Of grand juries and blue ribbon commissions: How America will dispute the lessons of Ferguson

There were 22 gunshot fatalities over the course of the 1967 Newark Riot, an event that, along with the Detroit Riot that same year, fundamentally altered the way ordinary Americans viewed Civil Rights movement toward the end of the 60’s. Never mind the fact that most of the homicides that were committed were committed by police – those erstwhile upholders of the law, white Americans feared that property destruction was what threatened the country with lawlessness most of all.

That a certain segment of the population could ignore how the law was flouted most egregiously by those we entrust to keep it became possible thanks to a campaign to discredit any attempts to investigate what really happened during the Newark riot. And as critics across the political spectrum line up to discredit the Department of Justice’s reports on both Cleveland and Ferguson, yet again America runs the risk of repeating past mistakes.

gunshot fatalities in the newark riot

Newark police kept track of how many people they killed during the 1967 Riots

Hattie Gainor was one of those killed during the Newark riot. Her daughter, who witnessed the murder, was later interviewed by journalist Ron Porambo for his book on the riot, No Cause for Indictment. Her testimony is worth quoting at length:

I was outside on the sidewalk, I looked up and saw my mother looking out her second-floor window. They were shooting at the projects then… by the time I got [there] my mother was laying in a puddle of blood and my kids were screaming… Then two state troopers with yellow stripes on their pants came in. ‘We made a mistake,’ one of them said. ‘We shot the wrong person, we’re killing innocent people’… then they let her lay there in the blood until the ambulance came hours later and then she was dead.

hattie gainor

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A striking thing occurred in the aftermath of the riot – on each and every count, a grand jury assembled to determine who was guilty for these crimes found itself unable to indict a single person for any one of the shootings.

White America, which would soon whip itself up into a fury over “law and order” and elect Richard Nixon, nonetheless accepted each pronouncement that “due to insufficient evidence of any criminal misconduct, the jury found no cause for indictment,” with strange ease. So much for law and order.

Of the 22 gunshot fatalities during the course of the riots, perhaps one was the result of the “sniper fire” on which police tried to place the blame. One firefighter’s death was most likely the result of a ricocheting National Guard-issue armor piercing bullet:

michael moran

Despite their acceptance of the grand jury proceedings, the majority of Americans would not embrace the findings of the Kerner Commission, with its pronouncement that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” (This was even after the first Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act). Successfully creating an integrated society would require massive investments that many were unwilling to make: “…what white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Nor would America accept the conclusions of New Jersey’s own Lilley Commission (also known as the Hughes Commission), which bluntly stated that “the single continuously lawless element operating in the community is the police force itself.” President Johnson, who ordered the “Blue Ribbon” Kerner Commission to determine “what happened, why it happened, and how it could be prevented from happening again” in the first place – wasted no time in summarily ignoring its findings.


As I follow the right-wing’s unfolding reaction to the Department of Justice’s reports on both Cleveland and Ferguson, I have a feeling we may see history try and repeat itself. Fox News is already hard at work obfuscating the Department of Justice’s recent Ferguson report. One need look no further than Megyn Kelly’s insistence that “hands up, don’t shoot” never happened (I warn you, even by Fox News standards this is one of the most infuriating TV segments I have ever seen):

Instead of focusing on what the DOJ revealed about the Ferguson police department’s racist policing tactics, Fox has been hammering home the fact that the Justice Department could not charge Darren Wilson with violating Michael Brown’s civil rights by killing him – something that is almost impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

As we wait on reports from Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s Ferguson Commission and Ohio governor John Kasich’s police-community task force to hopefully add to the debate on this issue, we must prepare for the eventuality that some will try and resist everything these reports attempt to teach us.

Some conservatives are starting to take the DOJ’s Ferguson report seriously, though not all the report’s opponents are conservatives. As this battle drags on into election season, said opponents may well choose to stick to their old time-tested tactics: clinging, talisman-like, to the grand jury’s decision, shouting “RULE OF LAW! RULE OF LAW!” to no one in particular, doing everything in their power to reject anything that points to the root causes of racial injustice in this country.

I leave you with Ron Porambo’s reflection on the institution of the grand jury, from his aforementioned book written in 1971:

The term “grand jury” has a ring of omniscience and purity which is often far from justified. At times a jury may be a political weapon, a gilded weather vane of the times, or even an instrument of ugly injustice. As Newark’s attorney’s well knew, a grand jury was comprised of twenty-three men and women who were assembled, given information and witnesses by the prosecutor’s office, and then left to themselves to draw conclusions. Their evaluations, as often as not, would be influenced by those who had instructed them. That the jurors may have asked many specific questions regarding various aspects of the homicides – chiefly, whose hands had held the guns – does not mean there was an effort to furnish them with answers.

On April 23 the jury’s presentment was made public. Its findings weren’t much of a surprise in a city with Newark’s background. First, the wording of the presentment’s conclusion–”in the final analysis, the responsibility for the loss of life and property that is the inevitable product of rioting and mass lawlessness cannot be placed upon those whose duty it is to enforce law and protect the freedom of our society”– was more a direct reply to the Hughes report than an explanation of homicides.

It’s probably natural that grand juries are a conservative institution, obscuring the path toward police accountability. But when attempts to uncover the structural foundations of injustice are measured in commissions convened and reports released, how much progress have we really made?


James Neimeister is a freelance writer from Ohio. His interests include: Russia, Ukraine, education, technology, and "cyberspace."

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  • caphillprof

    Much of the history of the United States was created by white fear of a slave uprising. Slave uprisings were few but the fear was widespread and ingrained to this very generation. It’s was the primary reason for the 2d Amendment which has since metastacized into today’s gun insanity. The slaveholder denied the inhumanity of slavery by denying the humanity of the slave. Jim Crow was an extension of denying the humanity of a race. Ferguson, the University of Oklahoma, etc. are only continuations of this legacy.

    Police riots are another thing entirely (although the police are used today, as the Southern militias during slavery, to keep the black man oppressed). The police are an anti-democratic force in what is putatively a democratic republic with individual rights to speech, press, gathering, traveling, indictment, trial by jury and generally DUE PROCESS. In Ferguson we had the unholy alliance of police/city fathers/prosecutor/courts to oppress black men and women. In New York we had a similar alliance involving in addition the wealthiest of wealthy investment bankers suppressing free speech and assembly in or near Wall Street.

    Nightly we see the Constitution shredded in front of our eyes and, like Bush v. Gore, we do nothing.

  • Snarki, child of Loki

    If, by chance, you ever find yourself on a Grand Jury DO NOT hand over your subpoena authority to the Prosecutor, in spite of all the promises and wheedling. That subpoena power is the key to Grand Jury independence, so that evidence can be followed where it leads.

  • Indigo

    Bureaucratic Best Practices:
    If you want a topic shelved, hand it over to an investigative committee.
    Remember the Warren Commission? ‘Nuf said!

  • 2patricius2

    Unfortunately I know people who whitewash the police killings and jump on the people killed by saying “if they had just done what the police wanted, they would still be alive.”

  • mirth

    Well-presented premise, James, and I agree with it.

    Grand Jury decisions are scary because most often the appointees are based on local politics and rule on their individual social prejudices, which means a usual subversion of justice.

    These commissions are useless PR meant to show that some politician gives a damn and, absent all evidence, will use the findings to the betterment of the country. Like those before him when confronted with a nationwide outrage that doesn’t quickly die away, I can hear the current prez say “Eh, appoint a commission,” which will do nothing except waste a bunch of paper but looks good in his historical record.

    Of course the central purpose of investigative commissions is to quiet citizens near the edge of revolt and in this they are usually successful. And that’s on us.

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