This morning, NPR reporter Shereen Marisol tweeted this photograph of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Clayton, Missouri, where a grand jury has just begun to hear evidence about the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson:
In Clayton (St. Louis county seat) Grand Jury to be seated. Protestors want prosecutor to step down. #Ferguson pic.twitter.com/IaqIw8CG2g— Shereen Marisol (@RadioMirage) August 20, 2014
This picture of police tape and armed officers blocking the courthouse is perhaps one of the most chilling images to come out of the Ferguson protests. The message to the people outside could not be clearer: "You are not welcome here. This place is not for you. It is for us." And messages matter, especially at times like this.
The Fourteenth Amendment promises that no American government, state or federal, will "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." For twelve straight days now, people have taken to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to tell their government that they feel that promise is not being kept, that the protection is not equal. That there are wrongful judgments being made about what kinds of people deserve the protection of our laws, and what kinds of people are an enemy to be protected against.
And in response, many of them have been tear gassed and menaced with snarling dogs. Threatened with rifles. Arrested.
And now those people find that the same police whose actions they are protesting have literally — physically — blocked their access to the courts. It's true that today's grand jury proceedings, like all grand jury proceedings, are secret. The people outside the courthouse could not attend them, even if the police were not blocking the doors. But the courthouse is not just for the grand jury, it is a place where people can go to file new cases, demand information about old ones, and observe other trials that are taking place.
You're not supposed to have to beg the police to let you pass so that you can file a complaint that those same police violated your rights. Our justice system is supposed to be public to those who want to use it, those who want to observe it, and those who want to demand that it step up its game.
No one would argue that people should be allowed to protest through the halls of justice. But there's something very wrong with the idea that the courthouse needs to be under police lockdown. Courtrooms are naturally contentious places, and trials often inspire public fervor, but the courts usually find a way to carry on their work without resorting to these kinds of measures. (I worked at the federal courthouse in Manhattan during a terrorism trial, for instance, and while there was security, there was no police line. People could come and go.)
I believe in the power of the justice system, despite its imperfections. It is easy to take courts for granted, but it is actually extraordinary that there is a room where ordinary people can stand up and demand that the full power of the state be brought to bear to protect their rights, even if they are nobody special, and even if that protection will inconvenience the powerful. That is what the protesters in Ferguson are asking for: a system that responds equally to the needs of Michael Browns and Darren Wilsons.
And this morning that demand was met with the wrong response: Police line. Do not cross.