Since a St. Louis grand jury decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the court of public opinion has freely shared its own verdict. This includes the libertarian community, which seems to be split. That in itself is not unusual: as we all know, libertarians love to argue. But I find the reactionary nature of the disagreements to be unusual, and also disturbing. Some reflexively defend Wilson because Brown was “a thug”. Some reflexively condemn him because he is a cop. Others argue over the nature of the evidence. All of the aforementioned seem to be missing the point.

In short, the discussion is taking on the paradigm of the mainstream political dichotomy that libertarians, to be consistent, ought to reject. Whether one agrees with the jury’s interpretation of the evidence should not settle the issue for libertarians, because it does not strike at the root of the issue, which is that the jury’s interpretation of the evidence cannot be trusted. By definition, they are not impartial.

The problem goes much further than mere partiality. What is happening in this case is a gross conflict of interests. The defendant is a government employee, the defense team are government employees, and the prosecution team are government employees. Finally, we have a grand jury empaneled, advised, and at all times surrounded by government employees, including Wilson’s fellow police officers. Please step back from your impassioned arguments and your frustration with your interlocutors and ask yourself: can we really trust such a system to produce a fair decision?

Speaking of evidence, here’s some for my case: federal grand juries generally indict at rates as high as 99.99% (source, PDF), but when cases involving police violence are considered separately those rates do not apply. Federal grand juries are biased strongly in favor of the police, and with the author of the article to which I just linked, I presume that such a bias obtains at the state level as well. There is a straightforward reason for that bias that ought not to be controversial among libertarians: those who have the real decision making power in the government’s court system (civilian juries notwithstanding) cannot be trusted to render fair decisions in cases where the government or its agents are on trial.

The protesters in Ferguson know that it’s not fair. They know that courts do not treat police and civilians as equals in the eyes of the law. They know that despite decades of progress towards racial equality, blacks are incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites, especially in cases where a member of one race is accused of a crime against a member of the other. We may criticize their response to the non-indictment as criminal, immoral, and tragic, but we should not be surprised at it. People will not suffer systemic injustice forever, and that brings me to my reason for writing this: the problem is systemic. Completely regardless of the guilt or innocence of Darren Wilson, or of Michael Brown, and just as regardless of the appropriateness of the Ferguson protesters’ actions in this case, the justice system is utterly broken and incapable of living up to its name.

As libertarians, we claim to have a solution. We claim to know a better way. We claim to be the ones striking at the root of the tree of evil instead of hacking at branches. So why are so many of us responding as a community as though the most important question were whether Wilson was justified in shooting Brown? The real issues go much, much deeper than this case. We are dealing with a culture of violence created by the wars on drugs and poverty, intentional divisions between political (in this case, racial) groups, and legally established power disparities. Each issue deserves to be discussed in an environment free of the poisonous, divisive paradigm the state and its media henchmen would have us accept, and into which we have slipped too easily in discussing this case.