Ferguson: Confronting the Presumption of Guilt


On Monday night, local officials announced there would be no indictment of the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. The grand jury concluded no criminal charges should be filed against Darren Wilson, who was protected by a presumption of innocence and unburdened by a racial identity that made him suspect or presumptively dangerous. The Governor of Missouri had already declared a state of emergency days before the grand jury decision was announced. The national guard was mobilized for battle and violent confrontations with presumptively dangerous Black residents, and this attracted hundreds of members of the media. The timing of the unseemly and unprecedented late night press conference to announce the grand jury findings seemed orchestrated to control the response of Black residents.

EJI has long argued there is a presumption of guilt and dangerousness that has unfairly made people of color, particularly young Black men, targets of police aggression and violence. The presumption of guilt and dangerousness burdens people of color in big and small ways that can be seen in the management of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, including the militarized response to frustrated and angry citizens who protested his death.

Our racial history of injustice has increased the challenges for African Americans and other racial minorities whose children face disproportionate risks of suspension and expulsion in school, increased risk of being unfairly stopped or suspected in public spaces, and dramatically increased risks of wrongful convictions or unfair sentences when criminally prosecuted. EJI’s website documents compelling evidence that racial bias influences sentencing and punishment in America. Racial bias greatly increases the severity of punishment for people of color in death penalty cases, drug possession cases, and when children are prosecuted as adults.

There is a need to confront and address the presumption of guilt that is the real issue that underlies the fear and anger in Ferguson and in communities across this country. The death of Michael Brown, like the death of Trayvon Martin, and hundreds of other young people of color who have died at the hands of police or private citizens asserting law enforcement authority, requires our leaders to deal directly with the legacy of racial inequality that sustains the bias against people of color. EJI’s project on race and poverty is aimed at changing the underlying disease which is symptomized by the tragic shooting of Michael Brown and the law enforcement response to those who protested. For some people, it may seem misguided to talk about the legacy of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow and the criminalization of racial minorities when fires are burning and there is public unrest. However, EJI believes it is essential that we talk about these issues to have any hope of creating communities where Black and brown people are not menaced by violence and criminality and lethal shootings by the police who are paid to protect them.