Reflections on the meaning of Ferguson


The killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., was no different from a lot of other cases in which armed white men have shot and killed unarmed black men, or armed police officers have killed unarmed civilians.  If you’re looking for reasons why this incident rather than another was the trigger, the answer probably doesn’t like in a detailed study of the incident itself.

There’s a proverb about how one final straw, added to a load, will break a camel’s back.  The answer as to why the camel’s back was broken probably doesn’t lie in a microscopic examination of that one particular straw.

The significance of Ferguson is less in the facts about Ferguson itself as in the pattern which Ferguson represents.  If you want to know what I mean by the pattern, click on this and this and this and this and this.

If I were black, I think I would see these events in the light of Goldfinger’s Rule – Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.

The linked articles described incidents that differ in circumstances and mitigating factors, but there are a few common themes:

  • The fear that many white people (not just police officers) have of black people.
  • The insistence of many police officers on instant compliance with orders (not just by black people) and their quickness to use force against perceived disobedience and disrespect.
  • Lack of training both in fire discipline and in non-violent means of defusing situations.

My thoughts about the Ferguson shooting itself are (1) the facts are more obscure and complicated than I first assumed when I heard about the case, (2) I would have chosen some other case as an example if I wanted to make a general argument about police shooting of unarmed black men and (3) no official body has made a complete and impartial investigation into what happened, nor probably ever will, but my presumption is against a person with a gun who kills somebody without a gun.

I don’t want to make sweeping statements about police officers.  They have a difficult and necessary job to do.  I’m willing to believe (though many aren’t) that the majority use common sense in difficult situations.  The problem is those that don’t.

I think that complaining about prejudice is useless.  Nobody, myself included, is free of prejudice.  And if you’re in the police, any prejudices you may have against members of any group will probably be confirmed by experience, because you will see people at their worst.

What we the people have a right to insist on is a higher standard of professionalism.  And that will come, if it does, from within the ranks of the police themselves.


25 Things Black People Shouldn’t Do Around Cops by Katie Zavadsky for New York magazine.

Shootings by police show their evolution into “security services,” bad news for the Republic by Fabius Maximus.

Joseph McNamara: an appreciation by Radley Balko for the Washington Post.  A tribute to an outstanding police chief by a columnist and blogger who writes about police and prosecutorial misconduct.

Police Violence Is Not Inevitable: Four Ways a California Police Chief Connected Cops With Communities by Steve Early for Yes!  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)


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