The Ferguson Debacle

The Media

About ten years ago, I learned a valuable lesson in how some news reporters operate.  There had been a series of racially charged incidents between black and Hispanic residents in South Central Los Angeles, and on this particular day the friction erupted in a chaotic scene at a public high school.  Scores of students engaged in a melee on the campus at lunchtime, requiring a large police response to restore order.  Anxious parents, already aware of previous incidents at the school, heard the sirens and the police helicopter and flocked to the streets outside the campus, which remained closed while officers sorted out the mess inside the gates.


Out on the street, I watched as a Los Angeles Times reporter worked the crowd, scribbling on her notepad as she moved from one group of parents to the next.  Finally she came to one woman, the loudest and most obnoxious in the entire gathering, who railed on and on with complaints about the school, the police, and anything else she could think of while the reporter did her best to scratch it all down.  When the story appeared in the Times the next day, this was the only person found worthy of a lengthy quote, this despite the fact that I had seen the reporter speaking with any number of calmer, more reasonable people.  The reporter, and/or her editors, made the conscious choice to present only the most inflammatory version of what had happened at the school.

What we have seen on television since the death of Michael Brown is this same media mindset but on a far larger scale.  It’s not that the reporting out of Ferguson has been deliberately false, it’s that so much of it has been sensationalistic and produced with the clear objective of furthering controversy.  Controversy sells newspapers and draws viewers for television news programs.  And in the present case, it gives New York- and Washington-based reporters the opportunity to get out on the streets in flyover country so they can later pretend to understand what has happened.

There has been a competition among people in the media to see who can find the angriest person and haul him before a camera and a microphone.  This has resulted in some awkward moments on the air, as when CNN’s Don Lemon interviewed rapper Talib Kweli, who felt the newsman, in failing to properly introduce himself, had not accorded him the proper level of respect.  It’s hard to say which of them came away looking sillier, Kweli for his childish display of entitlement, or Lemon for his acquiescing to it.

Even worse has been the willingness displayed by reporters and talking heads to perpetuate the poisonous myth that the greatest danger facing young black men on America’s streets is the threat of police officers looking to shoot them without provocation.  Examples abound, but perhaps the most egregious I came across was on (where else?) MSNBC, where an exchange between Hardball host Chris Matthews, columnist Eugene Robinson, and attorney Michelle Bernard descended into absurdity when Bernard spoke of America’s “war on black boys.”


“Is somebody going to shoot me?” Bernard quoted her 11-year-old son as asking.  And she went further: “My daughter watched the news and looked at me and she said, ‘Why is it that they only do this to black people?’”

Pity the children being raised on such foolishness.  Even if one accepts the allegation that there was no legal justification for the officer to shoot Michael Brown, there remains the stubborn fact that for every black male killed by a police officer in the United States, about 60 are killed by other black males.  I suspect that both Matthews and Robinson know this, but neither of them dared challenge Bernard’s patent nonsense.  But why let reality get in the way of a good myth?

This desire to propagate the myth is manifested in other forms, as well, such as the suppression, or even outright distortion, of information that runs counter to it.  Witness NBC’s editing of George Zimmerman’s 911 call to police shortly before he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, and CNN’s on-air speculation that Zimmerman used a racial slur during the same call.  How long did it take before we saw photographs depicting the extent of Zimmerman’s injuries?  And recall the Duke lacrosse case, in which exculpatory evidence was suppressed not only by the media but even the prosecutor himself.

The repeated references to “unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown” are reminiscent of another racially charged incident from 1991.  How often did we hear the phrase “motorist Rodney King” back then?  Surely some people were given to believe “Motorist” was the man’s first name.  But it was easier to peddle the myth by labeling him a motorist than it would have been by telling the truth, which is that he was a paroled robber, drunk and perhaps high on PCP, fleeing from the California Highway Patrol at a hundred miles per hour.

And so it is with Michael Brown, the “gentle giant” who was revealed to have conducted himself less than gently while robbing a store of a box of cheap cigars just minutes before his fatal encounter with police.  It took a week for this information to come out, and even when it did, some in the media were all but apologizing for airing it.

Captain Ron Johnson

It was inevitable that when the protests that followed Michael Brown’s death devolved into violence and looting that someone would be found to replace Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson as the face of law enforcement in the city, and it was just as inevitable that the person chosen would be black.  Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol seemed ideal for the role.  He was a native of Ferguson, and he projected the air of calm confidence one hopes to see in a man placed in that situation.  When he enjoyed a day in the sun by marching along with protesters and promising a less confrontational approach by police, the strategy appeared to work, but only for one night.


The following night the shooters and looters were back, and when police did little to respond, in essence abandoning the business owners of the town to the appetites of a bunch of thugs, Johnson looked weak and ineffectual.  There is no better way to ensure that disorder will continue than by demonstrating that those who engage in it will suffer no consequences.

The demands placed on Johnson were daunting: he had to coordinate the police response from departments throughout the St. Louis area, meshing together hundreds of officers who may never have met each other, much less had the opportunity to train together.  And he had to be the PR man at the same time, showing the locals and the wider world that the police weren’t as bad as people had been led to believe.  All well and good, but when on Aug. 17 he appeared in uniform at a church event where Michael Brown’s family was present, he addressed them personally and said, “I’m sorry.”

The men and women under his command might well have asked, “Sorry for what, exactly?”  Had Johnson accepted as true the charge that Michael Brown was shot and killed without justification?  And he went on to describe his own son as a young man who “wears his pants sagging, wears his hat cocked to the side, got tattoos on his arms . . .”  In other words his son, with Captain Johnson’s blessing, apparently, chooses to adorn himself so as to emulate the very people Johnson was brought in to deal with: the looters and vandals who had been rampaging on the streets of Ferguson nearly every night for a week.  What was the value in the revelation about his son?

The speech went over big with the audience, who were often on their feet cheering and applauding, but anyone waiting for some words of condemnation, or even mild disapproval, for the looters would come away disappointed.

It’s all well and good to have a warm and fuzzy police spokesman be the public image of law enforcement, but somewhere away from the cameras there needs to be someone who, when chaos breaks out, can lead cops into the fray and bring order back to the streets.  Johnson is not that man.  You can lead the protest march or you can lead the police, but you can’t lead both.

The Police, “Militarized” and Otherwise

Last week on I wrote a post called “Lose the Camouflage, Please,” in which I criticized the soldierly appearance of many of the police officers facing off with protesters in Ferguson.  Camouflage fatigues have no place on the streets of any American city, regardless of the chaos that might be reigning.  But I erred in being critical of the sight of snipers aiming their rifles into crowds of what I had been led to believe were peaceful protesters (see “Media” discussion above).  Now we know there were armed men in those crowds, and that some of those purportedly peaceful protesters took a break from looting at night only for as long as long as it took to shoot someone.  This being the case, better for a police officer to be equipped with a rifle and perched up high than with a pistol at street level should the need arise to engage a gunman concealed among innocents.


And I reject the notion that the mere sight of a group of police officers, whatever their uniform and equipment, is somehow justification for ransacking a block of shops.  Yet this notion persists, even among some in law enforcement.  I recall the 2005 memorial service for Stanley “Tookie” Williams, who at long last had been executed for his role in four 1979 murders.  The service was held at a church in South Central Los Angeles, and a good many of the mourners were, like Williams himself, gang members.  At one point there was friction between some of these gang members and members of the LAPD who were there to keep the peace.  The time came for officers to form a skirmish line and move a large group of gangsters out of the street.  Incredibly, a senior LAPD commander, a man who had spent his career comfortably seated in an office chair, ordered officers not to wear their helmets and face shields out of fear of angering the crowd.  Yes, better for an officer to take a bottle to the head or a brick to the face than offend the delicate sensibilities of a bunch of gangsters.

Senator Rand Paul, his moistened finger held aloft in the political winds, is among the latest to add his voice to the debate.  Though he makes some valid points in a recent contribution to Time magazine, he crosses the line into naked pandering in his second paragraph.  “If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager,” he writes, “there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off.  But, I wouldn’t have expected to be shot.”  Does the senator believe Michael Brown was shot for merely “smarting off”?

The bottom line is this: the protective equipment worn by soldiers and police officers can have much in common, and it’s facile to say we should deny some piece of gear to a police officer just because it resembles something a soldier would use.  Just last week, LAPD officers used an armored truck to engage an armed suspect who had already shot at police.  The truck was riddled with bullets and a SWAT officer was seriously wounded, but the bloodshed surely would have been worse had the truck not been available.  (But still, please lose the camouflage.)

Al Sharpton

There is no carnival so vulgar that it cannot be made more so with the appearance of Al Sharpton, a man whose rise to prominence began with a fraud and has continued without a trace of shame along the same lines ever since.  His act is so predictable and so tiresome that by now it’s a wonder anyone pays attention to him at all.  He would leap over the dead bodies of all 60 black men killed by other black men to get to the one who had been killed by a cop, and his only concern in doing so would be to get there before Jesse Jackson did.  If he truly wanted to make a difference, if he wanted to improve the situation in Ferguson, he would have been out on West Florissant Avenue after dark last week instead of hunkered down in whichever five-star downtown St. Louis hotel he was staying in.  If he’s so magnetic and persuasive, if he’s such a leader and peacemaker, perhaps he could have stood in the path of the looters and implored them to change their ways and go home.  But he knows if he had dared to try that he would have been brushed aside or maybe even robbed himself as the mob sought out its next target.  The thugs just don’t care what Al Sharpton has to say, and he knows it.


The Death of Michael Brown

Finally we turn to the fatal encounter between Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson.  There is much left to learn about how Wilson came to shoot Brown, but if this case follows the recognizable pattern, i.e. evidence favorable to the officer initially suppressed but dribbling out bit by bit, the myth will suffer another setback as it did in the Duke lacrosse and George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin cases.

But even with the limited knowledge we have, we know there are only two basic scenarios the encounter could have taken.  The first, the one favored by Al Sharpton and the myth-makers, is that Officer Wilson, angered at being disrespected by an “unarmed African-American teen” who refused to get out of the street after being told to do so, shot Brown in cold blood just to teach him a lesson.

The other scenario is that Officer Wilson, after telling Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson to get out of the street, was so completely surprised by the ferocity of Brown’s reaction that he feared for his life.  Witnesses describe a struggle at the police car (actually an SUV) and a gunshot.  Did Brown try to wrest the officer’s handgun away from him before running away?  If so, Wilson had every reason to fear Brown, a man perhaps twice Wilson’s size, would do so again if allowed to come near.  (Think it can’t happen?  Watch this.)

It’s no doubt true that Officer Wilson was unaware of Brown’s role in the robbery minutes earlier.  It makes no sense that he would attempt to stop Brown and Johnson by himself if he knew they were suspects in a robbery.  But of course Brown did know about the robbery, and we can assume that in his mind there was more at stake in the encounter with Wilson than a mere ticket for walking in the street.  Brown thought he would be arrested – and what an improvement that would have been over the way things turned out.

It may be that the cigar robbery was the first and only crime Brown committed in his young life, but I doubt it.  We’re told he had no criminal record as an adult, but he was only months past his 18th birthday.  Is there evidence of previous violence in his juvenile record?  We don’t yet know, as juvenile records are ordinarily kept under seal.  But investigative journalist Charles C. Johnson has sued for access to Brown’s.  And even if Johnson fails in his legal battle, these things have a way of coming out, often despite the myth-makers’ best efforts.


Even without Brown’s juvenile record, we have a way to surmise whether the cigar caper was his first foray into crime or the work of a more seasoned thief.  In watching the video of the robbery, note how casually Brown shoves the store clerk out of the way, and note how effortlessly he relied on his large size to turn and intimidate the man before leaving the store.  I want these cigars, there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop me from taking them, and heaven help you if you try.

And consider: Wouldn’t a first-time robber be more circumspect in making his getaway than to walk down the middle of the street and virtually invite attention from a passing cop?  My guess is that when Brown’s past is more fully revealed, a strong-arm robbery will not stand out as the worst of his misdeeds.

What Next?

A grand jury will weigh the evidence and decide if Officer Wilson should face charges, and the political pressure is such that an indictment is all but inevitable.  Targets of grand jury investigations are not represented in the proceedings, so with the panel hearing only from prosecutors the deck is stacked in their favor.  But prosecutors are ethically bound to present all exculpatory evidence known to them, and if more such evidence is revealed an indictment is much less certain.

And if Wilson is indicted, there’s not a chance in the world he’ll be convicted, that is unless the jury is made up of nothing but MSNBC viewers or veterans of the O.J. Simpson jury.  Pathologist Michael Baden, who conducted an autopsy on Brown’s body at the request of his family, all but guaranteed an acquittal when he said Brown could have been shot while charging at Wilson.  All the reasonable doubt Wilson needs is right there.

More trouble lies ahead for Ferguson.  The only question is whether it will come sooner rather than later.  Stay tuned.


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