It didn’t take long. Less than three weeks after the Michael Brown shooting, a lawsuit has been filed. Not, however, on behalf of the grieving family, but on behalf of several protesters and others who claim their civil rights were violated in the days that followed. It is an unfortunate fact of life that out of any tragedy comes not only opportunity, but opportunists.
The actual circumstances of the Michael Brown shooting are probably known to only one or two people – the officer involved and perhaps the friend of Michael who was with him at the time, assuming he wasn’t running, ducking or hiding during some portion of the event. Other eyewitnesses may have seen parts of the event, but as we all know, even the best eyewitness accounts tend to be flawed, somewhat tainted over time, and sometimes influence by outside factors and comments. But in the moments after the shooting, enough people came to believe, correctly or not, that Michael was “executed” in cold blood, that it led to a gathering crowd, calls for justice, and vocal protests. This is America, and that’s our citizens’ Constitutionally given right. Unfortunately, things got much worse before they started to get better.
First, the protesters became boisterous. Second, the police circled the wagons. Third, looting of businesses and destruction of property began. Next, the police responded vigorously under the belief that a show of power would settle things down. That strategy backfired. Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and the violence dissipated, destruction of property eased, and loud but non-violent voices were heard. All along the way, of course, many of America’s publicity-seeking “talking heads” appeared in town to get their close-ups on national TV. Among these “15 minutes of fame” individuals were several local “leaders”, some of whom don’t even call Ferguson residents among their constituents. However, I recognize that the issue of racial profiling and police aggression is larger than just Ferguson and their message has merit, and if they can convince a news outlet to cover them, then that’s great. What is more troubling are the out-of-town bandwagon jumpers, many of whom merely used these tragic events to further their own personal agendas. While most of the looters were not really protesters, but just individuals who lined their pockets under the guise of public anger, so too are some of the other opportunists.
Although the investigation into the shooting continues, and the grand jury presentation of evidence may take weeks to complete, the streets of Ferguson are slowing returning to some sense of normalcy, and some of the damaged businesses are re-opening. The news crews have left Ferguson for the most part, so there are no more cameras to stand before. That is the reason, I believe, that the opportunists decided to take another approach. While Michael Brown’s family somehow retained Trayvon Martin’s attorneys to represent them (although for some reason, I doubt they flipped open the Yellow Pages to find them), one can understand how the loss of a son would cause them to seek legal counsel. Suit, however, was quickly filed on behalf of the “victims” of various “civil rights violations” – in particular, five individuals out and about during the unrest — in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri (read the actual Complaint at: http://www.blfjustice.org/Ferguson%20Protestor%20Lawsuit-1.pdf) by a group of attorneys from the Black Lawyers for Justice, none of whom practice in the St. Louis area, lead by Malik Shabazz.
The claims in the civil rights suits filed by Mr. Shabazz and others relate to the police response during the early days of the post-shooting protests. Various individuals claim to have been manhandled (if not roughed up), threatened, unjustly arrested, etc. For each alleged indignity they suffered, millions of dollars of compensatory damages are sought, as well as millions of dollars in punitive damages. Once again, for the same reason that I can’t judge the merits of the prosecution of the officer who shot Michael Brown (having not heard all the evidence), I can’t judge the merits of the individual claims that some of the plaintiffs in this case may have. Quite frankly, we know some things got out of hand, and some individuals may have very legitimate claims, just as others may be personally responsible for bringing some police action or their arrests upon themselves. The most troubling thing about it all to me, however, is not even the seemingly opportunistic, ambulance-chasing approach taken here (how many attorneys rushed into Oklahoma City to sign up clients after the bombing there in 1995?), but a comment attributed to Mr. Shabazz on NBC News: “If they won’t police the people right, then we have to bankrupt them.”
That’s right. Shabazz intends to “bankrupt” the city of Ferguson. So out of all this tragedy, destruction and erosion of a once-proud municipality, we have a lawsuit that will make things…worse. Not only does Shabazz expect, I presume, to generate a decent legal fee from this litigation, he expects these damage claims to have the impact of putting Ferguson essentially “out of business”. So how does that help the local residents, businesses, the disenfranchised of Ferguson and other non-litigious protesters from Michael’s neighborhood? For the few plaintiffs who may actually be awarded damages, they’ll likely come out alright. Everyone else, however, beyond those who have already suffered greatly at the hands of looters (who almost certainly won’t be making any reparations or paying damages to those they hurt), will, instead, lose city parks, recreational facilities, street department services, lighting, the municipal library, etc., if Mr. Shabazz’ strategy prevails. Ferguson not only may be unable to provide services to its residents, but may have to terminate scores of city employees. This plan to bankrupt Ferguson, to essentially teach them a lesson, if successful, will ultimately leave the city in shambles, and will cause far more harm to its residents than it could ever help. And, of course, Mr. Shabazz and the other opportunists from out of town will be long gone by then, off to the next media circus that offers a chance for publicity.