Ripples of Ferguson

ferguson_police_tape_12-7-14-1 Police tape in front of smoldering remains of Prime Beauty Supply in Ferguson in the aftermath of riots. Photo taken on 11/25/14 by R. Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com.

There is some blame to go around in nearly all racial confrontations. Why the body of Michael Brown was left in the street for hours seems inexplicable. The apparent chokehold that contributed to the death of Eric Garner, with the benefit of video hindsight, does not seem to square with the de facto exoneration of the officer involved. In contrast, there has been absolutely no credible evidence that the unfortunate shooting of Michael Brown was not in self-defense.

Instead, most of the protests about Ferguson are based on untruth and the lessons are therefore surrealistic. Indeed, the reductionist messages of Ferguson from the street, the media, and the Justice Department seem to appear twofold. In hindsight, Officer Darren Wilson apparently made two postmodern mistakes. One, when he saw Michael Brown strangely walking down the middle of the street -- and collated that behavior and his appearance with breaking information of a suspect on the loose who had just strong-armed a clerk and robbed the store -- he stopped to investigate. Had Wilson simply waved and passed Brown by -- and ignored the prior possible felony act and the misdemeanor that he was watching in progress -- then Brown would never have had an opportunity to assault him. Brown would not have been shot. And the Ferguson chain of events would never have been jump-started on that particular day.

Some of the public may think that the lessons of Michael Brown -- and Trayvon Martin -- are that it is unwise to commit a crime and then assault an officer, or confront a stranger in the rain and slug him in the head and get into a tussle, given that such targets may be armed and may respond with deadly force. But I think critics would privately respond that in Al Sharpton’s America both cases instead advise to take the beating and do not dare use a firearm for self-protection from assault on the chance the attacker is unarmed. In retrospect, Zimmerman might have preferred to have been “whoop-assed,” or Wilson preferred being slugged than to become lifelong targeted pariahs.

So Wilson's second apparent error was in winning the fight over Brown for his gun. Had he allowed Brown to beat him, then Wilson might well have had a chance of surviving the wounds, and thus he might now still be a policemen with a career rather than ostracized, in danger, and unemployed. Neither the community nor the media would have found newsworthy the shooting or beating of a white policeman by an African-American youth -- in the manner that the murder of two California sheriffs by a twice-deported illegal alien was one-day news. In contrast, once Wilson stopped Brown and once he managed to wrestle his gun back into his own control, then the options narrowed as Brown charged and the inevitable shooting ensued.

So another unspoken lesson from Ferguson may be that unarmed assailants such as Brown -- or Trayvon Martin -- can, just as armed suspects, pose as great challenges to those who confront them, in the sense that being assaulted by them might now be seen as preferable to using a firearm in self-defense, with the subsequent ruin that follows.

Note further that the community of Ferguson dissenters was not much worried that strong-armed robbery occurred, or that a town cannot long exist with youths walking in the middle of the street under the influence or assaulting police officers, or disobeying orders to cease and desist, or postfacto rioting and looting as much as the fact that in the shoot-out, a white policeman shot a black unarmed assailant.  That fact, too, will be silently noted.

Will some law enforcement officials now surmise that it is wiser to ignore some crimes in the inner city on the practicable logic that the denouement for the officer will likely be negative -- either by stopping the assailant through force or not stopping the assault and thus being assaulted? If the suspect is unarmed but attacks, the post-Ferguson choice will either be to suffer physical harm or to respond in ways that may equate with the end of a career. So it may be preferable that the suspect is armed, at least in the sense that any resort to armed self-defense at least offers the hope of dodging the first bullet or two, while still escaping the specter of Ferguson justice. (Note the near contemporaneous case of an off-duty officer in St. Louis who shot an African-American assailant who had first fired but missed. The key fact of the case was that the assailant got in the first three shots and thus the protests that followed fizzled out before rioting.)

Critics might rightly point to Eric Garner and argue that he posed no threat to policemen; certainly, his misdemeanor merchandising of cigarettes was hardly worth a violent confrontation. Perhaps New York City policemen should have been able to find a way of arresting the obese and asthmatic 300-pound suspect without the use of a chokehold. And Garner’s pleas to allow him to breathe should have resulted in an end to pressures on his neck and throat. All that is true. But the fallout also suggests that if policemen cannot subdue a large African-American unarmed suspect -- with 30 prior arrests including larceny, resisting arrest and assault --  who resists arrest, without using force that in theory could threaten his safety, then they logically will just ignore the crime.

If you are a libertarian, a street full of enterprising Garners, even if prior felons, working, profiting and breaking senseless laws is a tolerable thing; if you are a traditionalist of the broken-windows school of law enforcement, then openly defying the laws, even petty laws, undermines all law. I point this out again not to judge the police or Garner, but simply to note the likely effect of all these cases is for police to red-flag these landscapes and to pull back from certain criminal scenarios, both major and petty --  a fact that will be known to society at large.

That 5,000 to 6,000 African-Americans are murdered each year, the vast majority by other blacks -- more than the aggregate American dead in Iraq from of five years of intense fighting -- is not so important as the single death of Michael Brown, at least as evidenced by media and community reactions. Also not important is the disproportionality of African-American crime rates in which a small fraction of the population -- young, male African-American -- is largely responsible for 50% of annual homicides committed. The disturbing lesson is not that it is an outrage that African-Americans are gunned down in catastrophic numbers, or that African-Americans commit and suffer murders at rates far higher than other ethnic and racial groups, even allowing for comparable low-income population subsets, or that in rare white-black crime, African-Americans are far more likely to be the perpetrators, or that police fatal shootings of suspects are relatively rare and do not disproportionately focus on African-Americans, at least in light of crime statistics that might explain the more likely landscapes in which police are confronted with violent criminal suspects.

Instead, in the world that Al Sharpton envisions, the rules of police and citizen conduct that unleash popular furor would be something like the following. Of all the many racial and firearm-related violent scenarios -- armed blacks shooting armed or unarmed blacks or whites; unarmed blacks attacking armed or unarmed blacks or whites; armed whites shooting armed or unarmed blacks or whites -- only one merits national, even global outrage. Whatever the circumstances of the confrontation or the level of prior violence inflicted, armed whites, either private citizens or law enforcement officials, must not under any circumstances shoot unarmed blacks.  Again, that is an empirical observation, not one of judgment.

Note well that last week a Bosnian immigrant was beaten to death by young African-American and Latino teens. Other such black-on-white cases are said to have preceded and followed the murder.  The usual official bureaucratese followed the shooting: that such targeted violence had nothing to do with race, that it could not be a hate crime, and that it was not associated with Ferguson, etc. Was there rioting or a Justice investigation over the unwillingness of authorities to cite this as a hate crime? Certainly, two messages were implicit about the killing of Zemir Begic: had he been African-American and his assailants white, Ferguson-like violence may well have followed; and had he had a gun and shot his hammer-welding attackers, he might well have found as bleak a future as did George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson for shooting and killing an attacker who did not wield a firearm.

By racializing crime and the reactions to it, and by dismissing facts in lieu of racial stereotyping, the Al Sharpton school of racists has more or less redefined both race relations and criminal justice itself.

In a blink of an eye, we have gone from Barack Obama citing Ferguson at the United Nations; to the father-in-law of Michael Brown, in front of a crowd on the verge of rioting, screaming into a mike “burn this bitch down”; to Louis Farrakhan all but calling for a race war: “But when we die and they die, then soon we gonna sit down at a table and talk about – we tired. We want some of this earth. We tear this God damn country up.”

Just as the ethics reformer in the White House has left a legacy of unprecedented presidential scandal, so too the racial healer has presided over the greatest erosion in racial relations in the last half-century. That is the lesson of Ferguson -- and the Fergusons to come -- and the backlash outrages to the Fergusons to come -- and on and on and on.