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4 March 2015

Police officer Darren Wilson is cleared of civil rights violations in Ferguson shooting

Report lays out systematic racial discrimination in Ferguson justice system but upholds Darren Wilson's version of the events preceding Michael Brown's death.

By Stephanie Boland

Officer Darren Wilson has been cleared of civil rights violations by the Justice Department and will not face federal charges for the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown, the New York Times reports. Prosecutors say that “Wilson’s actions do not constitute prosecutable violations” of civil rights legislation.

The shooting of the unarmed 18-year-old last August in Ferguson, Missouri prompted widespread protests. Witnesses claim that Brown had his hands in his air when he was shot, prompting a slogan “Hands up, don’t shoot”, which has been taken up by individuals ranging from members of the CNN Newsroom to US lawmakers in Capitol Hill.

The Justice Department, however, have today upheld Wilson’s version of events. He claims that the teenager fought him and reached for his gun, and that he felt his life was under threat. The report is quoted as stating:

There is no evidence upon which prosecutors can rely to disprove Wilson’s stated subjective belief that he feared for his safety… Although some witnesses state that Brown held his hands up at shoulder level with his palms facing outward for a brief moment, these same witnesses describe Brown then dropping his hands and ‘charging’ at Wilson.

In the weeks following Brown’s death, community leaders such as St Louis Alderman Antonio French suggested the incident was indiciative of a broader lack of trust between the community and police. 67 per cent of Ferguson’s population is black, but only 3 of the fifty three police officers on the force are African-American.

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The New York Times article goes on to cite numerous examples of racism in the Ferguson police force mentioned in the report, including e-mails sent from government accounts with photos of President Obama depicted as a chimpanzee, and a photo of topless African women captioned “Michelle Obama’s high school reunion”.

The report also outlines systematic racial discrimination in the court system, and will be used to attempt a court-supervised agreement with which to oversee reform in the Ferguson justice system. A separate report has already laid out 26 recommendations, including further training for officers.

In a piece for the New Statesman last year, Musa Okwonga suggested racism helped determined the immediate response to the shooting, noting the police reaction was behind that of news bodies:

The latter of these issues is what may be referred to, again and again, as “the black reaction on trial”. Put simply, the behaviour of black people in response to a horror that they have suffered is examined more keenly than the horror itself. That explains why, in this case – as noted by Chris Hayes of MSNBC – their news network, and not the police, were the first to interview the key witness in Mike Brown’s death. The death of Mike Brown is not so remotely interesting to the law enforcement authorities – or, indeed, some sections of the media – as what black people will do by way of reaction. This also explains the apparent disappointment with which so many reporters first on the scene sidled away from the action, or lack of it, concerned that the protests were not aggressive enough for their tastes.

Read Musa Okwonga’s full piece on the Ferguson protests here.

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