What We Learned From Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Ferguson (Part 1)

Reading Time: 6 minutes

I enjoy discussions with friends.

Last week, I had a conversation with friends about Ferguson, MO and the aftermath of the Darren Wilson decision.

Yahoo story on Ferguson:


We explored police misconduct, misguided protests, and suggestions for how blacks (and America at large) can move forward.

This article will not focus on whether officer Darren Wilson should have been indicted (uncertain, but there are enough questions that cries for further investigation are not unreasonable). The activity surrounding the events in Ferguson—the riots, media slant, and political activism—is what you will find here.[[MORE]]

The Eric Garner situation, which probably warranted an indictment, is experiencing some spillover from Ferguson. Although they are completely separate incidents with their own nuances, much of what is said in this article applies to that series of events as well.

I’ve highlighted excerpts from the conversation, with my comments following. Some excerpts are exact quotes from members of the conversation, others are paraphrases. I’ve maintained the unfiltered, politically-incorrect tenor of our conversation to maintain authenticity and readability.

One friend said the following, on why he’s annoyed with the coverage of the protests…..
“Consider the following statements:
1. Black people riot when police kill a black person in a situation where they perceive the police officer’s use of force as excessive
2. White people riot when their favorite sports team wins/loses a big game (mainly because predominantly white riots are carried out by white college students)
In both types of riots, the affected community experiences high levels of property damage, etc., but note that people don’t use white riots as evidence of pathological behavior or cultural problems in white people.”

My response:

Agreed, although those sports riots tend to be isolated incidents and they are
 much more common in Europe. Ferguson has been a prolonged 
event and, like all of those “Occupy” protests, has no specific objective.
“Talk more about race” is not sufficient—too vague. Even “discussing police misconduct in minority communities” is too general. People need a defined target to achieve change. Singular focus moves mountains.

Unfortunately, when people turn on the television, they see stories of black criminal behavior. It “colors” the image of black people so that these sort of protests are seen as “more of the same” rather than one-off, emotionally-charged experiences you equate with sports riots.

Is it fair? No, but it’s reality.

Part of the problem is that, at some point, reasoned expressions of rebellion from the Civil Rights era have been co-opted by people (of all
 races) who want to make noise in situations where race is “kinda/sorta”
playing a role in how an event unfolds instead of being the proximate
cause of it. Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown are not heroes to be lionized.
 Martin and Brown played a large role in their deaths and deserve some
 culpability. The fact that they were black reduced their margin of error for foolish behavior—unfairly or not—and they paid for it. All victims of
 gun shootings are not wholly innocent, in the same way that all people who fail
 high school classes do not have a congenital learning defect.

The fact that some have compared Martin to Emmett Till is troubling and diminishes the significance of Till’s death to the Civil Rights Movement. Older folks should know better. Too many people are more interested in stirring the pot or lining their own pockets than actually solving problems in the black community. This sort of lazy
 rhetoric just encourages more non-productive behavior from black people and draws attention away from miscarriages of justice, like the Lennon Lacy case.

I would be more supportive of these protests if the
 organizers took the time to point out how Mike Brown contributed to his own 
demise. Not to rub it in the family’s face, but as a teaching point for
 black people everywhere, a lesson on how to tread carefully in white 
society. They might also point out where he was falling short as a black
 teen (robbing convenience stores, accosting cops), hallmarks of the black
 male archetype that makes white, middle-aged women clutch their purses tight when
 he steps in the elevator.

Of course, this sort of holistic discussion that would actually provide a benefit to the entire country wouldn’t fit certain agendas, so I’m less inclined to view the movement favorably. It’s not enough to yell “fight the power”. People need specific directives and actionable information to move them in the right direction.

One positive that has emerged from Ferguson is the idea of fitting cops with cameras to encourage accountability. While the benefit to the public may not justify the increase in taxes (or ticketing), this is a line of thinking worth exploring. Along with the military, the police are one of the organizations who enjoy “selfless servant” status that’s not always deserved and discourages outside criticism. Pair this with the innate human desire to protect your own and it’s a setting conducive to malfeasance. The police are no strangers to abuses of power, like aggressive ticketing, patronizing citizens, heavy-handed enforcement, and gross negligence. Any check on their power that does not hamstring their ability to deter crime is worth a look.

It’s tough to defend how the police treated Eric Garner after he was cuffed. I suspect it was some combination of their frustration on the scene with concern for their own safety (Garner was a big man). They are human, but they cannot allow that to be an excuse to mistreat people. They’ve got to be able to tell when an arrestee is in serious distress.

What’s the lesson here?

The onus is on the public to recognize that the police are human, subject to the same fears and frailties that we are. You’ve got to minimize your exposure to danger as much as you can.

Many are vilifiying Darren Wilson for discharging his weapon. They ask why he couldn’t use a taser or some other non-lethal means of subduing Brown.

I’m not going to moralize from a distance.

It’s very easy for someone a thousand miles away from the street to criticize a cop for using excessive force—without having to deal with the dangers that cops have to deal with. How might you react if a suspect is threatening bodily harm or (allegedly) reaching for your gun? Are you just going to ask him politely to stop and “hope for the best”?

It’s easy to be magnanimous from afar.

(To be clear, I do not support cops who break the rules—I just understand why some choose proactive aggression in instances of conflict.)

Another example of a good step forward, from the Washington Post:


It’s a good example of material that can move black people forward. While some aspects of the author’s world view are naive, he takes the uncommon (but welcome) step of sharing specific tips for how his black children can avoid racial friction in their daily lives, like these gems:

2. Carry a small tape recorder in the car, and when you are the driver or passenger (even in the back seat) and the vehicle has been stopped by the police, keep your hands high where they can be seen, and maintain a friendly and non-questioning demeanor.

4. Never leave a shop without a receipt, no matter how small the purchase, so that you can’t be accused unfairly of theft.

More discourse like this would do the country good.

“In both types of riots, the affected community experiences high levels of property damage, etc., but note that people don’t use white riots as evidence of pathological behavior or cultural problems in white people.

In fact, people typically do everything possible to avoid attributing the behavior to race. Instead, you hear endless commentary about entitled college kids, youthful indulgences, ‘boys will be boys’, and the list goes on. This same pattern is also observed when school shootings are discussed (relative to gang violence).”

My response:


This is the “Treat Whites as Individuals, Blacks as a Monolithic
 Group” problem. The “Defend the Entire Race Because You’re The Only Black Guy in Your Class” problem you encountered in college.

Whites still comprise the bulk of the population, so much of what happens in America emanates from a “white” 
point of view. Food, political views, you name it.

 When people say “All-American Boy”, it conjures up a certain image—and
 it’s not some dark guy with dreads.

Whites get the luxury of individuality because there are so many of them.
 Many white people grew up in predominantly-white neighborhoods, so they’re
 used to seeing other whites as individuals. Like most people, they most
 likely live around people of similar background, at least during their
 formative years. Americans recognize that there are millions of white people
 (Italians, Germans, Dutch) of different ethnicities, so there is no 
confusion about intra-race differences there; people know that white skin
 does not mean one culture or one ethos.

It takes a lot more effort to for those same people to appreciate life from another perspective and we see that in how coverage of an event may change based on race. So much of the population has just a cursory knowledge of cultures outside of their own and may struggle to understand what it’s like to be in the minority in a society built for the majority. They may have zero experience with people from different walks of life, save for what they’ve seen on television or in a newspaper. That’s one of the reasons why minorities may be painted with the same broad brush stroke while others are spared that indignity.

More commentary in Part 2.

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