation Help or Hush are on using social media to garner change, the National Lawyer’s Guild is providing legal support to protestors, and the Ferguson library will remain open today even though schools are closed, to provide solace and shelter.