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In Ferguson Justice Is What Comes After Grand Jury

Above: Justice has a face. Justice demands it. Illustration: Chloe Cushman for Guardian US Opinion

Note: While we understand and support the concept of the longer term quest for justice; it must be acknowledged that justice also requires the indictment of the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown who was unarmed, stopped merely for walking in the street and killed.

There will come a day soon when the protests, in whatever shape they take, fall off the front page. No matter what happens, justice will still be possible

What does justice look like?

That was the question asked recently by the Rev Starsky Wilson at a gathering of local and national philanthropic executives here in St Louis. Wilson, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation, directed the inquiry specifically to Patricia Bynes and Tory Russell, two young African-Americans who have been omnipresent at the Ferguson protests since 9 August, when police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Rev Wilson’s audience that night was a group of foundation leaders from St Louis and around the country, who had come to listen to the experts, the protesters and clergy and people from the street. The conversation was about the problems this region has with race, with concentrated poverty, with inequality. The checkbooks weren’t out that night – but they will be, a point made by William Buster of theWK Kellogg Foundation.

For national philanthropic organizations, particularly those that deal with poverty and race, Ferguson is as much a magnet as Hurricane Katrina was to New Orleans, soon to draw millions of dollars in national investment to help heal gaping wounds.

So back to that question:

What does justice look like?

The answers from Ms Bynes and Mr Russell were profound.

Neither one of them talked about putting Officer Wilson in jail, as much as they might think that’s a good idea. They didn’t focus on the grand jury that continues to mull whether or not the Ferguson police officer will face charges in Mr Brown’s death.

They talked about children. About broken institutions. About breaking down barriers. About having a job and a reliable way to get to work that didn’t involve a car breaking down or running out of gas.

As St Louis teeters on the edge of whatever is to come next, much of the talk in some segments of the community is about the grand jury, and about what might or might not happen in the streets following that fateful decision. Justice is about what comes after that.

It’s about Ms Bynes driving to work in Chesterfield without having to navigate a patchwork of municipalities, most of which shouldn’t exist, that rely on traffic stops to pay their bills. It’s about her neighbors having that little extra money in their pockets to feed their children, or put gas in their cars, rather than pay fine upon fine in city court upon city court that prey upon blacks in ways most whites in the community don’t understand.

This week, new Harris-Stowe State University president Dwaun Warmack told me the story of a call he received from a young black student who just a couple of nights earlier had been pulled over by police. The student, with a high GPA and a clean record, was driving home in north St Louis County. His car apparently fit the description of another vehicle that had been involved in a crime. He was pulled over and taken out of the vehicle by police, frisked and placed on the ground face first while police ran his tags and driver’s license.

Police quickly realized they had the wrong car, the wrong young, black man. They let him go.

But that young man’s worldview, Warmack told me, is changed forever.

Justice is less of that happening to young black men in St Louis.

Justice is more of white St Louis understanding the reality of that experience for people of color.

For Tory Russell, justice is about education.

In T-shirt and ballcap he sat on a stage at Jazz at the Bistro in front of well-dressed foundation executives who will go to their boards and ask for investments to help St Louis. He told tales of walking by Michael Brown’s body on Canfield Drive, the blood not yet dry. And then he went back to his youth, to Sumner High School in the city of St Louis, to a time when he couldn’t take textbooks home to do homework because he had to share books with his classmates.

He wiped a tear, his voice choking, as he talked about his own son, and the little boys and girls in his Ferguson neighborhood, whose schools aren’t quite good enough, who, like him, don’t have enough books, who want to learn, but need that little extra help that always seems out of reach.

Justice, Russell said, is a little boy in Ferguson having books in his book bag.

There will come a day soon when St Louis will no longer be on edge. The grand jury decision will be old news. The protests, in whatever shape they take, will have been knocked off the front page.

But no matter what happens in coming days, justice will still be possible.

As I write this, there are post-grand jury protests planned in no fewer than 21 states. Ferguson has become a movement. The very real problems in St Louis manifested in the city’s racial divide are better understood than ever before. And legitimate progress being made – toward creating empathy, toward breaking down institutional barriers, toward recognizing educational inequity – can’t be slowed down by hardened hearts reacting to whatever the grand jury does or doesn’t do.

Justice has a face. It’s of a little boy whose mama knows that getting a black child through high school in some parts of St. Louis is a harder task than most people can imagine.

That little boy has an empty book bag.

We must fill it with books and the hope of a brighter, more equitable future. Justice demands it.

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