America has a creepy almost NASCAR crash like obsession with “The Next Ferguson”.
No slight to Baltimore, but the idea of a sleepy midwestern town going up in flames over racial abuse and protests shakes America more to the core than unrest in a big mid-Atlantic city known (fairly or not) for crime and dysfunction.
In my conversations with people in Charleston, Oklahoma City and Cleveland over the last year about police abuse of African Americans, at some point someone will say, “But hey, we’re no Ferguson.” I get what they mean: Ferguson is defined by weeks of rioting and violent circumstances that no one believes will happen in their neighborhood.
However, riots are a reductionist view of what happened in Ferguson. It was the racism, stunted community discussion and corrupt local prosecutors that really define what happened in Ferguson. With Cleveland Prosecutor Timothy McGinty announcing there will be no indictment in the Tamir Rice case, whether they like it or not, Cleveland may be following the same dangerous path as Ferguson, Missouri.
The shootings of Mike Brown and Tamir Rice both include police officers of questionable competence who’d been fired from previous suburban jobs before moving to the big city. Both cases ultimately turned on the behavior of country prosecutors who consistently demonstrated favoritism and partial leanings towards the officers they were tasked with prosecuting.
In Cleveland, prosecutor Timothy McGinty subpoenaed Officer Timothy Loehmann and his partner Officer Frank Garmback to testify. However both officers decided to submit written statements, which the prosecutor accepted, instead of demanding Loehmann comply with the court order. Which is pretty much the same racism, arrogance and resistance we saw from the Ferguson police when they released Darren Wilson’s shooting statement with so many redacted sections that it looked like morse code.
Some parts of Officer Loehmann’s statement are clearly contradicted by the video of the Tamir Rice shooting:
The car's antilock brake rumbled as car slid to a stop. As car is slid, I started to open the door and yelled continuously “show me your hands” as loud as I could. Officer Garmback was also yelling “show me your hands” ...I observed the suspect pulling the gun out of his waistband with his elbow coming up. Officer Gramback and I were still yelling “show me your hands” with his hands pulling the gun out and his elbows coming up, I knew it was a gun and it was coming out.
You don’t have to be an expert on CSI to see that video of the shooting and Loehmann’s version of events don’t match up. It’s pretty hard to believe that Loehmann and Gramback yelled audible and understandable warnings to Tamir Rice when the time between the officers arriving on the scene and the shooting was about 4 seconds.
What’s worse, allowing this statement to be read to the jury is something that by all accounts will make it more difficult to get an indictment. However we saw the same racist misconduct when Robert McCulloch gave the Ferguson grand jury false information knowing full well it would damage any case against Darren Wilson. In both cases it's questionable as to whether an indictment was actually asked for by the prosecutor.
Unfortunately there are even sadder and more distressing similarities between Cleveland and Ferguson. Both communities seem incapable of having or maintaining discussions of not only these high profile shootings but the causes of the community rifts that led to the deaths.
In Ferguson this was epitomized by the “I Love Ferguson” movement, while well intentioned, it was a passive aggressive silencing of any real discussion of the community’s ills, highlighted by “community” meetings that included few if any African American town residents.
In Cleveland that same attitude is being perpetuated by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, with equally good intentions but equally distressing results. On December 1, the same day that Loehmann’s statement was released, the Plain Dealer announced that they were officially shutting down all online comments sections on any stories written about Tamir Rice. The reason:
The simple answer is that we don't fancy our website as a place of hate, and the Tamir Rice story has been a magnet for haters... — The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Essentially the Plain Dealer abdicated its role as community news source and discussion forum because a bunch of bigots want to spoil the party. This specious notion that if we just don’t talk about race, somehow all the problems will disappear. Even if history says the opposite usually happens.
I, like many Americans hoped that Timothy Loehmann would have to stand trial and be forced to explain his actions under the full scrutiny of the law and a jury of his (and Tamir’s) peers. Unfortunately that will not happen.
From compromised prosecutors, to impotent leadership, to lack of community discussion, Cleveland is following all of the bad steps to what happened in Ferguson Missouri. A constantly silenced and marginalized community can only be silent so long.
For all of the times I’ve heard people say, “This [fill in the blank city] won’t be another Ferguson,” Cleveland is doing the best impression I’ve seen so far, and the end results could be much worse.