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Ferguson decision confirms fears of skewed justice system for many

Grand jury report met with grim inevitability by those who have seen similar scenario play out time and time before

For many who were hoping for an indictment against the policeman who shot and killed unarmed Ferguson teen Michael Brown, the grand jury’s decision not to bring charges against officer Darren Wilson were not met with shock, but with a sense of grim inevitability.

After all, the scenario has played out many times before in high profile incidents involving young African American men. In the cases of Rodney King, brutally beaten by the police in Los Angeles in 1991; Eric Garner, who died of a heart attack this year after being put in a chokehold by police in New York City; Oscar Grant, shot in the back in 2009 by Bay Area Transit police officer and others, the perpetrators were either acquitted entirely or handed relatively minor sentences.

Sybrina Fulton knows all too well what Brown’s family members are going through. Fulton is the mother of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old unarmed teenager gunned down only blocks from his home in a Miami suburb in 2012. She recalled the horror of learning that her son’s killer, George Zimmerman, would be allowed to go free.

“You can’t believe that your child is not coming back and the person that did that is walking free,” she said.

“It’s case after case where we have unarmed teens that have been gunned down — it just seems so unfair when the person is not held accountable,” she added. “People are getting fed up with what’s happening because it continues to happen. It’s just another young man or another young lady. When is this going to stop?”

Indeed, many civil rights experts watching the developments in Ferguson, Missouri, said the outcome in the Brown case corroborated what they already believed to be true about the racial biases in the justice system in the United States.

“One of the most upsetting things was that the writing is on the wall — you know how it’s going to play out, but you want to be optimistic,” said David Rice, associate professor of psychology at Morehouse College in Atlanta. “The justice system in this country is not designed for me as black man — it’s not designed for people of color.”

Vincent Southerland, senior counsel for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, noted that there are numerous factors feeding into the perception that the justice system is stacked against people of color. Ferguson is simply more confirmation for people’s long-simmering frustrations.

“This is not a new phenomenon, this is something that has been going on year after year, generation after generation in the black community,” he said.  “When you look at the criminal justice system and see that this system has 2.5 million people in prison, the majority of them being black or Latino. When you look at wrongful convictions and police harassment, prosecutors exercising their discretion going well beyond what the law provides for — it’s hard to see that system and say this isn’t a problem.”

Still, many activists and observers hope the nationwide outrage the Brown case has prompted will finally be enough to spur the kind of awakening around systemic racism needed to institute reforms.

“I do think that social media and the protests and all of the nonviolent peaceful actions people are taking have really raised the profile of this issue and raised this as a concern of more than the people out on the streets,” Southerland said. “The whole world is watching.”

Civil rights organizations are calling for the Department of Justice to more aggressively oversee local police departments that exhibit patterns of discriminatory practices. Michael Brown’s family has specifically campaigned for all officers on patrol to wear cameras. Others have said training in racial bias and building trust among local departments and their law enforcement officials would go a long way in preventing the next Michael Brown.

“We have to start addressing the race relations problem and the profiling problem — we need to stop walking around them and pretending that they don’t exist,” Fulton said.  “People don’t want to discuss those issues because it’s uncomfortable for them.”

Ron Davis, the father of slain teenager Jordan Davis, who was shot in 2012 after a dispute over loud music, said although he was bitterly disappointed by the decision in the Brown case, he takes heart in what happened in the second trial of Michael Dunn, his son’s killer.

“It was a jury made up of all white people, including seven white men, and I thought, in the south, there’s no way that seven white men are going to convict a white man for killing a black kid. I was very upset,” he said. “Race did not come into the jury room and we got a conviction. That told me forever more that you can look beyond race in this country.”

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