American political rhetoric is often like American politicians themselves: bland, oblivious, tone-deaf, and inimical to the cause of liberty. Whenever they say stupid things, we mock them for it, and justly so. But there’s another type of political rhetoric less entertaining but often far more harmful: the plain speech of the authority figure refusing to do anything which might in any way challenge the structure of which he is part. This is what we saw last night (Nov. 24) when St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced to the press that the grand jury convened by his office had decided there was no probable cause to pursue charges against police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown.
Anyone tuning in could be forgiven for thinking that McCulloch was actually speaking for the defense. For more than 20 minutes, he laid out what he saw as the facts of the case, careful to promote the account he found believable—Wilson’s, of course—and to dismiss any others that conflicted with it, all prefaced by an attack on the “24-hour news cycle” that inconveniently demanded facts about a case where very few were made available to anyone outside the secret grand jury proceedings.
In theory, it’s the prosecutor’s job to convene such grand juries so that probable cause might be found, and the case proceed to trial. As Ben Casselman notes, the grand jury is a slam dunk for prosecutors — it is extremely rare for grand juries to refuse to find any reason not to go to trial, except in cases involving police shootings. So how then, in more than 20 years as prosecutor, has McCulloch never managed to successfully recommend charges against a single police officer? It’s not for lack of opportunity.
Anyone tuning in could be forgiven for thinking that McCulloch was actually speaking for the defense.
Potentially, it could have something to do with McCulloch’s father, mother, brother, uncle, and cousin all working for the St. Louis Police Department. Imagine if a case involving a company came before a judge whose entire family worked for that company: if the judge did not recuse himself, it would be grounds for his removal from the bench. Consider also that McCulloch is the present president of The BackStoppers, an organization that funds families of police officers killed or wounded in the line of duty. Of itself, this could be noble work—but McCulloch has been charged by the voters of St. Louis County with pursuing justice, and that means avoiding conflicts of interest or the appearance of partiality. Given his family history, his record of performance on the job, his daily work alongside officers, even his statement that he became a prosecutor because, having lost a leg to cancer as a child, he couldn’t become a cop—one can understand why there were questions raised about his sincerity in presenting this case to the grand jury. And it can definitely help explain why to many, including at least one former prosecutor, it looked like McCulloch had no interest in bringing a case at all.
But instead of recusing himself, McCulloch stayed on, up to the point of calling an inexplicably late press conference to mug for the cameras and urge for “calm” while the Ferguson PD rolled out all the military surplus gear they’ve acquired over the past decade: a troop carrier, sound cannons, riot armor, automatic rifles, and a seemingly endless supply of flashbang grenades and tear gas. (In more typically vapid rhetorical territory, President Obama took center stage soon after to say absolutely nothing whatsoever of substance, while scenes of gassed protestors played alongside him.)
One can entertain reasonable doubts about what happened in the meeting between Wilson and Brown. One could even believe, after considering the evidence as the grand jury supposedly did (in proceedings that cannot be disclosed, by a vote that they are legally obligated to conceal), that Officer Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown at least six times. But I struggle to imagine any circumstance under which one could find it appropriate that Robert McCulloch was wielding that authority and giving that speech last night. Because he was, we got the rare spectacle of an American public figure neither leaning on clichés nor bumbling his lines. No: he communicated, at length, exactly what he meant to say.