The Battle of Ferguson
It might not go down in history along with Bunker Hill and Fort Sumter, but little Ferguson, Missouri, has become a surprise flashpoint in America’s seemingly endless race conflict.
By now we all know the story — or at least we think we know it. Yet another unarmed black teenager (almost a cliché by now in mainstream media parlance) was gunned down by a white man with a presumption of authority. Did the black teenager deserve to die? Of course not. Was he a victim of white racism, a casualty of America’s unofficial caste system? Well, that’s where the story gets complicated.
Here’s what we know. Michael Brown, a hulking 18-year-old black youth who was two days away from entering a nearby technical college, had been strolling down the middle of the street in broad daylight with his friend Dorian Johnson. Ferguson cop Darren Wilson, a white officer who happened to be cruising by in his patrol car, saw that the guys were blocking traffic and ordered them to move over to the sidewalk. A scuffle broke out at the car door, and the cop sustained some minor facial injuries. “Big Mike” Brown tried to get away, prompting Wilson to step out of his car. Brown turned around; Wilson fired several shots at the youth, who was facing him when the bullets hit. Brown crumpled to the sidewalk, mortally wounded, and his body lay there uncovered for hours while cops and neighbors converged.
The community quickly roused itself to action, Rev. Al Sharpton and the news media arrived on the scene, President Obama denounced the shooting but called for calm, and looting promptly ensued. Ferguson’s white police chief, Tom Jackson, sounding flustered, kept modifying the details of the incident and raised suspicions among skeptics who already wondered why a majority-black town would have only three black cops on its 53-person police force. Captain Ron Johnson, a black state highway patrolman and a former resident of Ferguson, was brought in to help keep the peace. An impressive speaker and commanding authority figure, he worked his magic at first but ultimately watched in despair as the demonstrations spiraled out of control. Tensions escalated after the police chief finally named the officer who shot Brown — and simultaneously released a surveillance video that purportedly showed Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store and shoving a plucky little clerk who tried to stop him.
Here’s what we don’t know.
1. Did Officer Wilson spot the cigars in Mike Brown’s hand and link him to the recent robbery… or was he oblivious to Brown’s crime?
2. Did Brown think he was being stopped because of the robbery and (therefore) in imminent danger of arrest?
3. Did Brown and Wilson exchange angry words at the car door?
4. Did Brown punch Wilson in the face? It’s unlikely that his injuries were self-inflicted, yet in all the media coverage I watched — and I watched plenty — the question never came up. This despite the fact that we knew Wilson had been treated for facial injuries at a local hospital.
5. Did Wilson slam his door against Brown, then try to pull him inside the car, as Dorian Johnson reported, or did Brown reach inside and try to grab Wilson’s gun, as the police insisted?
6. Did Brown run from the car because Wilson fired a shot at him, or was he simply trying to avoid arrest?
7. When Brown swiveled around and moved toward Wilson, was he throwing up his hands to surrender or itching to settle some unfinished business?
8. Did Wilson mistake a gesture of surrender for a gesture of aggression?
9. Finally, did Wilson coldly take aim and shoot to kill, or did he fire at the kid in a haze of stress and adrenaline?
As you can see, Michael Brown’s death is accompanied by a flurry of question marks. Anyone who tries to concoct an unambiguous, ideologically correct script from this sequence of events is just blowing smoke. And there’s been plenty of smoke in the air aside from the tear gas.
While I watched and reacted to the ensuing Battle of Ferguson, the themes that popped into my head were as numerous as the question marks. No doubt these themes reflect my own prejudices (yes, Virginia, a moderate can be prejudiced!), but I’ll let you judge for yourself whether I’m off the mark.
White-on-black killings garner wildly disproportionate media attention. Statistics tell us that blacks are approximately 40 times more likely to kill whites than whites are to kill blacks. Surprised? When young black males shot a white toddler in his stroller, beat an 80-something white veteran to death, and murdered a white female honor student at the University of North Carolina, the killings barely rated a news blip. Contrast that with CNN’s exhaustive coverage of the Michael Brown killing, preceded by solemn funereal music before each segment and equally solemn reflections on race bias in America.
Why the disparity in coverage? No doubt it’s connected to the fact that when blacks are killed by whites, the shooters tend to be white men in positions of authority (or, as in the case of George Zimmerman, mixed-race men in positions of assumed authority). Still, a little more balance in coverage would help us see that black people aren’t the exclusive victims of violence — or even race-based violence — in this country.
Are African American lives less valued than white lives? You’d never know it from the scant media coverage of black-on-white murders in relation to white-on-black killings. But we hear even less about black-on-black murders, an everyday occurrence in our big cities. I suspect that anyone living in poverty, regardless of race, is deemed marginally less important, consciously or not, than people of means. Obviously this is unacceptable. Everyone’s life is sacred, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.
Cops need to use their guns more sparingly. Even a murder suspect is entitled to trial by jury, but too many cops short-circuit the process by acting as spontaneous executioners. They have plenty of non-lethal weapons at their disposal. Unless their lives are in immediate danger, they should avoid using lethal force.
Blacks aren’t the exclusive victims of white cops. Practically nobody heard about the unarmed 20-year-old white parole-breaker in Utah who was shot dead this past week by police because he didn’t hear their command to halt. (He was wearing headphones at the time.) No doubt blacks are targeted for instant execution more frequently than whites, because their neighborhoods are more crime-ridden and therefore more heavily patrolled. But trigger-happy cops who shoot first and ask questions later aren’t averse to bagging white suspects.
American police seem to be morphing into paramilitary commandos. What’s with the camo uniforms and heavy artillery? What’s next, grenade launchers? Tanks rolling down the streets of unruly neighborhoods? It used to be that police kept a community safe from the few predators in its midst. Now it seems that police operate with an adversarial attitude toward their communities — especially black communities. After violence broke out during the otherwise peaceful demonstrations in Ferguson, the authorities rolled in like an army of occupation. Local police aren’t the National Guard, nor should they be.
Granted, police work is dangerous, and these guys have a right to protect themselves against bodily harm. But the display of force needs to be proportional to the perceived threat. An organized protest with a few outbreaks of looting shouldn’t provoke a military-style occupation. Much of the animosity between blacks and police could be defused if the cops actively cultivated better relationships with the communities they’re sworn to protect. If they did, maybe young blacks would stop regarding the law as something alien and oppressive.
Too many blacks reflexively close ranks around their own people, right or wrong. It goes beyond the universal human sympathy for one’s own tribe; it’s more of a defensive refusal to admit, at least in public, that black people can be flawed. When the Ferguson police department released that incriminating video of Michael Brown’s “strong-arm” robbery, nearly every black person interviewed on CNN decried it as character assassination. Yes, the video may or may not have had any bearing on the shooting, the timing was insensitive, and obviously nobody deserves to die for stealing cigars. But the impulse among CNN’s black commentators was to blame the messenger rather than concede that Brown might have been something other than an innocent victim.
No doubt this attitude stems from centuries of being shoved into society’s lowest niche, and it’s understandable up to a point. But more blacks should feel free to speak out against the miscreants who drag their community down. It’s not treason to denounce thugs, crooks and bullies.
The surveillance video was relevant. No, it doesn’t excuse the shooting, but it reveals that Michael Brown felt entitled to break the law and use his physical bulk to intimidate others. If he grabbed and shoved a convenience store clerk who challenged his theft, he was capable of using physical force when confronted by a cop.
Nearly every pernicious stereotype came to life. A big black youth stealing and using physical force, then blocking traffic by walking down the middle of the street. A trigger-happy white cop. A mostly black community using bad news as an excuse to loot local businesses and commit mayhem. Clueless white officials attempting to understand black anger. Black demonstrators screaming about black victimhood. Militarized police tear-gassing, harassing and arresting journalists and peaceful protestors.
Sad commentaries, all of them. I felt immensely relieved when I saw that Dorian Johnson refused to keep the cigars that his friend “Big Mike” handed to him at the convenience store. He reportedly told Brown, “I don’t steal,” and the surveillance video showed him putting the cigars back on the counter before they left. Let’s hear it for the breakers of stereotypes.
Black communities see too many of their kids die violent deaths. That goes without saying. Most killings within the black community are inflicted by other blacks, just as most white murder victims meet their fate at the hands of whites. But the spectre of violent death is a perpetual presence in poor black neighborhoods. No doubt the black underclass becomes sensitized, especially when death comes to their kids at the hands of the reviled police. Among African American families, giving a teenage son “the talk” (i.e., how to avoid getting into hot water with the cops) is a traditional rite of passage.
Officer Wilson could have stopped Brown without killing him. A new eyewitness report asserts that Brown punched Wilson, tried to grab his gun, ran as if to escape, then turned around to taunt him and start rushing at him. This is essentially what Wilson himself reported. If the account is true, Wilson had every right to act with force. But he had to know that Brown was unarmed. He could have crippled Brown with a shot or two to the legs, then knocked him unconscious before clapping him in handcuffs. Instead, he fired four shots into the youth’s right arm, and as Brown continued to charge at him (or stumble toward him), blasted him twice in the head. Maybe Wilson panicked, but a trained police officer needs to keep his poise under pressure.
So was Michael Brown murdered, or was his death the unfortunate result of his own confrontational tendencies? As it often does, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Given the conflicting eyewitness reports, the events are still shrouded in smoke, subjectivity and bias. It’s almost impossible to judge intent on the part of either Brown or Wilson. My own predictably moderate opinion is that Mike Brown deserved to get his comeuppance — but that comeuppance should have taken the form of arrest instead of sudden death, as it should in the vast majority of confrontations with police.
As some commentators have suggested, it might be time for police to wear video cameras on their uniforms. Every confrontation would be recorded so that we’d avoid those maddening “we said, they said” eyewitness discrepancies. Video recordings would also have a restraining influence on both cops and perpetrators, and that can only be a good thing.
Meanwhile, the once-obscure town of Ferguson, Missouri, has taken its place alongside Selma, Birmingham and South Central L.A. as a milestone in the history of American racial strife. More than a week after the killing of Michael Brown, the rage shows no signs of subsiding.
Will the anger and agitation explode into a bloody race war? Will white people be regarded as fair game when they stray into black neighborhoods? Will half a century of civil rights progress sputter out like a flickering torch in the rain? Probably not. But here’s what worries me: if we’re not careful, the Battle of Ferguson could signal a final, irreparable emotional rift between blacks and whites in America. We’d no longer trust one another; we’d shore up our defenses. And that would be a national tragedy. Let’s not let it happen.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.