Two days after a grand jury refused to indict Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Brown’s parents appeared with the Rev. Al Sharpton at the Harlem headquarters of National Action Network, the civil rights organization founded by Sharpton in 1991. They remain determined to keep the legacy of their son alive.
Sharpton, whom the family asked to come to Ferguson in the days after Brown was killed, has used his platform to keep the shooting in the national spotlight. He recently talked to The Root about his reaction to the grand jury’s decision, as well as the personal relationship he’s developed with the Brown family over the past few months.
The Root: It appears that you may have already expected that the jury would refuse to indict Officer Darren Wilson. Is that right?
Al Sharpton: I always felt that the jury would come back with a “no bill,” and I said that from day one. I told the family that with police cases—because of the symbiotic relationship between local police and local prosecutors—it is very rare that you get a fair local prosecutor. What I had no expectation of is that the prosecutor would release the findings at night and have a detailed attack on the character of Michael Brown.
TR: How do you make sense of the public outrage that so many people feel at the decision not to indict Officer Wilson and the subsequent rioting that took place after the grand jury’s decision was announced?
AS: I think a lot of it is despair and a lot of it is hopelessness. I also think it was exacerbated by a frontal attack by the prosecutor on the victim and the witnesses and a full-court defense of the accused. If the evidence is what the prosecutor says, then why is it necessary to disparage the deceased, who couldn’t speak for himself?
TR: Obviously the parents of Michael Brown are anguished by the loss of their son. So many citizens are angry by the sense of injustice, but I can only imagine that this case has become personal for you, as someone who has had to bury countless numbers of young black men who have been killed by police.
AS: It’s always very trying for me, and particularly painful at this point because I’m dealing with Michael Brown’s family and the emotions and the various anxieties they face.
And at the same time, I’m dealing with Eric Garner’s family in the Staten Island, N.Y., case and the Akai Gurley case—this young 28-year-old killed in the stairwell in the housing project. These three families I’m personally dealing with—counseling, talking with—and so it is particularly a painful period for me. When you get involved personally, even when you have staff there, the families often want to talk to you, even if it’s as a minister. So it’s dealing with their pain and dealing with it times three.
TR: What do you make of President Obama’s remarks delivered right after the grand jury’s decision was announced?
AS: I thought the tone was the appropriate tone coming right behind the grand jury’s findings. They are making a lot in the media about the split screen of him speaking and the riots going on, but he had no way of knowing what was going to go on when he started speaking. I think it was appropriate for him to speak as president, and I think it was appropriate what he said. It is interesting because if he doesn’t bring up race or disparities, he’s putting on rose-colored glasses; and if he does, he’s being polarizing. I think he knows either way he’s going to get it, and I think he just does what he believes.
Jamal Watson is the senior staff writer for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and the author of a forthcoming biography of the Rev. Al Sharpton. Follow him on Twitter.