As I said in my last post, there is less to say about Ferguson than to ask about it. What follows are some of the questions that I think ought to be asked, divided into those pertaining to the shooting, and those pertaining to the protests, the riots, and the official response to them. In this post, I ask the questions without answering any of them, including the ones that I think can currently be answered. In a subsequent post, I’ll venture a few answers. The questions are, of course, far from exhaustive.
- The most obvious question to ask is what happened, and how do we know? An article in this morning’s New York Times provides an informative account, but what it describes are the findings of a highly qualified preliminary autopsy report, and an official police timeline. Here is what I regard as the relevant passage:
No matter what conclusions can be drawn from Dr. Baden’s work, Mr. Brown’s death remains marked by shifting and contradictory accounts more than a week after it occurred. The shooting is under investigation by St. Louis County and by the F.B.I., working with the Justice Department’s civil rights division and the office of Attorney General Holder.
I would be suspicious of any rhetoric that tries to do an end-run around this basic, axiomatic fact.
- It’s been alleged that there were “eyewitnesses” to the shooting. How many were there, and what exactly did they see?
- A meta-question about eyewitness testimony: how reliable is it, and how should we assess it in this case?
- A meta-question about police-generated testimony: how reliable is it, and how should we assess it in this case?
- Another set of meta-questions: must we always wait for the verdict in a criminal trial before we offer moral verdicts on a criminal case? After all, criminal trials can last for years—and if appeals are figured in, for decades. Will it only be permissible to discuss Ferguson after the last appeals are exhausted in the last case on the matter? Can’t evidence of guilt or innocence sometimes be sufficiently transparent as to justify a moral verdict prior to any official legal adjudication of the case?
- Is it ever justified to use a weapon against someone who’s unarmed? Is it ever justified to shoot such a person with a firearm?
- It’s been alleged that Michael Brown was robbing a convenience store before he was shot. Did Officer Wilson know this or not? Suppose he did know it. Is the fact relevant to the justifiability of shooting Brown or not? Suppose he didn’t know it. Could it still in principle be relevant?
- The Ferguson police released the video of Brown’s supposedly robbing the convenience store; others, including the Justice Department, have criticized this decision on the grounds that it encouraged rioting. Should information in a criminal case be suppressed simply because it will lead to rioting or violence (and for no other reason)? (Incidentally, what exactly does the video show? Robbery? Larceny? Battery? Police testimony aside, how many of us can be certain that the central figure in the video is Michael Brown?)
- Suppose that the evidence of Michael Brown’s being murdered by Officer Wilson turns out to be slim. Couldn’t it still be the case that he was murdered? How do we deal with the fact that the Officer Wilsons of the world can in principle get away with murder precisely because despite being guilty, evidence of their guilt is so inconclusive?*
- In many courts of law, a police officer’s testimony is regarded as more weighty than an ordinary citizen’s—even when the police officer is accusing the citizen of a crime, and the citizen is supposed to enjoy a presumption of innocence. If we apply that “principle” here, we reach the conclusion that Officer Wilson’s testimony ought to trump that of the eyewitnesses to the shooting. What inference should we draw?
The protests, the rioting, the response
- What, exactly, is the causal connection between the shooting and the rioting?
- Allegations have been made about the pervasive racism of the Ferguson Police Department, and of Ferguson in general. How good is this evidence, and how relevant is it to judging the police response to the protests?
- How much violence has there been, and how bad has it been in aggregate?
- Can it ever be justified to loot, vandalize, or riot? Suppose, for instance, that racism is Ferguson is pervasive, and has gone unaddressed for decades. Suppose, further, that rioting will bring this racism to light. Suppose that rioting is (as a matter of historical fact) the best way of publicizing racism and eliciting a response (cf. the Kerner Commission Report). Is rioting then justified?
- It’s been alleged that the police response to the protests has been excessive. What would a proportional response be or have been? As a conceptual matter, can a proportional response to a threat be insufficient to neutralize the threat?
- It’s been alleged that the police response to the protests has been indiscriminate as between protesters and rioters. Is discrimination possible or feasible? Again, as a conceptual matter, suppose that discrimination is feasible, but makes it impossible to neutralize a threat. Should discrimination be trumped by the need to neutralize the threat, or should the need to neutralize be trumped by adherence to the principle of discrimination?
- Do non-violent protesters have a moral or legal obligation to separate themselves from violent protesters, so as to facilitate the police’s capacity to neutralize the latter? (This question is really a special case of a more general one: do we have a moral obligation to refrain from taking actions that, though legal in themselves, facilitate illegality?)
- Is a curfew a justified response to what is happening in Ferguson? Suppose that it it’s not. Is it justified to defy the curfew? Suppose that it is. If a police officer tries to stop a curfew-violator, is that curfew-violator justified in using force against the police?
- A long-form question: As a historical matter, why have the police become so militarized in the United States? As a normative matter, is there any legitimate reason for militarization? (Reason Papers 36.1 isn’t live yet, but I’m tempted to link to parts of our Waco symposium for this question.)
- Is there a general problem with police non-accountability in the United States, extending beyond Ferguson, and beyond issues of race?
- A deep theoretical question: is there any reason to believe that what happened in Ferguson could not have happened, in substantially** the same way, under anarcho-capitalism? Would anarcho-capitalism have made things better–or worse?
*PS. In asking this question, I don’t mean to be implying that I believe that Wilson is guilty of murder. I mean: ex hypothesi, if he were guilty, evidence of his guilt might still be insufficient to convict him of murder.
** I had originally written “precisely,” but I meant “substantially.”