As the nation awaits a decision from a grand jury Ferguson, Mo. about whether they will charge a police officer for shooting and killing black teenager Michael Brown, the new leader of the Congressional Black Caucus has already publicly stated that anything but indictment will not represent justice.
The comments (audio) came as Congressman G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat, assumed the chairmanship of the CBC last week. He expressed his concern in an interview with WUNC in Chapel Hill, a NPR affiliate, when asked about the problem of civil unrest in “places like Ferguson” and what he thought his role was in “moving conversations forward” with regard to race relations.
“I would certainly hope that the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri will find that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that a crime probably was committed,” Butterfield responded. “To lay out that crime, and to let a jury of twelve in Missouri decide the guilt or innocence of the police officer.”
So the head of the CBC – viewed as representing the views of most elected blacks in Congress – believes that an indictment of Officer Darren Wilson is the only decision that can be reached that would advance justice, regardless of what the actual evidence shows. Butterfield – a former judge who should know better – says that a group of peer-citizens impaneled to review sworn witness testimony and all relevant evidence, to determine the low threshold of possible criminal conduct, should shirk their responsibilities and return criminal charges regardless. In other words the congressman, in his vast (15 years) judicial experience, thinks only justice can be served when a 12-person jury considers guilt or innocence, but not when a group decides whether or not it’s a waste of time to even send the evidence to that jury.
If this is the goal then there is no reason to ever have a grand jury – just make up some charges and go straight to trial. Makes you wonder what kind of jurisprudence they teach at the North Carolina Central University School of Law. Worse, however, is that Butterfield sent a clear signal that failure to indict will represent injustice to blacks who look to the CBC’s leadership.
“If they turn their back on justice,” Butterfield said on WUNC, “I’m fearful that there will be pushback from those who are concerned about it, and I’m one of those who is concerned about it. There will be pushback. We will be asking questions.”
How much more clearly can the Congressman state it? He has said a crime was “probably committed” and if they grand jury delivers anything less than an indictment, then potential protesters are justified in whatever “pushback” they decide is justified. Butterfield has already rendered his verdict, which feeds the volatility in Ferguson and everywhere else in the country that is watching with apprehension. His choice of words can only ignite the tense situation; they do nothing to defuse it.
But he at least made a half-hearted attempt in the WUNC segment:
“But I would hope that any demonstrations that would take place in Ferguson, Missouri, would be peaceful and nonviolent, and I would hope that law enforcement would not inflame citizens who might want to express their First Amendment rights.”
And that seals it for those who would riot in response to no indictment of Officer Wilson: If they spiral out of control, according to Butterfield, then it is because the police provoked it. Protesters should not be held responsible for their reaction to “injustice.”
Butterfield probably wouldn’t be chairman of the CBC if he weren’t willing to play the race card regularly. During this year’s campaign, when some Democrats attributed Tea Party opposition to President Obama’s policies — such as health care and immigration – to the fact that he is black, some decried the tactic.
“What alienates people is getting all of us stirred by the notion that we should be afraid of somebody else,” said Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina to The Hill. “[Democrats’] comments are designed to evoke fear from my perspective. It’s unfortunate, and it should be shameful, frankly.
But Butterfield – no fan of the Tea Party – endorsed the Democrats’ strategy.
“I don’t call that race-baiting,” he said. “I call that a political platform.”
In that context he has made unfounded allegations of his own before. Last month he recounted a story while speaking at an event in Durham, N.C., about the 2009 Tea Party demonstration in Washington, D.C., in which he claimed Capitol Police told him and Georgia Rep. John Lewis – a longtime civil rights activist – that their lives “could be in danger” if they walked amidst the protesters. He and other black Democrats, without evidence, have also said they were subject to racial epithets from Tea Partiers during demonstrations in D.C. to the passage of Obamacare, among other policies. The clear implication was that the Tea Party is an echo of the KKK and a danger to blacks.
Which brings us to the anticipation surrounding Ferguson today and Butterfield’s remarks last week. It is a potential powder keg, and he insists on lighting one of the matches.
Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes CarolinaPlottHound.com, an aggregator of North Carolina news.