Some of the several hundred demonstrators marching down M Street in Georgetown Saturday afternoon towards the key bridge. The protest focused on Michael Brown’s death and the recent grand jury decision in Ferguson. during a Ferguson Protest in Georgetown, DC, Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Erin Schaff)
District political leaders and residents criticized the recent decision by a St. Louis County, Mo. grand jury not to indict a White Ferguson police officer for killing an unarmed Black teenager.
On Nov. 24, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch announced to a national audience that the county’s grand jury would not hold Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson criminally liable for the killing of Michael Brown. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said that the grand jury decision will “always be controversial.”
“The inspection of the grand jury proceedings, the ongoing Justice Department investigation to determine if there has been racial profiling and excessive force by the Ferguson Police Department and the Justice Department investigation of possible civil rights violations, as well as potential civil litigation, may still provide closure and justice in the case of Michael Brown,” Norton said.
On Aug. 9, Wilson fatally shot Brown. Witnesses have testified to the grand jury and to the media that Brown had his hands up to surrender.
Brown’s killing set off weeks of civil unrest in Ferguson and re-ignited a national discussion of African Americans’ relationship with law enforcement officials.
Immediately after Brown’s death, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said that the city has been sparred Ferguson-like incidents because it practices community-oriented policing, which mandates officers getting to know the residents they protect.
D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) is skeptical about Gray and Lanier’s assertion.
“If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize what happened that fateful night in August could have happened anywhere in the United States,” McDuffie, who used to work as a prosecutor for the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney, said. “It could have happened right here in Washington, D.C.”
McDuffie admitted at an Oct. 9 hearing of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety that was held at Howard University that he had been stopped numerous times during his life by District police officers.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who suggested at the Oct. 9 committee hearing that all police officers may not need to carry firearms, had concerns about the grand jury’s decision and thinks that the District is trying not to replicate what happen in Ferguson.
“Here in the District we have held hearing and town hall meetings to assess local police tactics and have implemented a body camera pilot program, yet there is still more work to be done,” Grosso said. “I am committed to working with law enforcement, advocates and residents to discuss meaningful policy solutions to move our city forward on these critical issues.”
On Nov. 25, hundreds of activists jammed the streets of downtown in the Mount Vernon Square-Gallery Place area to show their displeasure with the grand jury decision. They held up signs saying that “Black Lives Matter” and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and chanted with former D.C. Council at-large candidate Eugene Puryear when he said “Justice for Michael Brown, Racist Cop Shot Him Down.” They ultimately ended up at Lafayette Square, across from the White House.
Earlier that day, a smaller number of demonstrators visited the D.C. Police Headquarters, the Office of Police Complaints, the John A. Wilson Building and the transition office of Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser (D) to encourage law enforcement and political leaders to support a strong police civilian review board.
Stephon Bell participated in the pre-march rally that took place at the Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon. Bell said that the time for talk is over.
“We need to galvanize everyone in the community,” he said. “We need to make something happen. Darren Wilson is a superficial issue and we need to look at the root cause of the problem of Black people being killed by police.”
Antoinette Wimbish, who also attended the rally, said that the Brown killing has influenced her in other ways.
“I wanted to be a police officer,” she said. “Now I don’t. I feel lately that cops are after African Americans and people of color in general.”
While the march held up traffic on New York Avenue during rush hour, Alena Banks, who waited patiently for the demonstrators to move on, said that she was not upset.
“This is amazing,” Banks said, sitting in her car. “You have all types of people out here for Michael Brown. That’s great.”
McDuffie thinks it would be great if District residents continue to be engaged in preventing Brown-like situations in the future.
“It begins and ends with you and me,” he said. “Michael Brown’s death would truly be in vain if we do not learn from it and move forward accordingly.”