On March 22, 1991, a visibly shaken and angered President George H.W. Bush said he was “sickened and outraged” by what he saw on television. That was the beating of black motorist Rodney King by a swarm of LAPD cops. A year later, following the acquittal of four LAPD cops by a Simi Valley jury with no blacks on it, Bush ordered then-Attorney General William Barr to begin the process of slapping federal civil rights charges on the four officers.
He issued a terse statement telling why “the verdict has left us all with a deep sense of personal frustration and anguish.” He backed this up with a televised address on May 1 in which he strongly signaled that civil rights charges would be brought against them. Bush had one reason and one authority for ordering a prosecution. The authority was the string of federal criminal civil rights laws that specifically authorize the prosecution of police officers who blatantly violate the law by using deadly or excessive force against civilians. The reason was the often vague and fuzzy, “compelling public interest.” In the case of King the compelling public interest was that the state trial was flawed in the racially skewed jury composition and that there was the need to confront the corrosive violation of civil rights by a law enforcement agency. More specifically the statute on “compelling public interest” makes plain that the alleged violation involves egregious conduct, including that which … causes loss of life, … [and] the result in the prior prosecution was manifestly inadequate in light of the federal interest involved.
President Obama now finds himself faced with the same decision Bush Sr. had to make 22 years ago.
The call has repeatedly gone out for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to bring civil rights charges against Wilson. He would not have moved as quickly as he did to assign a phalanx of FBI agents to the case, secure an independent autopsy of Brown’s death, and personally travel to the city to review procedures with civil rights division attorneys and investigators without the personal approval of Obama. Obama, as Bush did on King, has spoken out on various aspects of the Brown case and has almost certainly kept a close watch on developments.
But can and will he do what Bush Sr. did and order Holder to go forward with charges?
There’s the compelling federal interest. Brown was not detained or charged with a crime when the fatal encounter with Wilson occurred. Multiple eyewitnesses say he was shot with his hands up. An independent autopsy has confirmed that Brown was shot after an alleged scuffle with Wilson.
Though there was no apparent racial motive in Wilson confronting Brown, his action clearly violated Brown’s right to exercise his freedom of movement, and his rights. This civil right was violated the moment Wilson presumed that a young black man walking in a public thoroughfare had committed a crime. The safeguard of that right must be a fundamental concern of federal prosecutors.
The Brown case also strongly points to systemic issues of excessive force by police. The obvious excessive force that was used was the slaying of Brown. This strikes to the heart of another basic right of citizens, namely the freedom from undue harm. His killing once more raised deeply troubling questions about the power of the law to protect citizens from their unimpeded right to life and safety. Federal prosecutors play a major role in insuring that where there’s the suspicion that an individual’s rights might have been violated solely because of their race and gender that the power of federal law is brought to bear to insure that right is protected.
Wilson was a police officer and the charge that he abused his power in killing Brown under the color of law is the linchpin of federal prosecutions of local police officers. This is the same rationale that federal prosecutors used in the King beating case to bring civil rights charges against the four LAPD officers that beat King. The crucial legal point was that they acted in an official capacity when they violated King’s rights. As in the King case, there are crucial federal interests in insuring the rights of individuals to be free from undue harm because of their color, age, and being in a public area merely because someone perceives they shouldn’t be in and then acts on that perception with no cause other than that belief or perception.
Bush Sr. was deeply concerned that the King beating had caused an even deeper, volatile and dangerous rift between police and African-Americans. The riots after the cops were acquitted underscored that. This was enough of a compelling interest to force Bush to act. Obama will have to consider the same. As Bush Sr. did, he can and should follow his example and green light a prosecution of Wilson.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.