Not As Simple As Black and White

The most prominent domestic story in the United States, sadly, remains that of the shooting of Ferguson, Missouri Michael Brown by a police officer and the days of demonstrations and riots that have followed it. One of the saddest things about the matter is how impossible it is to write about without pre-conditioning the story. I elected to write it as I did but many would condemn that as sweeping the facts under the carpet, preferring “black teenager Michael Brown” and “white police officer”. The reality is that at this point we do not know if those supplemental facts are relevant or not and we may never know.

It may be that any police officer in the situation in which this particular police officer found himself would have responded in the same way, regardless of the races of the principles and the misunderstandings and histories those convey. We just don’t know.

Eugene Robinson explains his view:

But the violence in Ferguson tells of a deeper, more fundamental narrative about what African Americans have done, and what has been done to them, in the decades since the urban riots of the 1960s — the fire last time.

Tempted to conclude that nothing has changed? Please note that the Missouri Highway Patrol commander, brought in to bring proportion and discipline to what had been a provocative local police response, is black. The attorney general who interrupted his Martha’s Vineyard vacation to order a Justice Department investigation and a third autopsy is black. And, of course, the president and commander in chief — who also took time from a Vineyard holiday to address the crisis in Ferguson — is black.

However, Mr. Robinson’s explication, too, sweeps some of the supplemental facts under the rug. President Obama is the the son of an African father and a white mother and was reared by white grandparents in Hawaii. Atty. Gen. Holder, born in the Bronx, is the son of a Barbadian father whose mother was the daughter of Barbadian immigrants. Neither of their life experiences has much in common with that of Michael Brown or with the millions of others of African Americans whose ancestors were brought to this country in the holds of ships as slaves. The sociologist Charles Moskas called these people “Afro-Americans”, a people with a distinct culture, history, dialect, and problems.

Our policies of the last half century have had the unfortunate effect of granting substantial benefits to those who shared only skin color and, perhaps, aspiration with Afro-Americans but not their problems. Meanwhile, our immigration, trade, tax, and education policies have made it very, very difficult for Afro-Americans to escape poverty and ghettoization.

We need better, more targeted policies.

54 comments… add one
  • ... Link

    Meanwhile, our immigration, trade, tax, and education policies have made it very, very difficult for Afro-Americans to escape poverty and ghettoization.

    Amazing how often immigration, wages and jobs keep coming up.

  • ... Link

    A reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Christine Byers, is reporting that police have “more than a dozen” witnesses who corroborate the officer’s account of the event, FWIW.

  • steve Link

    Everything happens within a context. If the shooting had occurred within a community where police-community relations were strong, where the public felt as though the police were there to serve and protect them, I don’t think we see these riots. I think this could happen in any community where these relationships are poor, they just happen to be more likely to be weak in a community like Ferguson with its racial divide.


  • The question is not whether it happens within a context but whether the factors of the context are constraints or variables. If they’re constraints, that implies that everything that has happened and will, presumably, continue to happen is an acceptable consequence.

  • TastyBits Link

    A lot of it stems from police on a “power trip”. Racism is not why they are roughing up reporters. They bark out orders, and they expect the orders to be obeyed immediately. When this does not occur, they must take action.

    Most of the time, this does not happen in nice middle and upper class communities. The police tell people to do something, and the people do it. The police feel important, and their “authority” has not been challenged.

    This “authority” was never authorized. With a few narrow exceptions, the police are not authorized to order the public to do anything.

    The easiest people to shove around are the people down at the bottom, the outcasts, and the dregs of society. It is forgotten now, but the gay right movement started with the Stonewall riots.

    Society in general has devised ways to distinguish the various classes. A lot of grammar style was devised as a way to identify the lower classes. Ending a sentence with a preposition is grammatically correct, but it is a way to identify “trailer trash”. In the case of black people, skin color provides the method.

    Years ago, it was decided that police should be gentler and kinder. They would no longer be allowed to put a foot in the bad guy’s ass. Much like the terrorist of today, the criminal of yesterday was assumed to be just a wayward youth in need of counseling.

    Today, you have nervous Girl Scouts with guns operating in a world they do not understand according to rules that prohibit them from accomplishing their job, and because of this bullshit, you do not get the people who understand there is not 100% job safety.

    The people you want are the ones who do not want 100% job safety. You want a guy who does not want to look like RoboCop and understands that there is always the chance that something bad may happen. It goes with the job.

    In many black areas, here are historic race issues layered on top of this, and there are current race issues. In many places, there is still racial hatred, racial bigotry, and racial ignorance, and this should be factored into the way the police interact with the community.

    The information about the case should have been released immediately, but it looks like the police department wanted to control the information. This is a common theme among these incidents.

  • jan Link

    Another POV about who is more responsible for the deaths of black youth.

  • jan Link

    City Journal has a provocative commentary entitled,A Grotesque Pantomime of Repression and Redemption.

    It correlates the chaos going on now in Ferguson with the angst of the sixties, wondering what has been gained since then, especially in lieu of the various public reflections from representatives and spokespeople dealing these problems in Missouri.

    Patricia Bynes, a Democratic committeewoman for Ferguson, rationalized that the events in Ferguson would benefit the entire metropolitan area because, she said, “St. Louis never has had its true race moment, where they had to confront this.” She was topped by Missouri Highway Patrol captain Ron Johnson, who has been leading the police response in Ferguson. Speaking to a unity rally at a local church, Johnson suggested that, somehow, Brown’s death was “going to make it better for our sons to be better black men.” One rioter, who wouldn’t give his name, admitted that “If it wasn’t for the looting, we wouldn’t get the attention.” The virtue of disruption, academics and observers argue, is that it gives African-Americans a crisis with which to bargain. But after 50 years, what has this bargain achieved, except to cultivate a community that excels in resentment?

    Furthermore, how is all this discontent and destruction going to effect the future of Ferguson? Will it be better or worse off because of what one rioter rationalized as “getting attention.” How did Newark or Detroit fare after it’s moments of sunning in the blaze of riots?

    Riots bring but one certainty—enormous economic and social costs. Businesses flee, taking jobs and tax revenues with them. Home values decline for all races, but particularly for blacks. Insurance costs rise and civic morale collapses. The black and white middle classes move out. Despite its busy port and enormous geographic assets, Newark, New Jersey has never fully recovered from its 1967 riot. This year, Newark elected as its mayor Ras Baraka, the son and political heir of Amiri Baraka—the intellectual inspiration for the 1967 unrest.

    The story is similar in Detroit, which lost half its residents between 1967 and 2000. Civic authority was never restored after the late 1960s riots, which never really ended; they just continued in slow motion. “It got decided a long time ago in Detroit,” explained Adolph Mongo, advisor to the jailed former “hip-hop mayor,” Kwame Kilpatrick, that “the city belongs to the black man. The white man was a convenient target until there were no white men left in Detroit.” The upshot, explained Sam Riddle, an advisor to current congressman John Conyers, first elected in 1965, is that “the only difference between Detroit and the Third World in terms of corruption is that Detroit don’t have no goats in the streets.”

  • steve Link

    Dave-I would dispute the acceptable part. Sometimes people are unable to change constraints, whether from lack of knowledge, energy, willingness or from other stronger influences.


  • CStanley Link

    I’ve heard a lot about the demographics of the police force, but what about the politicians of the St. Louis area? Are blacks represented there?

  • PD Shaw Link

    @CStanley, this editorial from a former Missouri state Senator, points out that it took decades for blacks to obtain representation in the city of St. Louis, by building up institutions of support and social organizations. Blacks are just hitting the suburbs in the last 15 years or so.

    Political representation doesn’t come from moving to a place, it involves involvement and participation. Fairly good editorial, I find the reliance on the power of patronage a bit dated, and continuing unanswered why movement is happening anyway.

  • PD Shaw Link

    The editorial recommends joining the North County police districts.

  • Piercello Link

    Dave, what do you think of this policy proposal?

    From the post, with its linked article:

    “Once the worst of the grief had passed, he began to think about the problem in structural terms. What was needed, he decided, was a mandatory outside review of any police shootings. His model was the NTSB’s painstaking review of any airline crashes.”

  • but what about the politicians of the St. Louis area?

    This goes back to the St. Louis City/County issue I mentioned in a previous post. African Americans have controlled the St. Louis Board of Aldermen for decades and most recent St. Louis mayors have been black. However, since most St. Louis area African Americans live in the city, county offices are rarer.

  • Piercello:

    Grim frequently puts interesting ideas forward. I wouldn’t have a problem with such plans but you’ve got to wonder why it’s not already being done.

  • PD Shaw Link

    In the case of my friend killed by cops in suburban St. Louis on the Illinois side of the river, the investigation of the event was immediately transferred to the State Police. I think the State Police were there and made the initial announcement to the press, explaining what happened.

  • PD Shaw Link

    A criminal investigation may have a more narrow purpose, however.

  • Guarneri Link
  • Modulo Myself Link

    Well, either you think that race is a major part of the post-70s suburban/urban outer ring or you don’t. Kevin Kruse’s White Flight: Atlanta and The Making of Modern Conservatism is a pretty good case that race is, but it’s a book, so it may not appeal to a lot of people who think race isn’t.

    And regarding the Michael Brown shooting, here’s five witnesses with names who have a similar story:

    From Tiffany Mitchell’s account:
    Mitchell said she was driving when she saw the confrontation at the point when Brown and Wilson were wrestling through the window. “Brown was pushing, trying to get away from the officer,” Mitchell explained, “and the officer was trying to pull him in.”

    Mitchell’s and Johnson’s versions of events match up from that point on. A shot was fired, and Brown broke away and started to run down the street away from the police car. Mitchell said the officer then got out of his vehicle and started to pursue Brown, all the while shooting at him.

    “Michael’s body jerked as if he were hit,” Mitchell said. “Then he turns around and put his hands up, and the officer continued to walk up on him and shoot him, until he goes all the way down to the ground.”

    Now maybe she’s lying, or maybe she’s confused, but there are four other accounts that match hers. This isn’t Trayvon Martin being shot with no witnesses except George Zimmerman. Personally, I thought Zimmerman to be a piece of crap, but the verdict, especially given the charge, was not wrong. Unless these witnesses are wrong, confused, or lying, the cop will be lucky to escape with manslaughter. And honestly, since the majority of the right wing is now getting ready to be on the jury for Emmit Till, the main black and white issue may come if this cop is convicted, and the insane racist rhetoric of the right has to be acted upon.

  • ... Link

    This witnesses all suggest (at least) that Brown was shot in the back. He wasn’t. That would tend to raise questions with their stories, wouldn’t it?

  • ... Link

    Not to mention that the idea that the officer was going to reach up from the driver’s seat of his car, grab a 6’4″ 292 lbs man with one hand, and then drag that man into the car on top of himself is completely nonsensical. He’d have to have the strength of a terminator to be able to pull that off. Seriously, I doubt Zydrunas Savickas could do that from that position, and I can’t imagine anyone with three functioning brain cells wanting to.

  • CStanley Link

    Icepick’s last two comments sum up where I am with the credibility of the various witnesses.

    The front/back issue isn’t as clear cut as some would have it to be though. If he had been shot in the back, that leaves two possibilities- innocent kid being harassed and trying to flee, or felon who just robbed a store, who’d just decided he had nothing more to lose so attacked an officer that was about to arrest him. If, as apparently was the case, he was shot from the front he was either charging the officer or he was trying to surrender and the cop killed him anyway. In either case there is one possible scenario where the cop acted properly or mostly properly (especially if allowing some leeway for the “fog of war” as an event is unfolding. And also in either case there is the possibility that the cop was way over the line of legal and ethical behavior,

    The other part of the witness testimony on which there are variances is the altercation at the car window. Like Icepick I can’t conceive of a situation where a cop would or could attempt to pull a large man into his car. The only thing that makes sense to me is much closer to the story given by the friend of Wilson, which disputes that of witnesses like Dorian Johnson. Instead of the car door bouncing off of Brown, it seems much more plausible that Brown forced the door closed and the struggle ensued as the cop was trapped in the car. Otherwise it strains credulity that the cop would have chosen to remain inside the car and start a physical confrontation with Brown.

  • Modulo Myself Link

    In either case there is one possible scenario where the cop acted properly or mostly properly (especially if allowing some leeway for the “fog of war” as an event is unfolding.

    In what way would it be proper for a police officer to shoot a citizen with his hands up in the air? Five witnesses said basically the same thing–Michael Brown was trying to surrender but he was shot and killed. If true, he was killed unjustly. The police do not get to shoot you if you have your hands in the air.

  • CStanley Link

    The one possible scenario that I am referring to does not involve the citizens hands up in the air. You keep citing the five witnesses who said that was the case, but multiple other witnesses did not describe it that way.

  • Modulo Myself Link

    I’m citing them because they have names and they appeared in an article. Who are the other witnesses?

  • ... Link

    I don’t know if the officer acted properly or not. I’m still waiting to hear more of the evidence. But some of the evidence against him doesn’t seem completely kosher. The witnesses who said he surrendering and docile include people who said he was shot in the back. The people profering that story started out with the Gentle Giant story.

    Meanwhile, there are other stories out there, about broken orbitals, witnesses recanting, witnesses substantiating the officers account and so on. I’ll wait to see how that pans out, too.

    (If the officer got hit in the hard enough to get bones broken in his face, might he not also have been confused?)

    There’s a lot of bullshit flying around this case, and a lot of people looking to spin things to fit there agenda. I’m interested in what happened.

    As it stands, there are at least two cases in Orlando from this year with more questionable use of fire arms by the police, but those aren’t getting the pub because they can’t be used by the media to drum up race riots for the November get out the vote effort.

  • CStanley Link

    I think your point, Modulo, about the anonymity of witnesses who support the cop’s perspective, is somewhat valid. I don’t know that it is valid though to discount people who are likely to be afraid to give accounts that conflict with the narrative that’s been accepted as true by an angry mob.

    My thinking is that we can’t at this time accept the story given by these five people as inherently more accurate, because of that situation of an atmosphere of intimidation against anyone who disputes their stories.

  • ... Link

    The NYT is now reporting that various witnesses interviewed by both the local authorities and the FBI support both the officer’s story and that of Brown’s friend, and some seem to differ from both.

    Personally, the fact that these people have been willing to make sworn statements to the authorities trumps yammering in front of the TV cameras.

  • ... Link

    Not to mention that if I were a witness living in Ferguson who backed up the cop’s story, I probably wouldn’t want my face and name out there so that the rioters could come pay me a visit. Such thoughts should occur to people with functioning brain cells.

  • Modulo Myself Link

    I agree that there’s no reason to accept the five witnesses’ stories now. But I would not be surprised if there are two general versions of what happened–the officer’s and the witnesses’. All of the anonymous stuff confirmed by law enforcement authorities could be true, or it could be an attempt to head off the investigation. Not a very good attempt, but there’s really no evidence that the Ferguson police department has a clue about anything.

  • CStanley Link

    Agree that the police department has bungled this terribly.

    As for the facts….we definitely don’t know enough, but it’s hard not to speculate and as uninvolved parties I don’t really think it’s wrong to do so. Putting together everything that is currently known (or as much as I’ve read and seen), I’m starting to wonder if the different versions were due to faulty perceptions. It seems possible to construct a story that doesn’t conflict with any of the accounts we’ve heard, even though it conflicts with some people’s conclusions. For instance, Michael Brown may have been fleeing, and Wilson was warning and firing off shots (I could be wrong but think that’s correct protocol for fleeing felon.) Brown decides to turn and surrender but his gesture isn’t immediately recognized as such, in part because the officer has a serious facial injury affecting his vision and judgment. Officer fires at him because he believes Brown is charging at him, and the initial injury makes it impossible for Brown to make it more clear that he is surrendering. His forward momentum, without raising his arms, is again misinterpreted by the officer.

    The witnesses perhaps believe that Brown was surrendering because their vantage point may have made that more obvious, or they could be putting spin on it because they are so horrified that they reflexively create a story that fits with their preconceived notion of police brutality and racism.

  • Modulo Myself Link

    It could be faulty perception. If there’s a head injury there would be a record of that. The video taken afterwards does not show a man in physical distress, however, and if the cop couldn’t make out what was going on, how did he manage to shoot Brown in the head? I don’t know. It sounds like you are saying it’s impossible that Wilson is lying. To me, that’s a huge possibility. He screwed up, and shot a kid who was surrendering, and instead of telling the truth, the police went into panic mode.

  • Cstanley Link

    It sounds like you are saying it’s impossible that Wilson is lying.

    Not at all. That is certainly one possibility, but if there is a way to reconcile all of the competing narratives with the assumption that everyone basically was telling the truth as they thought it to be, I put a higher credence on that version.

  • ... Link

    Modulo, you are assuming that those giving the worst possible interpretation of the officer’s action couldn’t possibly be lying, or even mistaken in what they think they saw.

  • Modulo Myself Link


    Well then either the case has terrible witnesses, or a terrible cop. This is not quantum physics. There’s no need for ambiguity here. If you’re a police officer, your entire job should be aimed at minimizing the chances for ambiguity regarding other people. Taking a look at the picture of officer Wilson, I kind of wonder if he had any idea what ambiguity is. Anyway, he might find out, as he contemplates his new life…

    And honestly, anyone who thinks that there’s some obvious reasons for witnesses to be lying about this case (including one dude who was tweeting his reactions) and weighs this possibility as greater or equal to that of the cop who fired his weapon is an idiot or a racist.

  • CStanley Link

    Well then either the case has terrible witnesses, or a terrible cop.

    False dichotomy, as far as I’m concerned. If you choose to see it in that binary way, and then prejudge the cop as the terrible one, that is on you. And what does the officer’s appearance have to do with anything?

  • Modulo Myself Link

    Seriously? He’s a police officer who shot and killed an unarmed 17-year old kid who stole some Swisher Sweets. This is the very definition of terrible cop, unless you feel that the main point of cops is to fuck with everything.

    Also, have you seen a picture of him? He looks like the dumbshit white cop from every movie that mocks dumbshit white cops. Obviously, there’s snob value in mocking heartland continental bovine citizenry, but this guy shot an unarmed kid, so fuck him. Mockery is the least of his problems.

  • CStanley Link

    I’ve seen a lot of photos of a lot of people who have been alleged to have done various bad things. I guess I must lack your uncanny ability to determine guilt or innocence in that manner, Modulo.

  • Modulo Myself Link

    But he did do a bad thing. He shot and killed an unarmed 17-year old kid who stole cigars. Either this will shatter his life or he’s beyond redemption. Whatever happened with Michael Brown, had this cop not crossed his path, Michael Brown would be alive, getting high, maybe going to school, maybe being something of an asshole. That’s it. Bullets are not required for 17-year old assholes, thank god. Anyone who becomes a cop has to build their lives around principles. It’s obvious that Darren Wilson probably was not in it for the principles, but if he can’t see them now, fuck him.

  • CStanley Link

    There are good cops and bad cops. Certainly this incident raises the question of whether this officer was a bad cop or not, but he’s entitled to due process.

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