Some thoughts on Ferguson

It’s more than a little irritating to spend two weeks in a socialist dictatorship that your own country spent the better part of a decade trying to overthrow, only to come home and find that there’s more tension at home than anything you encountered under the Sandinistas. I spent two weeks in Nicaragua with ten ‘diverse’ American undergraduates—three of them African-Americans, in a country where people of African descent are a miniscule minority—and didn’t encounter a single remotely untoward racial incident in the time I spent there. Then I come home, look at the front page of the newspaper, and discover that St. Louis and environs are exploding in race riots. Either this means that my brief absence from the US is apt to lead to a deterioration of race relations here, or it means that the United States is a seriously fucked-up country which hasn’t, in the two-plus centuries of its existence, been able to come to terms with the fact that some people are darker (or lighter) than others. I’m not about to become a Sandinista or move to Managua over current events in Missouri, but really, this is a bit much.

I count race and racism as among my official academic interests, and I’ll admit that there are days when the topic has an abiding intellectual interest for me, but at some level, I find the specifically American fixation on race and racism infantile, tedious, and boring. As a non-black and non-white person of seasonally-varying complexion, I sometimes wonder whether black and white Americans have any idea how narcissistic and neurotic the whole drama of American race relations looks to an outsider. And I regard myself as an outsider. The only interest it—the contemporary American race drama—has in the year 2014 is the interest that a bizarre and primitive tribe might have to a cultural anthropologist, or that a deeply neurotic person might have to a psychologist or psychiatrist. The pathologies seem interesting at first, but become wearing with time.

I say this as preface to a confession of sorts–namely, that almost everything I have to say about Ferguson is motivated by an unpleasant combination of boredom and contempt. I’m too suspicious of the racism and arrogance of our militarized police departments to want to cut them any slack. But I’m too suspicious of the mindlessness of identity politics to want to sympathize indiscriminately with anyone’s high-decibel list of racial grievances. It sounds self-serving, but I’m inclined to think that my ‘biases’ cancel one another out, and that my ennui gives me a kind of anthropological detachment from current events that approximates objectivity. Call it the doxastic equivalent of the ‘liberty of indifference.’ I recommend the approach to anyone willing to give it a try.

The truth is that there is very little to say about Ferguson, because we know so little about the incident that gave rise to the riots, and because so few of us know anything about the tactics required successfully to deal with a riot, either. Much of what is being said about Ferguson is either irresponsible nonsense or irrelevant filler, or both, and would be better left unsaid.

A bare-bones recap of the facts: The precipitating incident in the Ferguson riots is the shooting death of one Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in as-yet undetermined circumstances for as-yet undetermined reasons. Brown was black, and Wilson is white. There was a small handful of eyewitnesses to the shooting (presumably including Wilson), but it’s not entirely clear what they saw. One prominent story has it that Brown had has hands in the air in surrender when he was shot, and one story I read suggested that the police callously let Brown die without medical assistance. But eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, and I so far have not seen a detailed account of exactly what it is that the eyewitnesses even thought they saw. It’s interesting that though “activists” have insisted on the disclosure of Wilson’s name—and the media has published long, pointless pseudo-biographies of both Brown and Wilson—fewer people have insisted on knowing the names and biographical details of the eyewitnesses who claim to have seen the shooting, not that either set of disclosures would help (or has helped) anyone outside of the evidential loop figure out what happened at the scene.

Brown has been accused of robbing a store before Wilson’s having confronted and shot him; Wilson in turn has been accused of having murdered Brown in cold blood. Given the presumption of innocence, neither accusation can be dismissed or taken at face value: both might be true, neither might be true, or one might be true and the other false. So far, no evidence conclusively shows which of these possibilities was the case. In any case, the official police story is that Brown was stopped not on suspicion of robbery but for blocking traffic by jaywalking, so even if he did rob the convenience store, it’s not clear that his doing so played any role in Wilson’s shooting him. (Of course, it’s not clear that it didn’t, either. That’s the thing about unclarity: it leaves things unclear.)

The riots, though catalyzed by the Brown shooting, are (as riots typically are) a response to a long series of prior provocations (or perceived provocations) by the police. The grievances voiced by the community against the police—a history of heavy-handed treatment and racialized harassment—seem plausible to me, given my own experiences with the police in the NY-NJ Metro Area (I’ve never been to St. Louis, much less Ferguson), but they probably contain a mixture of truth and falsity; most of them are anonymous, most of them describe events that took place a long time ago, and no one has any rigorous way of checking the bona fides of anyone making the relevant accusations. Nor do the accusers have any expectation of being checked. In any case, even if the grievances are true, it doesn’t follow, and probably isn’t true, that the rioters are motivated by the desire to respond to or rectify them.

The heavily militarized response to the riots seems at first glance to be disproportionate to the rioting—the rationale for the recent curfew seems particularly feeble—but for all that you or I know, some of it has a plausible rationale. It’s hard for a non-expert to tell exactly what counts as proportionality in response to firebomb-wielding rioters. Of course, it’s also irresistible for a certain kind of military wanna-be to use military hardware that is just sitting there and almost asking to be used, whether or not there is a need to use it. Supply sometimes creates its own demand, in goods as in bads.

It’s understandable why the people directly involved in the events might be overwhelmed by their passions and might be apt to fly off the handle about what’s going on around them. If you’ve been racially harassed by the police, you know that the police are apt to harass people like you, and so, you’ll be particularly angry about what happened to Michael Brown: he could have been you–well, at least if you abstract from the possibility that he was in the middle of a robbery at the time he was shot (you would never rob a convenience store, and the possibility that he did so is just a ‘distraction’ from the ‘fact’ that he was ‘murdered’). So you’ll be apt to take to the streets in protest of his “murder,” and want people to join in your rage.

If your store has just been looted, vandalized, or destroyed, you’ve just lost your livelihood, at least temporarily, and it will be maddening to hear people sympathize with the protesters*, who will all sound to you like a bunch of looting, vandalizing whiners. You’ll want law and order to prevail, and prevail now. It won’t matter to you that protest is a legal activity, that those engaged in it are acting within the law, and that it’s incoherent for law-enforcement officers to arrest people for acting within the law. In that case, what difference would there be between rioters and police officers?

If you’re a police officer trying unsuccessfully to discriminate between rioters and law-abiding protesters, you’ll wonder why the protesters can’t do a better job of steering clear of the rioters, and you’ll wonder why there has suddenly developed a moral imperative for supposedly innocent protesters to be on the streets after, say, midnight to protest alongside bomb-throwers. The only truly innocent protester—you’ll think—watches the riots on TV and writes angry letters to the editor of the local paper after the fact. And so you’ll want a curfew, along with free rein to arrest or shoot anyone who violates the curfew. It might briefly occur to you that this is the kind of thing that is only supposed to happen in distant, primitive places with unpronounceable names like Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Israel, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and well, France. But that’s a pretty academic thought to have in the middle of a riot, and in my experience, criminal justice majors don’t have many of those, even in college classrooms.

If you put all three of these groups in a small, fraught, racialized space, and throw the press and a bunch of politicians into the mix—along with rogue elements within each group, and a few from some other groups—they will invariably collide with one another on the streets in a tragic-comic, Americanized re-enactment of a lite version of part I of Hobbes’s Leviathan. Which is what’s happening.

What is more difficult to understand is why people at a distance from Ferguson feel the itching need to weigh in on one or the other ‘side’ of the dispute without knowing—or apparently caring about knowing—what actually happened in the particular incidents that supposedly generated the ‘dispute’. Not that anyone, as of August 17, could conceivably know that. Already people are saying (as they said, and still say, about Trayvon Martin) that Michael Brown was “murdered.” But when was the trial? Already people are saying that he “robbed” a convenience store. When was that trial? (How many people have even seen the video?) One side thinks that the cause of justice is promoted by opposing the release of the video that supposedly shows Brown robbing the convenience store, on the grounds that the release of the video would “roil” the community. So facticity is to be sacrificed to communal passion. The other side thinks the cause of justice is promoted by imposing a curfew on Ferguson, then claiming that the curfew is not to be ‘enforced’ but offered as a series of exhortations, albeit by police officers wielding military hardware, and admittedly unable to differentiate between criminals of law-abiding citizens. These are the people who profess to be worried about the credibility of the police (“the world is watching”), find the militarization of civilian police work “unacceptable,” but reluctantly decide that civilian police work has to be militarized after all. So liberty is to be sacrificed to expediency, and expediency is to be upheld by incoherent rationalizations.

It’s said that truth is the first casualty of war, and that Ferguson looks like a war zone. I’m inclined to say that the first casualty of race war is the desire for truth, and that Ferguson is now ground zero in this country’s epistemic decline into a nation of race-based misology. What we need right now is not curfews per se (or the threat of lawsuits), but a curfew on declarations about Ferguson. There is little to say about Ferguson, but a lot to ask. In my next post, I’ll pose a few of the questions that in my view have not generally been asked about Ferguson and related topics, but need asking—and when the evidence comes in, need answering. But not before then.

*I had originally written “rioters,” but I meant to write “protesters.”

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Ferguson

  1. You’re quite right to say that we (or at least I) simply don’t know enough to form any firm judgments about much of what is happening in Ferguson. But while I haven’t much sympathy for looting, some of the coverage strongly suggests that the police force have dealt with the protesters — whom you rightly distinguish from the looters, unlike some of the discussion I’ve encountered — in an excessively harsh way that has escalated tension and done little to help the issue if not actually encouraged rioting. Granting all the points you make above, I think we are in a position to affirm that people are right to demand some sort of answers and accountability when an unarmed man is shot six times by a police officer, and that peaceful protests should not be met with a threat of military-style force. In that respect, it’s rather interesting to see what some veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have made of the fiasco: https://storify.com/AthertonKD/veterans-on-ferguson. These are the opinions of experienced — if not necessarily expert — people, and it’s worth keeping in mind that the military-style response they’re criticizing was directed already at the protests before any rioting and looting began.

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    • It’s not just that you or I don’t know enough to form firm judgments, but that no one does, and no one can. Not all of the relevant facts are not in, and the issues are too complex for anyone to have integrated all the facts that are in.

      I don’t disagree that the police have been excessively harsh. In my view, the idea of a curfew itself is itself unjustified, and so a fortiori is the policy of arresting people for “defying” it. (Latest news: the National Guard is about to take over.) But from what I’ve seen, discussion of harshness makes two large assumptions: 1) the police response should be “proportional,” and we all know what proportionality amounts to, 2) the police response should be discriminate, and it’s possible to be discriminate when dealing with crowds of rioters or looters. I think those claims should be converted into questions: 1) what does proportionality require? and 2) is discrimination possible?

      I absolutely think that we ought to ask questions and demand answers about why (how, etc.) Michael Brown was shot. But a question is a request for information, not a request to confirm a prior judgment. We need a moratorium on the talk of Michael Brown’s having been “murdered.” Right now even the preliminary autopsy reports are being offered with qualifications.

      I’ve got at least one more post on Ferguson coming.

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