Last night, a Missouri grand jury found there wasn’t sufficient evidence to charge white police officer Darren Wilson with a crime for shooting unarmed black teenager Michael Brown dead in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson on Aug. 9. Last night, I listened carefully to prosecutor Bob McCullough repeatedly emphasize the role of “physical evidence” and “credible testimony corroborated by physical evidence” from witnesses in the decision, while highlighting the inconsistencies of many of those accounts.
I began to understand the decision when he explained that Brown’s DNA was found inside the police car and on the door, and the first two shots were made at close range after evidence of a struggle. I waited to hear an explanation of the law that determines when use of deadly force is justified. I waited to hear how Wilson’s behavior was reasonable and justified. I waited to hear why Officer Wilson’s other options (not continue shooting, not give chase, not shoot Brown in the head) weren’t effective choices. I waited to hear what kind of evidence would have been necessary to indict.
I never got my answers, so I don’t understand the lack of an indictment. I’m not alone. Many of us wonder — how is a police officer firing 12 shots fired on an unarmed teenager not enough to go to trial? How is the existence of conflicting eyewitness accounts not enough to go to trial? How is firing the fatal shot on an unarmed teenager from 150 feet away not worthy of a trial? How was “deadly force” justified in this case, even if Brown did “charge” at Wilson from over 100 feet of distance? How is this not a crime?
What strikes me was McCullough’s emphasis on the physical evidence that “remains consistent”, and “isn’t mistaken” or “influenced by opinion or friends” as if physical evidence isn’t subject to the same human brain filtering, story making and context creating as witness accounts. (I think he and the grand jurors might need training on unconscious bias and intercultural communication!) What also strikes me is the repeated mention, by McCullough, President Obama and news commentators, of the “difficult” job the grand jury had, how challenging it is to be a police officer, and how stressful this case has been for these two groups. What about the stress on Brown’s family? The challenges for the African American community? What about the impact of yet another non-African American man liberated of accountability for killing an unarmed young man of color? Where is the deep collective concern and genuine empathy for the Brown family, all the families like them, and youth of color in general? Where are the real steps to “do the work” President Obama refers to?
While the lingering questions, and the events in the streets of Ferguson, police departments nationwide and courtrooms may seem far removed from the US business boardroom, organizations in all sectors should take this decision very seriously for the following three reasons:
- The Ferguson decision further reduces the trust of a large and increasing percentage of USians in American institutions and large organizations. Trust is good for business. 13% of our population is African American. When combined with Latinos, most of whom feel similarly about the Ferguson decision and experience racial profiling by law enforcement, this represents 30% of our population. How will your employees respond to leadership when they feel increasingly mistrustful of institutions and their leaders? How will this mistrust translate into ineffective behaviors? How will your clients, customers, and patients trust you when they increasingly experience alienation from institutions and large organizations? Where will they take their business? How will they vote with their dollars? Will they vote for you?
- The Ferguson decision contributes to the destabilization of democracy. Democracy is good for business. Just as in the Trayvon Martin case, there is a vast disparity between African Americans and Whites in beliefs and perceptions around the Ferguson case. This gap is growing, as the Trayvon article demonstrates. Such increasing tension makes communication, consensus, and decision making challenging at all levels of organizations and society at large. When large segments of a population have deeply different experiences from the rest, and are not feeling heard, seen, or treated fairly, it’s difficult to create a shared vision, much less act on that vision – whether in society at large or your organization. Stability is necessary to thrive, not just survive. Stability is necessary for prosperity; stability is necessary for effectively functioning organizations and healthy profits. Increasing tension, unresolved anger and rifts in beliefs and values destabilize democracy. One tweet last night: “How am I supposed to feel safe in a country that doesn’t stand up for me?” Others quoted W.E.B Du Bois: “A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.” How can your organization thrive as an increasing percentage of the current – and future – workforce feels this way? How can your business thrive as consensus, inclusion and shared vision erode?
- The Ferguson decision impedes the ability of all employees to bring their best selves to work. Diverse employees feeling included enables them to perform, innovate, and contribute fully to greater collective brilliance, effectiveness, and higher profits. Employees and a future workforce that feels unsafe, devalued, mistrustful of institutions and their leaders, and excluded from systems of justice and fairness aren’t going to show up as their full selves. They will hold back from contributing their full brilliance, creativity and discretionary effort. They will be less willing to take risks or to speak out in service of your organization and those it serves. How will your employees of color show up, and perform, in your organization when they increasingly feel disenfranchised, unsafe and excluded? How do they feel now? How is that impacting their performance, and therefore your collective flourishing?
Intent does not equal impact. Good intentions aren’t enough, and won’t save us or our businesses. Despite the good intentions of the majority, as a group African Americans in the United States today don’t feel safe, valued, respected, heard, or treated fairly. As Obama summed it up last night, “communities of color aren’t just making this up.” The deep distrust between law enforcement and communities of color is not something to be ignored, dismissed, or wished away. The real experiences of African Americans and people of color are not going away: “the anger builds up, and American isn’t everything is could be.” Last night’s Ferguson decision is yet another lost opportunity for transparency, equity, inclusion, empathy, justice, dialogue, understanding, and constructive action. The Ferguson decision is another lost opportunity to co-create a more equitable, inclusive, abundant, sustainable future. The Ferguson decision is bad for business
Want to do something? For some thoughts on how to talk about race, and what to do about racial disparities see this series “How Whites can talk about race…and why we need to” I wrote with colleague Melissa Hahn.