In recent years, increased attention has been drawn to the violence and oppression communities of color experience at the hands of police. This is most evident when looking at the rise of Black Lives Matter. Despite historically going unnoticed, the movement has catapulted police killings of Black people into the spotlight. Due to the actions of dedicated activists, the names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and many others have appeared in the news and on social media timelines, forcing society at large to become acutely aware of the atrocities committed by the police against people of color.
While there has been increased debate and scrutiny concerning the actions of police officers, there has been little in the way of justice or remedies. Black communities have watched time and time again as the police who killed Brown, Garner, Gray, and so many others have evaded justice. Police who kill Black civilians are rarely convicted for their actions. This has led to frustration on the part of Black communities, who have expressed disdain for the current system, which they do not believe will treat them fairly. This is particularly evident in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of a Black teenager named Michael Brown, at the hands of White police officer Darren Wilson. Brown’s death resulted in social unrest, not only in the city of Ferguson but throughout the country. This tension was exacerbated after the grand jury failed to indict Wilson. Two months later, activists associated with the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement (“Uhuru Movement”) convened the “Black People’s Grand Jury” (“BPGJ”) in Ferguson, Missouri. The BPGJ was a response to the non-indictment of Wilson for the death of Brown. In stark contrast to the institutional grand jury, the BPGJ was composed of jurors chosen by the community, had proceedings that were open to the public, and provided a historical analysis for contextualizing Michael Brown’s death as a systematic occurrence.
By utilizing Ferguson as a case study, this Article seeks to provide an understanding of courts as important and central actors that produce and legitimize police misconduct, thus contributing to a sense of exclusion for communities of color. This entails a theoretical framework that does not assume courts are simply one entity of a broader legal system but, instead, seeks to situate courts as an integral body and state institution that legitimizes police violence against communities of color.
This Article also serves as an expansion of existing theoretical frameworks accounting for the fraught relationship between communities of color and formal legal structures. This analysis also acknowledges the agency demonstrated by the BPGJ, which emerged as a remedy for the community’s disillusionment with a formal legal structure that it felt was unjust. By developing a Critical Race approach that is attentive to notions of legal estrangement, procedural justice, and social movement theories, this Article develops an epistemological framework for understanding how communities of color, when faced with perceived illegitimate structures, seek to create their own. While the BPGJ had no legal standing, it would be a missed theoretical opportunity to not interrogate how it served as not only an indictment of Darren Wilson but, more importantly, as an indictment of the police, the courts, and—by extension—the legal system as a whole.