Guilty of their own murders
We have had an extraordinary 2014 so far, given all the events transpiring domestically and abroad. Striking are the number of incidents involving teenagers killed for no or minor reasons. I don’t want to be too technical in discussing this, because if we zoom in too closely, we tend to get buried in the specific details of each case and lose an important bigger picture, the long view that affords perspective.
I was not going to blog about Ferguson. For one thing, Geoffrey and I have been hashing it over ever since it began and for another, there are new developments every two hours, it seems, on this roiling cauldron of issues. But, from the standpoint that I can offer the social and behavioral scientists’ points of view, perhaps it is appropriate for me to share my take on all this, basically off the top of my head.
Some friends and I have been talking together about this for the past week, some online, others here in California. I see this post as a chance to discuss this with my WP community, if you are interested. Since I view what happened in Ferguson as a symptom of underlying forces at work in our society that will require major legislative actions and then attitudinal shifts — as do all macro-level cataclysms to revolutionize hearts and minds — it really isn’t about one town, one kid, one type of crime, as much as it is the roots of all these similar instances which are buried deep below the social surface, so to speak.
So jump in and add your thoughts if you care to and don’t hesitate to differ with me or one another. It may be we are all tired of the discussion (I know people expressed this exhaustion to me this weekend), or still awakening to a disturbing and growing threat. And let me say, there are wonderful things happening in this country, like, for example, the way the Ebola emergency is being managed by the CDC — I wasn’t sure they could handle it. They are doing so, amazingly, so far. There are advances in every aspect of our lives and I don’t forget them when I also say, we need to address something dangerous that keeps popping up, before it gets away from us altogether.
I won’t go into all the many cases (the 16 year old walking with soda and candy, the kids playing loud music in their car, the girl in a car accident who bangs on a door for help in the middle of the night, and a kid who is shot multiple times as he walks down the street, and the husband and father choked to death on suspicion of selling illegal cigarettes — not a teen, but a sadly similar event).
But let’s just look at the beginning of the latest foment-ferment incident in Missouri. Start at the beginning not in the convenient middle when riots break out in response to the mishandling of the death. An 18 year old is shot multiple times, after witnesses say he put his arms up to indicate surrender, and was left for four hours, dead in the street. When he was finally picked up — no 911 call made right after he went down, mind you — he was not taken to a hospital. He was spirited away to an undisclosed location and the man who shot him, equally tucked away from public sight.
There are a lot of moving parts to this and similar stories. Let’s just take a few of them here, for the purposes of an informal discussion but one we can have because we have been or should have been thinking about this subject for the past year, if not years, if not decades.
Race and gender
One of them, perhaps the key factor for me, is racism and cultural blindness. You cannot look at the black community’s behavior today and judge it without considering the last 300 – to 400 years of white-black relationships starting with how they were brought here and what their lives have been like from that day to this. It is quite easy to say, ‘get over it’, that was then and those were our forebears, not us, so let’s just start behaving ourselves today and don’t bring in the past.
Well, you and I couldn’t eliminate our pasts and start as a tabula rasa wiped clean the day we were born and neither can the communities of color who have lived in this country under the terms of the dominant white, European culture. We act as we do today because of a fabric of expectations and opportunities in which we and our entire families and social groups have been woven and held closely for thousands of years. So have people of other ethnic and racial groups.
We have to recognize that this incident would not have erupted into a full blown melee so quickly if people of color had not felt that there has been a systematic campaign to exclude them from voting for the past multiple election cycles. All the reports of long lines, eliminated voting days and methods, requirements for very specific forms of ID, voter registration rolls purged are fresh in their minds. They are well aware of the attempt to keep them from having a voice and electing representatives that look like and understand them.
Do we think it is lost on them the way the first AA President has been vilified, slandered, and ridiculed? All the nonsense and disinformation about Obama being associated with terrorists, being a foreigner from Kenya, a Mao-Mao, a colonialist, an Arab. Do we wonder that other people of color are incensed?
When communities are told that they must be indoors and off the street after dark, do you think it doesn’t remind them of the infamous Sundown Towns, the last remnants of which have only been abolished in the last decade? In fact, Ferguson was a Sundown Town until the late 1960s — that’s recent enough for me!
How about the way the media reports crime in this country. Just take a look at this example.
Just these few examples of discrimination on the basis of race and color should be sufficient to drive the point home. There are dozens and dozens of others, including the rise in neo-Nazi hate groups that target minorities, to enable us to understand that this shooting was just a match that lit an already smoldering pile of tinder.
One other thing to recognize about this from a racial or civil rights perspective and that is inter-cultural blindness. What I mean by that is simply that it has been proven that races have a harder time seeing each other than they do members of their own race. So, for example, a Caucasian attempting to identify African Americans in a lineup, is more likely to be mistaken than another African American would. Research has been done to verify that this is so.
It was useful to consider this when looking at Captain Johnson of the State police handling a young black protester last week, who was very aggressive verbally, shouting threats and wearing a scarf as a mask. Instead of retreating from him, Johnson walked toward him and spoke to him in such a way that the individual calmed down, removed his mask and spoke quietly with the Captain. When he removed his mask, he looked like a young boy, and Johnson dealt with him with a soft kindness and compassion. With the mask on, the protester was menacing and looked fierce and older, more formidable. When Johnson saw the young man, he saw fear and desperation. What many white people see is a thug, an angry black man, and are afraid.
There is such a thing as racial profiling. Keep in mind, the 53 man police force in Ferguson was comprised of 3 African American officers and 50 Caucasian officers. Of 5000 police stops last year, 4600 were blacks, 400 whites.
African Americans are rightfully fed up with the biased light in which they are viewed in America, to this day. And, we need to remember that they are not monolithic as a community. There are just as many variations within the group we characterize as AAs as there are variations between that group and other groups, other racial and ethnic categories. So, just because some young African American males commit crimes, does not mean that every time we see one, we should assume they are up to no good. When white teenagers pilfer cigarettes from a convenience store, does any one of us think, “shoot and kill them”?
Poverty and socioeconomic conditions
You cannot understand the tensions in Ferguson and other equivalent towns without considering the high unemployment level it is suffering. Much of this is the aftermath of the Wall Street’s cavaliere gambling with the economy that resulted in a Depression, which started in 2008, if not earlier. This is increasingly a two-class economy, irrespective of race and ethnicity. A great many young men and older women are out of work, disproportionately to the national averages, which are low to begin with.
Zip codes are the key to understanding this problem, especially when it comes to goods and services. If you are in a depressed area, schools, food, law enforcement, peace protection, banking, infrastructure will vary widely from one area to another.
Living in poverty, going to schools that are pipelines to failure and even imprisonment will certainly affect your attitude and behavior.
The social dysfunction that plagues poor communities and breeds seething tensions on a continual basis makes them ripe for outside agitators to exploit and manipulate. A lot of the rioting we saw in Ferguson, it is now clear, was committed by people who were not members of the community.
Militarization of police forces
In the wake of 9/11 and two costly wars in the Middle East, the Pentagon finds itself with surplus equipment. Additionally, to help local police forces cope with terrorism of various forms, legislation was passed to enable their departments to purchase subsidized materiel from the military. Things like fully automatic machine guns and tanks, called MTRAPS, for example. Along with this, full SWAT gear, including uniforms and complete head armor and face masks. This has been going on behind the scenes, largely, for the past ten or more years and thousands more local law enforcement units have orders in for the kind of gear we just saw deployed in Ferguson. These are meant to fight an enemy. They have no place in the institutions that are designed to protect American citizens at home, other than in true SWAT emergencies.
The casual use of extreme measures and objects of warfare have had a large hand in the explosive violence taking place in Ferguson. If Congress does not act immediately to put tighter restrictions on the issue and use of this military equipment in local peace protection departments, Fergusons will continue and intensify. The size and nature of the equipment and its potential force are intimidating to the peaceful citizens who make up the vast majority of our American communities. What is the point of needlessly frightening them?
This is related to the previous topic. The simple solution is to end the drug wars and all the collateral damage they create.
We don’t know the details yet, but it’s apparent that, in spite of all we went through with Trayvon Martin so recently, in a clinch—the mean, messy place where these things always happen—the Ferguson cop Darren Wilson assumed that a big black guy was trouble, serious trouble, and shot him dead. It’s what happens in that clinch that matters, and we can now see that no amount of articulate protest can cut through such visceral human tendencies as bias and fear.
The prison-military-industrial complex
America has become a full blown corporatocracy along the lines that Eisenhower and even some of the Founders foresaw and warned against. We have privatized so many services that used to be handled by public agencies that we have inadvertently created a greedy incentive to funnel customers to them. I am speaking not only of the vast war machine and all the private contractors and vendors of supplies that the Pentagon feeds with our tax dollars, but also private prisons. These are popping up all over the country and are providing in most cases sub-par care and treatment of the inmates, many of whom are there for minor infractions, drug possession (see heading above) and living while being young, male, and black.
In a way, I see this as entrapment. The oversized and over-powerful weapons, uniforms, and vehicles are sold to the local peace enforcement units, who are given no restrictions or guidelines on their appropriate use. This stimulates confrontation that will likely end in peace officers walking away without any accountability beyond a slap on the wrist, and the incarceration of new clients into the private prison system. Those private prisons are also subsidized by tax dollars but not overseen in the same way the public prisons are. The corporations in this country, through entities like ALEC, are writing the rules and our pay-to-play Congress is enacting them into legislation, verbatim in most cases. Our Congress no longer represents the majority of the people of the United States, they represent international corporations, democracy be damned.
Is this what Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Franklin had in mind, do you think?
Ineffectual leadership and disorganization
If ever there was a poster child for ineffectual leadership, from the police chief to the prosecutor (who should recuse himself) to the Governor of Missouri, this case would be it. Eric Holder brought in the FBI to interrogate witnesses because it is a federal crime to lie to the FBI. There were three independent witnesses who claimed that Michael Brown was surrendering and was down when the two final fatal shots were fired. Michael Brady, who saw Michael Brown just as the final four shots were fired, said that Brown had his arms tucked across his stomach, he had been shot twice as he tried to flee after Wilson had reached through a car window and grabbed him by the neck, allegedly on the suspicion that Brown and his friend had stolen a handful of cigarillos earlier. Wilson had fired two illegal shots at Brown who was fleeing. Brown turned around and stumbled, then fell, as Wilson continued to fire, one shot through the top of Browns head, which killed him. There have been no witnesses to corroborate Officer Wilson’s contention that he was in fear of his life and that Brown advanced toward him, arms down, after the first four bullets hit him. Is it plausible that an unarmed, wounded teenager, shot twice, would actually try to advance toward a fully trained, armed law enforcement agent? Ridiculous! Brown did not have a criminal history. Wilson’s actions, if this story is true — and three independent witnesses give some version of this account — were illegal and criminal.
What can be done, then?
The people of that community want a forum where they can be heard. If there are no other means, then, in the wake of this murder of an unarmed teenager who had his hands up and was heard to yell several times, “Don’t shoot!”, then peaceful, non-violent protest may be the only way to be heard until the better alternative is instituted.
There needs to be a place where any citizen can interact with community leaders. There needs to be a sense that the peace force is protecting the people of the town and has not morphed into a paramilitary brigade that seeks to terrorize and confine them in their homes. The leadership in both the law enforcement and political arenas needs to reflect and be sensitive to the array of socioeconomic and ethnic groups that comprise the population. The largely white, middle class team of officials overseeing Ferguson, and that area of Missouri, apparently turn a deaf ear and blind eye to the plight of their constituents. In a town with 67% African Americans, why is there a white mayor? One reason is that it takes money to get someone elected. People of color in economic distress do not have disposable cash to fund a campaign, nor are they part of the power elite that attracts outside money for their candidates.
A mechanism for bringing the two entities together so there can be a dialogue that leads to practical solutions and improved communication and understanding when problems or disagreements arise has to be established. The lack of just such a tool can be blamed for a lot of the despair and anger that has been expressed for the past two weeks. This should not be happening in America.
Furthermore, this community needs jobs. With over 30% unemployment, is it any wonder that people are miserable and hopeless? There is a bill sitting and waiting for approval for tens of thousands of jobs to be created all over this country if we would just let infrastructure renewal move forward. What kind of idiocy and partisanship has stood in the way of this win-win project? Please explain it to me in any other than political terms.
And, justice needs to move quickly, fairly and transparently. The victim has no voice, but the defendant will be able to meet with and present his rationale to a Grand Jury, behind closed doors. The process has been estimated to last through October. This will only breed more tension, frustration and distrust.
The DA, Mr. McCullough has known conflicts of interest when it comes to police shootings and racial tensions. He needs to do the right thing and step aside. If the county and state don’t act, then the Justice Department will step in and adjudicate this fairly and expeditiously. We owe the community that much.
The public, the country, the community want the truth, wherever it leads. An independent prosecutor, one with no close ties to law enforcement, needs to be appointed to shepherd the indictment process and fairly identify the charges. It does not seem to me to be a complicated case.
It goes far beyond Ferguson. There is a pattern of these murders of unarmed people who happen to fit a certain profile that we can all recognize as exposing them to greater suspicion than any of us would face if we were to find ourselves in their circumstances.
In my opinion, most importantly, we the people along with the media have to stop blaming the victims for their own murders. We need to look beneath the surface, behind the curtain and get the facts with as unbiased a mind as we can manage.
Image: Wikimedia Commons, blkhistory.com