Bill Newman: White America’s invisible injustice

Last modified: Friday, September 05, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Here is what we know so far about police officer Darren Wilson fatally shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri, a minute or two after noon on Aug. 9.

Officer Wilson is white. Michael Brown is African-American.

Brown, and his friend Dorian Johnson, 22, both unarmed, were walking in the street. A struggle of some sort occurred through the patrol car window, and Officer Wilson’s firearm discharged in the car. Brown and Johnson ran away. Officer Wilson exited his cruiser. Brown stopped, turned and faced Wilson, and the officer fired again. Neither Johnson nor Brown had any weapon. Brown died approximately 35 feet from the cruiser.

Three autopsies have been performed — one at the request of Brown’s family by the highly regarded former chief medical examiner of New York City, Dr. Michael Baden, one by St. Louis County Medical Examiner Mary Case and one by military coroners at the behest of the federal Department of Justice.

Baden’s autopsy, the only one made public, shows that six bullets struck Brown, four in his right arm and two in his head. The fatal shot entered the top of his head, indicating that Brown was leaning or falling forward when Wilson shot that bullet.

As of today, other facts are either unclear, in dispute, or being kept under wraps by the authorities. Some witnesses state that Brown had his hands up in the air when the cop killed him. There is a contrary claim of Brown (notwithstanding the bullets in his body) moving towards the officer in an allegedly threatening manner when Wilson fired the fatal shot.

Perhaps the state grand jury will indict Wilson or the Department of Justice will prosecute. Perhaps not. But even if Officer Wilson is charged, as the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin demonstrates, most prosecutions against cops — or those acting as de facto cops — in excessive force cases fail.

As for civil justice, victims of police brutality seeking judicial redress likewise face daunting odds. As a leading constitutional scholar, Erwin Chemerinsky, explained in a recent New York Times piece titled “How the Supreme Court Protects Bad Cops,” the high court’s decisions have made it difficult, if not impossible, to hold police officers accountable for their misconduct.

“When the police kill or injure innocent people, the victims rarely have recourse,” Chemerinsky wrote, due to the expansive immunities from lawsuits that the court has bestowed on law enforcement officials and the governments for which they work.

Chemerinsky concludes, “These [Supreme Court] rulings mean that the officer who shot Michael Brown and the City of Ferguson most likely will never be held accountable.”

Even if there were a criminal or civil trial, the legal proceedings necessarily will be burdened with human error, preconceptions and prejudice. And no legal process will answer the most troubling, salient and disturbing question raised by the case: Would Michael Brown have been shot and killed if he were white?

Studies show that police officers, like other groups, harbor implicit bias. Cops, among others, see a potential criminal when a black man approaches that they don’t see when the pedestrian or driver is white. In a split-second decision to shoot or not, an officer may shoot more quickly at a black person, who is perceived as inherently more dangerous. Benign objects in the hands of someone who is black are perceived, or reported to be perceived, as weapons.

White Americans neither experience nor see the police brutality that constitutes a fact of life in communities of color. A chasm divides the reality of policing in those communities from the perception of the police in middle-class white communities — something akin to the portrayal in the Norman Rockwell painting “The Runaway” — of a police officer befriending a little boy at a lunch counter.

In Ferguson’s power structure, whites rule blacks. In this city, which is 69 percent African-American, only three of the police force’s 53 cops are black. The mayor is white. So is the police chief and members of the City Council and the Board of Education. The police department is armed with military-style weapons. Black motorists are way more likely to be pulled over than whites. Unfortunately, these facts do not distinguish Ferguson from many communities across America.

America can cling to the hope that the judicial system at the end of this case will reach a resolution consonant with justice. But, frankly, that’s probably a forlorn hope. After all, it has taken the killing of an unarmed black man in the middle of the day for much of white America to glean that when it comes to relationships with, and treatment by, the police, white communities and communities of color live with sharply different realities. And with different rules.

To serve and protect may be the mantra for the police in some communities. But racial profiling, assumptions of guilt, stop and frisk and unnecessary force and violence constitute the reality in others.

Bill Newman is a Northampton lawyer, host of a WHMP weekday program and author of “When the War Came Home.” His column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at


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