The Ferguson Frankenjury
“If it takes a riot for America to remember their names then that tells you more about the country than it does about the rioters.”
–Gary Younge, The Guardian.
First the killing.
After being shot six times by police officer Darren Wilson, Michael Brown’s presumably lifeless body (when did he actually die?) was left to lie in the street four hours before being perfunctorily gathered up, like so much trash in the ghetto, by authorities. This neglect is now a perverse emblem of the depth of contempt for black life that persists in America. As Gary Younge points out (The Guardian, October 10, 2014), this young man’s life and then bullet-ridden body were “dispensable, despised and discarded”, as with America’s promise of racial equality.
Then, as if to add insult to injury, there emerged a Kafkaesque grand jury process. Within days of the killing a grand jury had been assembled. But this cornerstone of our ‘Anglo-American’ system of justice was placed in the hands of a mad scientist, Fergson prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who would refuse to recuse himself and instead guide a deeply flawed, yet exquisitely effective, process to its forgone conclusion. McCulloch would, predictably, decline to recommend prosecuting Wilson, an event that occurs within our hallowed halls of justice about as often as a grand jury is all African-American–which is to say never.
In his Guardian article, Younge recalls another jury that deliberated over the fate of white men accused of killing a Black teenager. That jury, in 1955 Mississippi, took all of 67 minutes to acquit the killers of Emmitt Till. “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop,” said one juror, “it wouldn’t have taken that long.” In that case, under Jim Crow segregation, the grand jury actually forwarded charges. The grand jury tasked with deciding whether to recommend criminal charges against Darren Wilson, the cop who shot Brown to death, took its sweet time–more than three months–to deliver a decision. “That’s a lot of pop,” quipped Younge.
When the Ferguson grand jury finally did deliver a decision it was that the preponderance of evidence did not, according to our citizen jurors, rise to the level of ‘probable cause’. In local parlance it was the equivalent of “fuck you”. The jury process was so rotten with foul illogic, so twisted in its legal sophistry as to have invited the opprobrium of none other than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, that standard bearer of Black liberation. According to Scalia, McCulloch’s handling of the grand jury flouted traditions that have stood for ‘hundreds of years’.
“It is the grand jury’s function not ‘to enquire … upon what foundation [the charge may be] denied,’ or otherwise to try the suspect’s defenses, but only to examine ‘upon what foundation [the charge] is made’ by the prosecutor…As a consequence, neither in this country nor in England has the suspect under investigation by the grand jury ever been thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented.”
Which is exactly what McCulloch both did not do (forward a charge) and did do (had the suspect testify).
This was no ordinary grand jury; it was a Frankenjury.
The Ferguson Frankenjury process has been unusual in so many ways it is useful to list a few: the refusal of the prosecutor to recommend charges; the 3 1/2 month deliberation punctuated by seemingly mischievous and calculated leaks; the unprecedented 4 hours of testimony to the grand jury from the shooter, (this suggests a creepy parallel with the amount of time Mike Brown’s body was left–lifeless?–in the streets of Ferguson) the drawn out media circus; the interminable delays; the urban counterinsurgency strategy with its militarized ‘peace officers’ in the wings; the preemptive ‘state of emergency’ declared by a feckless Governor more than a week before a decision was announced, suggesting he wasn’t even in the loop; and, finally, the announcement itself coming at night and the smoking streets that followed–all of this so heart-wrenchingly familiar in its result yet novel in its process.
There is also the little matter of Wilson describing Brown as a “Demon” which, aside from being almost comical as a dehumanizing and racist trope, also serves as a defense. We were told again and again that all Wilson had to demonstrate for an effective defense was that he ‘felt’ fear of Michael Brown–whether that fear was rational or not being irrelevant. That this was something for a judge or jury to consider during a trial and not for a sitting grand jury weighing probable cause was almost completely lost amidst the blather.
Elsewhere in his article Younge uses the word ‘prevaricate’ (speak or act in an evasive way, quibble with the truth) where he means, I think, ‘procrastinate’, or delay. A common and forgivable error. But the members of the Ferguson Frankenjury, at least during their lengthy deliberations, had not spoken falsely–they said nothing at all–busy as they were drinking pop for three+ months. But there is something inherently deceitful about their delay, something dishonest in their act of ‘suspending judgment’ that suggests a neologism may be in order, so as to capture both the elements of delay and deceit so intrinsic to the process.
When an institutional authority engages in a process of delay and equivocation, putting off and perverting justice, it can be henceforth be said to prevaricrastinate; or, if you prefer, procrastivaricate.
Ugly words for an ugly process.
My two Frankenwords are assembled from ‘prevaricate’ and ‘procrastinate’ and each has two word parts swiveling on a fulcrum of injustice: ‘Prevaricrastinate, meaning justice denied, then delayed; and, ‘procrastivaricate’, meaning justice delayed, then denied.
A perfect symmetry.
From my Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989, we find the following nugget within the word usages for ‘prevaricate’:
Prevaricate: “…to betray the cause of a client by collusion with an opponent…To undertake a matter falsely and deceitfully in order to defeat the object professed to be promoted.” That, together with procrastinate, is exactly what Bob McCulloch engaged in: he betrayed the victims of this crime by colluding with the perpetrator, and our institutions either supported that decision or looked the other way.
(Elsewhere prevaricate can mean “to spread the legs apart, straddle…bent, knock-kneed…” but I won’t indulge in that tangent.)
Procrastinate, of course, means “…to put off till the morrow, to put off from day to day; to defer [action], to delay…play a waiting game, use delaying tactics.”
Let’s dissect the Frankenword, ‘Prevaricrastinate’. First, there is the hacking apart of each word, ‘prevaricate’ and ‘procrastinate’, followed by the stitching together of the two words such that their combined meanings form a new one. When spoken, the word sounds difficult and uncomfortable; it registers a certain labored construction (unnatural grafting) and its enunciation proceeds as if one can hear the gears of justice grinding to a halt. Just as the word ends badly (‘crastinate’) as in a painful gastro-intestinal blockage–so too this jury’s work will come to an ugly end.
‘Procrastivaricate’, on the other hand, with it’s ending ‘varicate’ sounds like ‘validate’ or ‘verification’. This suggests a drawn out process that, while painful, does eventually arrive at the truth–just as our Ferguson Frankenjury has dangled before us. But, as with the Ferguson grand jury’s final decision,’varicate’ is nonsensical in this context. It doesn’t mean anything at all; it just sounds as if it does. It is a word, but a medical term–‘varicies’, from ‘varicose’, as in ‘veins’. So in a poetic way this ending accurately represents the Ferguson Frankenjury process: A sclerotic system that has blockages preventing the free flow of blood (disinterested weighing of evidence) to the body politic (justice). In this ironic sense, it works
Younge’s parallel between the absence of justice in the Till and Brown killings is instructive. If under Jim Crow the racist murderers of Emmitt Till were acquitted, but did at least face charges, whereas the killer of Michael Brown won’t even face a manslaughter or ‘failure to aid’ charge, then what has changed?
Nothing. The process has mutated; but the result remains the same.