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What Ferguson Is "About"

Just now I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post titled, "Ferguson Isn't About Black Rage Against Cops; It's White Rage Against Progress."  The gist of the column, written by an associate professor in the African American studies and history department at Emory University, is that what's sparking the controversy isn't the shooting itself, nor the looting and violence thereafter, nor even any national concern about where we are, after all these years, with black crime and white police.

Nope, it's about how Ferguson "shows us" that white people still want to subjugate blacks a la' slavery (or as close as whites can get to slavery).  They want to do this by such vicious means as efforts "to dilute African American voting strength [through, e.g., voter ID laws] or seek to slash the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment."

The article is, in its way, just the most recent in a long line of furious, Sharptonesque attacks on whites, not dissimilar to the one I noted before arguing that what Ferguson is "about" is that whites had better cough up reparations.  But there's a more fundamental point about the vocabulary in which this entire discussion is being conducted.

Ferguson is the name of a town in Missouri.  It isn't "about" anything until we know what happened.  If you're reading something purporting to tell you what Ferguson is "about," or "the lessons of Ferguson," or "how to avoid the next Ferguson," put it down.  It's just using the word "Ferguson" to appropriate your attention to an agenda that's been around for years.

Those actually interested in knowing what Ferguson is "about" are still waiting. Waiting is annoying, for sure, but old-fashioned qualities like patience, maturity, authentic curiosity and fair play demand it.  If Ferguson turns out to be about a cop who shot a muscular, huge, enraged 18 year-old charging at him from a few seconds away, then it's "about" one thing.  If it shows a cop who shoot a huge, muscular 18 year-old who wanted nothing but to peacefully surrender and posed no realistic threat, then it's "about" something else.  In neither event is it necessarily about an issue with national resonance, although it might be, depending  --  again  --  on those pesky specifics.

For the moment, we are left to regret that, even as we're still in the dark about the most important facts,  the now standard-issue charge "KKK" gets hissed at those, white or black, who want to see that legitimate voters are the ones voting, and take at least a stab at paring back the government's sinkhole debt. If liberals are ever again able to make their arguments without this kind of opportunistic, race-baiting calumny, please, someone, jab me in the ribs.


Politically and socially, it is "about" people on both sides (of the political/social chasm in America) using it to further their own agenda. Although it does appear that people on the Left seem to using Ferguson (as a means to achieve their end) to a greater extent than those on the Right.

But, as you so aptly state, legally speaking (at least if criminal or civil liability is the gauge) it is, at this point, "about" nothing.

paul --

The odd thing is that this episode cannot RATIONALLY be used by either political side for any purpose until there is solid evidence of what exactly happened (and, for reasons I'll explain, very likely not then either).

Viewing one episode as emblematic of a broad social phenomenon is very, very problematic. Let's assume that Brown was a strong-arm thief who thought he got the drop on the cop and bullrushed him in order to beat the daylights out of him. That would indicate that Brown was a bad guy, but it would not indicate that black teenagers are bad guys. In fact, the great majority of them act like all other teenagers, and using one episode to paint all of them in a bad light is grossly unfair and misleading, not to mention bigoted.

Similarly, let's assume that Brown was (so far as the officer knew) doing nothing worse than walking down the middle of the street; got pulled over for that reason; and, at the time he was shot, was approaching the officer slowly to comply with the officer's orders -- at which point the officer blasted him a half-dozen times, possibly out of misjudgment, possibly out of spite for being "dissed," and possibly out of racial animus.

That would indicate something from unfortunate to despicable about this officer, but would not teach any "broader" lesson. The huge majority of police interactions, with persons of any race, are -- if not totally amicable (given the nature of police work) -- peaceable and civilized.

What's going on with this case to date is that some people (mostly on the Left, as you correctly point out) are simply assuming their preferred version of events (which is its own intentional misdirection), then extrapolating from that (another misdirection) to build the narrative they've been pushing for years.

In the case of the WaPo op-ed that is the subject of this entry, the narrative is that white people are in a state of rage that they ever had to give up slavery, and are intent on bringing it back by whatever means (mostly subtle but sometimes not) they can get away with. That narrative is false, defamatory and bigoted and, frankly, unhinged. But the person who writes it gets a good chunk of space in a national newspaper, and teaches at a very good university.

For academia, for the culture, and for basic truth-telling, this is a really bad sign.

Decency evolves: I agree that it is too soon to know for sure, but what we may have is a systemic problem with police misconduct in Ferguson:


If so, speculation about Michael Brown "bull rushing" or "bum rushing" an officer who has just shot at him or shot him may prove as inaccurate as false accounts that the officers eye socket was broken in a struggle with Brown. If the prosecution can't figure out whether witnesses or the officer is telling the truth, there is a single way to resolve this: through a criminal trial.

Decencyevolves --

1. The filing of a lawsuit alleging misconduct is just that -- an allegation. One thing I learned in my roughly 20 years as a litigator is that anyone can file a suit about anything.

2. Conspicuously absent from the WaPo story is any statement that the plaintiffs won the suits they filed, or that the suits were settled in a manner favorable to them.

3. None involves Darren Wilson, so, apart from (1) and (2), none reflects on his behavior, either generally or, certainly, in this instance.

4. Assuredly my speculation about this case is just as reliable as anyone else's, which is to say it's simply speculation. Of course my whole point was that the author of this "white-people-want-slavery-again" article is assuming her own speculation to be true, which is ridiculous.

5. You say: "If the prosecution can't figure out whether witnesses or the officer is telling the truth, there is a single way to resolve this: through a criminal trial."

There are two errors there. First, in order to seek an indictment, the prosecutor must have probable cause to believe the prospective defendant committed a crime. You can't have probable cause if you are in equipoise about which witnesses are telling the truth. A prosecutor who seeks an indictment based on accounts he does not credit is at least arguably guilty of professional misconduct.

Second, the purpose of a criminal trial is not to settle a heated and public dispute. It is to bring to justice a person the petit jury finds beyond a reasonable doubt has committed every element of a stated offense. Moreover, if there were an acquittal (which there well could be given the conflicting accounts), it will settle nothing.

In order to see this, remember two other inter-racial criminal cases: OJ Simpson and George Zimmerman. Both were acquitted, but essentially nothing got settled.

There were several reasons for this, but the structural reason relevant to this case is easy to state: An acquittal is not DESIGNED to definitively resolve the truth. It means nothing more than that the government failed to prove, to the unanimous satisfaction of the jury, that the defendant did it BRD. It can remain highly likely -- and it often IS highly likely -- that the defendant is factually guilty anyway, but got off because the prosecution fumbled the ball (or the court did, see, e.g., Evans v. Michigan, 568 U. S. ____ (2013)).

I am way too cynical as I think Ferguson is a non story largely because no one really knows what happened. For what it is worth my good friend hoccam's razor is usually right for this types of things and the simplest answer is our officer probably legitimately feared for his life - gunning down a surrendering suspect just requires too many illogical steps. Maybe it was unreasonable per the law but I personally am not one to monday morning quarterback those in the line of fire.

And meanwhile Russia conquers eastern europe and ISIS kills thousands. ...

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