Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to arrive in Ferguson, Missouri today leading some to hope that his presence will somehow ease tensions as the ongoing conflict stemming from the police shooting of a young black man continues. But the expectation that having Holder parachute into this mess will somehow magically fix the problem or halt the civil unrest there is not merely unrealistic; it reflects a misunderstanding of both the judicial process and what the protestors want.
As the New York Times reports today, there are some on the left that see Holder’s persistent race baiting from the bully pulpit of the Justice Department as a necessary counter-weight to President Obama’s amorphous calls for calm in crises such as the one unfolding in Ferguson. Holder, a man who called Americans a “nation of cowards” on race and who continues to speak as if the Jim Crow era were not a half century in the country’s rearview mirror, seems like just the sort of legal activist who could swoop in the maelstrom of Ferguson and somehow convince protesters to stand down while ensuring that justice is done.
Symbolism plays a not inconsiderable role in this dispute as a town with a population that is heavily African-American but few black police officers turned out to be a tinderbox waiting to burst into flame at the slightest provocation. But the willingness of the national media to frame this story as an example of how racism isn’t dead in America has transformed it from a troubling while complicated legal case in which the facts are a matter of dispute into merely the latest excuse for racial conflict. The demonizing of the police and their response to rioters there has created little room for the legal process to play out in a dispassionate and fair manner.
Despite the agitation from race hucksters like Al Sharpton and others who have also parachuted into the town, there is no evidence that either the country prosecutor or any other responsible legal authority is dragging their feet in the case or behaving improperly. Nor is there a reasonable case to be made that the state and local authorities should be shoved aside to make room for a federal prosecution led by Holder’s department.
The plain fact of the matter is that tensions have now been raised to the point where nothing short of the indictment of the police officer who shot Michael Brown will appease either the peaceful demonstrators in Ferguson or the thugs who have hijacked some of the protests with violence aimed at law enforcement authorities as well as the looting of local businesses.
Since the Grand Jury process is not immune to political pressures, they may well get their wish and, to be fair, it is entirely possible that such a result may be justified. But, as the Times noted in a separate story, the reality of the Brown shooting may not be as cut and dried as the “hands up, don’t shoot” chants of the protesters indicate. The very different accounts of the shooting of Brown by the officer seems to indicate a strong possibility that we may be heading to a replay of last year’s Trayvon Martin shooting trial in which the media’s insistence on imposing a narrative of racism run amok on the story didn’t necessarily reflect the facts of the case. If so, then Holder’s intervention may be deeply mistaken.
There are instances when federal intervention into murder cases is justified. If the justice system in Missouri were so riddled with institutionalized racism that it never prosecuted the killers of blacks, there would be a strong argument for the Justice Department to step in. In cases where prosecutions failed due to negligence or jury nullification of the law (such as often happened in Jim Crow states prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act or when a New York jury acquitted a black man in the murder of Hasidic Jew during the Crown Heights riot, even though he was literally caught red-handed after the murder), the attorney general ought to step in. But in the absence of those circumstances, or at least until the locals have proven to be unfair or incompetent, Holder’s presence in Ferguson must be seen as mere grandstanding and an attempt to complicate or delegitimize the local prosecution, not the cavalry coming to the rescue of the justice system.
Public officials who weigh in on complicated cases merely in order to placate a mob—such as Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s call for a “vigorous prosecution” of the case rather than a vigorous investigation—prior to the evidence being fully revealed do nothing to advance the cause of justice or racial healing.
Holder can’t fix Ferguson. That is not merely because his instincts are so skewed on race issues that he can’t be trusted to behave fairly. It is also because the only thing that will improve the situation is an effort to defend the integrity of the legal system on the part of local and national political leaders who seem to have a vested interest in stirring the racial pot rather than promoting healing and justice.