A Few Thoughts on Ferguson

I have several political blogs planned, and even a business blog that I'll post in honor of the biggest shopping week of the year. I wasn't planning to blog about Ferguson, until after seeing some of the twitter reaction, and deciding that I did have something coherent to say. 

My hunch is that there is something in here that will infuriate just about everyone on all sides of the issue. That's okay. I aim to be honest and forthright, not to provide people with what they'd like to hear. 

The truth is, we're all at fault for what's unfolding in Ferguson and St Louis (as well as other cities across the country). Whatever you think about whether Officer Wilson should have been indicted, the process, culture, and institutions that contributed to a teenager being dead are far more important than the individual case itself. We can't give Michael Brown his life back, but we can fix cultures, processes and institutions. 

Radley Balko did a wonderful job of exploring the roots of the powder keg that was Ferguson. From Balko's article, it becomes easy to see why African Americans in the St Louis/Ferguson area might resent and mistrust the police and government more broadly. 

Countless historians, including Tom Sugrue,  Matt Lassiter , and Kevin Kruse have explored explained the various institutionalized barriers facing African Americans—inferior school funding, decades of racism in housing policy and the housing industry (redlining, restrictive covenants, etc). Some of these institutional barriers have diminished over the last few decades, but the change is relatively recent, and the ill effects continue to be felt. 

Other scholars, including Khalil Gibran Muhammad, have detailed the historical roots of certain subconscious, culturally driven perceptions that shape how we as white Americans, view and interact with African Americans. These perceptions, even as some of them ebb, have longstanding effects and have shaped institutions, including the carceral state. 

Additionally, scores of evidence exists that African Americans get treated worse than do whites in any number of ways. For example, a Princeton study found that white men with prison records received entry level job offers in New York City as often, if not more so, than African American men without criminal records. A subsequent study of Milwaukee produced similar findings. 

Similarly, government statistics indicate that black drivers were 31% more likely to be pulled over than white drivers in 2011. White drivers were also significantly less likely to be searched during traffic stops than black drivers. 

Thus, it becomes easy to see why African Americans might feel as though racism pervades every aspect of society, and might be resentful, and more quick to challenge authority figures. This backdrop also makes it easy to understand why many feel as though the grand jury process did not produce a fair verdict. Society has given them ample reason to doubt the processes that are supposed to safeguard fairness and justice in society. 

Additionally, there is a cultural issue raised by the sports writer Dennis Deitch on twitter last night. We live in a culture where Second Amendment proponents on the right work tirelessly to prevent any law that might reduce the availability of handguns to criminals (don't tell me that a law targeting straw purchases, such as one limiting people to purchasing, say, 2 guns per month, infringes impermissibly with any 2nd Amendment right that might be in the Constitution. If free speech can be limited, the right to owning a gun to protect oneself does not mean purchasing however many guns an individual might be inclined to purchase). 

What does this have to do with Ferguson? As Deitch noted, it makes police officers more suspicious and trigger happy because they have a fear of being shot by a suspect. Put yourself in Officer Wilson's shoes for a second—you have an aggressive suspect who has already hit you. Do you wait to find out if he is armed, in which case you might be dead, or do you err on the side of using lethal force? 

I'd also fault the training that Officer Wilson received. I have not read the entire grand jury transcript, so I hesitate to comment on the decision not to indict Officer Wilson. Nonetheless, from the snippets of his testimony that I have read, Wilson did not carry a taser because it wasn't comfortable to have on his belt. No superior forced him to carry a taser (which might have spared Brown's life).

Additionally, it seems clear that Wilson did not have adequate training in how to subdue a violent suspect without using lethal force. Brown posed a threat, but did that threat really necessitate the use of his service weapon? 

Perhaps we should even question a system in which officers ride in single patrols. With a partner, Wilson would never have been put in the situation where he had to consider whether or not to use his service weapon. 

Wilson certainly bears some responsibility. I strongly doubt whether his conduct would reflect best police practices. It seems highly likely that the confrontation could and likely should have ended with some outcome other than Wilson firing 9 shots at an unarmed teenager. From elements of his testimony, it seems likely that he may have panicked and/or overreacted in the face of a threat. Whether his conduct warranted indictment and/or eventual conviction, I leave to others to decide. 

While Brown is definitely a victim, and while I'm skeptical that Wilson acted properly, Brown also bears some responsibility for the tragedy. To be crystal clear, I'm not saying that Brown deserved to die, or anything of the sort. Undoubtedly, all teenagers make mistakes and act inappropriately.

Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that Brown did strike Officer Wilson multiple times, and seems to have instigated a violent confrontation with a police officer. He also appears to have come back towards Officer Wilson during their subsequent confrontation in the street, rather than surrendering by laying on the ground. 

Even those who believe that Wilson should face charges and/or be convicted should be mindful of the fact that Brown committed a serious felony. If he obeys Wilson, and avoids a physical altercation, he would be alive today. That doesn't absolve Wilson of responsibility for the shooting. But this is not a Trayvon Martin case in which we didn't even know if Martin did anything wrong. 

I'd also blame St Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch for a lot of the situation in the wake of the grand jury decision. A case can easily be made that McCulloch should have recused himself from the case given his past history. The imprimatur of fairness is critical in this sort of case. That likely wasn't possible with McCulloch at the helm. He should have asked the state attorney general's office to handle the case instead of taking it on himself. 

McCulloch's gentle questioning of Officer Wilson before the grand jury also deserves skepticism, and reflects why he should never have been in that position in the first place. 

McColloch also deserves harsh criticism for the moronic decision to reveal the grand jury decision at night. I understand wanting people not to be stranded at work or school (and potentially providing targets) in a worst case scenario. But there are ways around that potential problem. Schools in the area could have been cancelled. Businesses could have been encouraged to close, etc. A daytime announcement would have reduced the potential for violence and lawlessness. 

Finally, I blame President Obama to a degree. As Ron Fournier noted on Monday, Obama's comments on the situation have been spot on. Yet, he hasn't been nearly as vocal as he should have been. Nor has he provided the leadership required by the potential situation.

A trip to Ferguson over the weekend for a town hall meeting would have done wonders to tamp down the potential powder keg. Obama might have reassured residents that, regardless of the grand jury outcome, he'd use his power to reform the Ferguson police department should the federal investigation uncover the need to do so. He might have addressed their very legitimate grievances. He could have used this platform to urge residents to channel their anger into constructive channels. 

Obama also could have used this as a teachable moment and used the power of his office to turn this tragedy into something constructive—perhaps a dialogue about race relations in America, or an opportunity to teach white Americans about the difficulties that face African Americans each day. 

I might overlook this lack of leadership, except that it fits into a disturbing pattern in Obama's case. So often, even when he is right on the substance, either legislatively, or on a matter such as this one, he fails to provide the leadership required to bring the American public to the right place. 

Overall, about the only parties in this matter who looks good today are Michael Brown's parents. They have handled themselves with grace and dignity in the face of unspeakable tragedy. They have channeled their anger into a constructive proposal—to outfit police officers with body cameras. They have been a model that, sadly, too many in their community refuse to follow. 

Yet, the focus going forward should not be on this individual incident. It should be on the institutions and culture underlying the race relations that led to this incident. Otherwise, we'll be focusing on a symptom, not the underlying illness.