On August 9, in Ferguson, Missouri, an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. On November 24th, a grand jury decided not to charge Wilson with a crime for killing Brown. Both events sparked protests in Ferguson, and tensions have been high in the small town for months. This will almost certainly come up at your dinner.
Response: You can validate his frustration. After all, it is true that it was easy to predict that Wilson would not be indicted for Brown's death.
Underlying his comments is probably an understanding that the decision was made within a criminal justice system that is largely unfair to African Americans, whether they're suspects or victims.
However, there's no need for a conspiracy theory to explain this, no big secret to "wake up" to, and no carefully hidden, shady agreement that guaranteed a particular outcome in this particular case (at least as far as we know).
Especially now that the evidence the grand jury saw has been released, there's actually a certain amount of transparency about what took place.
Your father-in-law's sense of a "fix" might come from what he's heard about some controversial choices in the case. For example, prosecutor Bob McCulloch decided to use a grand jury to decide whether to indict Wilson, instead of simply issuing an indictment himself.
Beyond that, instead of presenting an advocate's case to the jury about what charge would be the best fit for Wilson, McCulloch chose to show the jurors every single scrap of available evidence and leave them to make their own decision about the appropriate charge, if any. This evidence included a large volume of witness statements that naturally have some inconsistencies, and allowed McCulloch to call the accounts of those who said Brown surrendered with his hands in the air and was shot in the back "unreliable."
It's true that his approach made it less likely that Wilson will be indicted, Kevin Curran, president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers told Vox in September. But the key thing for your uncle to understand is that, although the prosecutor's tactics have raised a lot of questions, few would argue that they were actually illegal.
So, the real tragedy for those who see the result as unjust is not that there was some shady backroom agreement. You might encourage him to focus his frustration less on what they decided and more on the legal system under which we all live. In any case, assure him there's no Thanksgiving detective work needed to understand what happened here.
Response: You can appeal to your uncle's sense of law and order by reminding him of this: police officers have to follow the law in the course of their duties, and there are specific guidelines that govern when it is okay to shoot to kill, and when it isn't.
People's anger that Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown has little to do with their level of respect for law enforcement workers, or whether they think their work is generally important or heroic.
Rather, the debate has been about whether the shooting was legal, according to the laws that govern Wilson's job — and whether those laws might need to change. As Vox's Dara Lind explained in a piece on what's called "justifiable use of force" by police officers, Supreme Court precedent and police department guidelines each offer standards that govern when a police officer can kill someone. Both kinds of standards boil down to an assessment of whether Wilson had an "objectively reasonable" belief that Michael Brown represented a threat at the time that he shot and killed him.
Maybe your uncle, like the grand jury, thinks that Wilson had an "objectively reasonable" belief that Brown put his life in danger. Others have come to different conclusions. Even now, with all of the evidence seen by the grand jury available to the public, there won't be a consensus on this topic. You can explain to him that this assessment has little to do with whether anyone likes, respects, or appreciates police officers in general.
Response: You can tell your cousin that he's right: destroying property cannot do anything to change a court's decision or improve the underlying conditions that have colored the response to Michael Brown's death and its aftermath. He's made a fairly superficial point about what happened in Ferguson when things took an unusually violent last night, with cars and building set on fire, and police reports of over 100 shots fired. Still, once you agree with your cousin's general premise — "yes, it's unfair to business owners," and "yes the community will suffer economically" — you might be able to encourage him to take a more nuanced look at the situation.
First, tell him that "rioting" is not a fair characterization of the Ferguson demonstrations as a whole. While it is true that looters destroyed property in the days following Brown's death, this wasn't a major feature of the majority of the protests. (It's also worth mentioning that Ferguson residents worked to stop the looting that did occur.)
What might have given the impression that protesters in August were violent was that police used militarized tactics, including tear gas, against peaceful protestors, and even arrested journalists who were reporting on the confrontations. Yes, there was chaos, but the term "riots" isn't an accurate description of what happened.
In November, on the other hand, the reaction to the grand jury deciding not to indict Wilson did lead to vandalism and arson. According to reporters on the scene, the crowd damaging property Monday night had little in common with the ones who had consistently demonstrated since August. MSNBC's Chris Hayes and others described the crowd from November as younger and less organized, than the overwhelmingly peaceful protesters who'd taken the lead after Brown's death.
Response: You can ask your niece what she knows about the case, and confirm that Brown is in fact the primary suspect in a robbery of a convenience store that occurred the day he was killed. However, you should mention that the police officer who shot him wasn't necessarily aware of that.
Ask her: even "bad guys" have a right to live, right? After all, it would be a very scary world if everyone who someone else decided was a "bad guy" got shot and killed.
Explain that we have courts, and juries, and judges, to make sure that if someone is punished, that punishment is as fair as possible. Generally, the size of the bad thing needs to match the size of the punishment. And in America, we don't kill people for things like robberies (or for using drugs — something else she might have heard Michael Brown did).
Also, discuss the idea that whenever someone calls someone else a "thug" or a "bad guy," we should always question whether they are really talking about that person's actions, or whether they are reacting to stories they have heard about people who are a certain gender, a certain age, or have a certain color of skin. Tell her that part of the reason this case got a lot of attention is that many people are worried that Brown's skin color — more than anything about the type of person he was — contributed to his being killed.