There are a lot of strange responses pouring out of the tubes of the internet regarding Michael Brown’s shooting and the protests in Ferguson (e.g. “Police have difficult jobs!; “Black-on-Black Crime!”; “What about White victims!?”; “But he might have robbed a convenience store!”; etc.). Tensions have begun to ease, but this story will no doubt continue to be a visible as the investigation into Michael Brown’s death continues. So I have decided to put together a list of talking points to address some of the stranger criticisms I’ve seen. Please feel free to use this post as a resource to talk to people who don’t seem to understand why people got upset about Michael Brown’s Death, or about the official response to the Ferguson protests.
"It’s About Race"
People are upset about Michael Brown’s death because there is a well-studied, documented tendency for police to resort to lethal force more quickly and more frequently against Black suspects than they do against similarly situated White suspects. At the previous link, Law Professor Cynthia Lee states that “[a]lthough Blacks represent approximately 13 percent of the population in the United States, in [some] parts of the country they constitute 60 to 85 percent of the victims of police shootings.” In practice, this means that White kids who do something stupid in America are more likely to be given an opportunity to go through the system, learn from their mistakes, and move on with their life. Black kids who do something stupid, on the other hand, are more likely to be seriously injured or killed by police. That’s why people are upset. So even if it’s true that Michael Brown stole cigars from a convenience store, people still have a right to be angry.
"It’s About Double Standards"
Some have deemed it appropriate to bring up “Black-on-Black” crime when discussing Michael Brown. ”Black-on-Black” crime has nothing to do with Michael Brown’s shooting. He was shot by a police officer, not a private citizen. This is relevant because, as indicated above, there ample evidence that police officers are more likely to use lethal force against Black suspects than White suspects. Furthermore, to the extent that it couldbe relevant, there is no unique “Black-on-Black” crime epidemic. 86% of homicides against White victims involved White perpetrators, while 94% of Black homicides involve Black perpetrators. In other words, the vast majority of violent crime is intra-racial. There is nothing uniquely remarkable about “Black-on-Black” crime. This is a double standard that people apply to Black communities because the media chooses to portray Black-on-Black violence as a unique problem, despite the fact that White homicide victims are also likely to be killed by a White perpetrator.
At this point some may deem it relevant to bring up the fact that Black intra-racial homicides occur at a greater per capita rate than White intra-racial homicides. While this is true, it’s still not relevant to Michael Brown’s shooting. Again, we’re talking about a police shooting, where there are different variables at play. The circumstances under which police initiate violence against a private citizen are often different than the circumstances under which private citizens initiate violence against each other.
But to the extent that it could be relevant, the higher rate of violence in Black communities is largely a function of structural poverty, which is often caused by aggressive law enforcement of fine-bearing violations in poor communities, and also by the economic incentives created by the Drug War. Aggressive enforcement of fine-bearing violations drains drains economic capital from poor communities, while aggressive enforcement and punishment of non-violent drug offenses destroys economic opportunity. This creates a vicious cycle in poor communities, where the stigma of a criminal conviction can make it difficult to find adequate employment. This in turn creates a situation where criminal activity is often the only way out of poverty for many residents of poor communities, or to make ends meet on a short-term basis during periods of extended unemployment. One former drug dealer put it this way:
Well.. I’m 24, i sell drugs (prescriptions are my specialty) and its because I lost a good job, i have a 3 week old daughter, a wife (who doesn’t make shit) and a house- if I don’t sell, i loose it all. its not about an ‘ipod or sneakers’ its about paying bills, and buying formula…
Since participants in the drug market obviously cannot rely on the police or the courts to enforce their commercial exchanges, they must resort to violence. As a practical matter, this means a lot of people wind up getting shot, since there is no system for determining civil liability, or legal tools to enforce economic obligations. In civil society, violence is diffused by a civil court system that offers dispute resolution by allowing uninterested third parties to determine questions of fact, and provide common standards by which to resolve disputes. In the underground drug market, this system of dispute resolution is off-limits. So every dispute must instead be solved with the threat of violence, which has predictable consequences.
This type of aggressive policing, which creates this underground economy is not practiced in most majority-White communities. Drug enforcement in particular tends to be focused in poor Black communities, despite the fact that surveys show that Whites and Blacks use illicit drugs at similar rates. If suburban White communities were having economic capital drained by aggressive enforcement of fine-bearing violations, and economic opportunities denied by the criminal records which accompany aggressive law enforcement, you would probably see a similar increase in the per capita rate of violent crime in many White communities as well. But typically, this only happens in poor Black communities, so its poor Black communities where these dynamics play out. In other words, the higher rate of per capita violent crime in poor Black communities is a result of external forces being exerted on them by aggressive law enforcement practices in their communities. It has much less to do with “Black culture” and much more to do with the economic incentives which aggressive law enforcement in Black communities has created.
But again, this really isn’t relevant to Michael Brown’s shooting. So let’s move on.
"It’s About The Lack Of Consequences"
While police may have a rough job, they are also rarely held accountable when they break the law or violate peoples’ rights. One person who studied officer-involved shootings in the State of Wisconsin found that “In 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in the state of Wisconsin, we could not find a single ruling by a police department, an inquest or a police commission that a shooting was unjustified.” In New Jersey, Internal Affairs Divisions were recently found to dismiss 99% of all complaints against police officers. A study of the Chicago police department published in 2008 found that “the odds are two in 1000 that a Chicago police officer will receive any meaningful discipline as a result of being charged with abusing a civilian,” or 0.2%.
Police are often protected from criminal liability because prosecutors are afraid to alienate themselves from the police force. Police can also escape civil liability for their actions through something called Qualified Immunity. This is a legal doctrine created by the U.S. Supreme Court which allows a judge to provide public officials with immunity from lawsuits in situations where a Constitutional right is not “clearly established,” and a “reasonably prudent official” wouldn’t have known they were violating the Constitution.
Many former police officers have written about how common it is for police to look the other way when other officers break the law or violate someone’s rights. Here is Mike Quinn, a retired Minneapolis police officer with 23 years of experience in law enforcement:
"In a nationally representative telephone survey of 925 randomly selected American police officers from 121 departments, 52.4 percent of the officers agreed, ‘it is not unusual for a police officer to turn a blind eye to improper conduct by other officers.” In that same study, 61 percent disagreed with the statement “Police officers always report serious criminal violations invoving abuse of authority by fellow officers.” A surprising 6 in 10 (60 percent) indicated that police officers do not always report even serious criminal violations that involve the abuse of authority by fellow officers. (Walking With the Devil, p. 4).”
Here’s Norman Stamper, former chief of the Seattle Police Department:
"Cops lie…as any defense attorney (or candid supervisor or chief) will attest, a good deal of "bad lying" goes on in police work, by cops who don’t seem to know the meaning of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…Senior officers and peers were always making sure we “got our stories straight.”…I don’t remember actually lying on the stand. But I do remember composing some “creative” arrest reports.” (Breaking Rank, p. 129, 133).
Here’s Juan Antonio Juarez, a former Chicago police officer:
"The Office of Professional Standards (OPS) documented a trend when dealing with complaints of official misconduct and excessive-force beefs lodged by the general public that increased over the years. This trend favors cops…David Fogel, the chief administrator of OPS, said in a 1987 memo: "The troops love OPS. It actually operates to immunize police from internal discipline, increases their overtime, leads to an enormous ‘paper storm,’ and has institutionalized lying. I have come ot the conclusion that OPS gives the appearance of formal justice but actually helps to institutionalize subterfuge and injustice.” (Brotherhood of Corruption, p. 286–87).
So while police may have a tough job, there is plenty of evidence that police have relative impunity for their mistakes and bad acts. Most police can expect to be held accountable for precisely none of their bad decisions. This lack of accountability upsets a lot of people, and is compounding the anger that many residents feel over what happened in Ferguson.
"It’s About The Media"
The national media have created a very inaccurate picture of what’s actually happening in Ferguson. If you only follow national media outlets, you’d probably think that Ferguson is a “war zone” rife with violence and looting. Nothing could be further from the truth. A private security contractor named Asymmetrical Solutions was recently hired by a professional journalist to escort the latter into Ferguson. At the request of the journalist, Asymmetrical Solutions recorded their observations of the situation in Ferguson on its website:
In our time inside the Ferguson area, we came into ancillary contact with numerous demonstrators and protestors who did not seem to have any commitment to violence or chaos, but only wanted to peacefully have their opinion heard or report on the matters at hand. It seems a few bad actors are being treated as the whole.
The overwhelming majority of the protests have been peaceful. Furthermore, many of the more gruesome injuries police have inflicted on protesters have not been covered by national news outlets. Which brings me to my next point.
"It’s About The Disproportionate Response"
The reaction to protests has demonstrated the problem with a militarized police force: violence often begets more violence. When Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson came to Ferguson, he did not have an APC, or tear gas, or an assault rifle. He came in his regular uniform, and said that he would walk with the protesters to ensure both their safety and the safety of those around him. Overnight, tensions eased. But local police could not resist breaking out the tear gas and the armored vehicles once more, which unsurprisingly, led to more clashes with protesters, and more violence clashes with protesters.
At this point, some may point out the fact that the protesters are breaking a recently-imposed curfew, and the police are required to enforce the curfew by getting the protesters to disperse. This brings me to my next point.
"It’s About Undermining The Foundation Of Democracy"
Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech are necessary to have a free society. So is freedom of movement. Law enforcement officials in Ferguson have arrested journalists, tear-gassed camera crews, implemented a no-fly zone over the city, and shut off road access to the city. They have marched into private businesses and forced them to close. They have also forced other private businesses to close by scaring customers away with an overwhelming police presence. They implemented a curfew which made it unlawful to be present on a public street or sidewalk past midnight for any reason. They have also threatened peaceful protesters and journalists with bodily harm.
All of this is offensive to Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech. Journalists should never be afraid to cover a news story because they are afraid of being arrested, injured, or killed by law enforcement. Businesses should never be forced to close by police officers on the whims of law enforcement. And law-abiding citizens should be able to come and go as they please, regardless of what time it is. I should not be penalized from enjoying my liberty so that the job of police can be made a little easier. The entire point of having police in the first place is to preserve the social benefits of civil society by enforcing the laws which have been put in place to preserve those benefits. When the authorities begin using police power to deny those benefits to law-abiding citizens, they are undermining the Social Contract in a very fundamental way.
People are upset about Michael Brown’s death because it fits into a pattern of cases where police resort to lethal force more quickly against Black citizens than they do against White citizens. They are upset because the media has selectively leaked portions of a surveillance tape that purports to show Michael brown robbing a convenience store, yet nobody has positively identified the person in the video as Michael Brown. People are upset because this shooting takes place against the backdrop of a culture of impunity within law enforcement institutions across America, where even obvious, admitted misconduct is often met with a brief suspension at most. People are upset because the police response to the protests has been overwhelming and excessive, and has actually encouraged more violence by making some of the protesters feel like they’re being oppressed and prevented from exercising their rights. People are upset because the national media outlets are painting an inaccurate picture of the situation in Ferguson, which has led many people to assume that most of the protesters are violent criminals, which is not the case. People are also upset because journalists are being arrested, tear-gassed, and various undemocratic strategies have been used to try to quell the protests, including a unilaterally imposed curfew and a no-fly zone.
So there are a lot of good reasons why people are upset. When all the pieces fall into place, we may come to learn that Michael Brown did attack Officer Wilson, and that he used lethal force against Brown because Officer Wilson feared for his life. But that hasn’t stopped numerous people from making unfounded assumptions about who Michael Brown is, what he has done, or what the motivations of the Officer who shot him were. State prosecutors are getting ready to present evidence to a Grand Jury. The fact that they even agreed to seek an indictment is enough to suggest that there’s probable cause to proceed against Officer Wilson for at least a negligent homicide. But it is extremely important to remember that prosecutors may not have bothered to do this if it wasn’t for the public reaction to Michael Brown’s shooting. More often than not, widespread protests are what it takes for victims of police shootings—especially Black victims—to even get their foot in the door of the justice system, much less a conviction. If the protests have served no other purpose, they have motivated the authorities to take a serious look at whether Officer Wilson actually did anything wrong, which may not have happened in the absence of these protests.
This entire post goes well beyond being insightful. There are well-supported points made that extend far beyond the situation in Ferguson.