25 November 2014
The Ferguson verdicts
The grand jury decided that there was no cause to try a Ferguson MO policeman on the suspicion that he had violated the law by shooting an unarmed man in the line of duty. The law, as the jurors understood it, permitted the cop to shoot the man under the circumstances as the jurors understood them, or else the law rightly shielded the cop from a kind of accountability that might have a negative, demoralizing effect on public safety. A number of citizens of Ferguson protested, some peacefully, some by burning and looting. If the only point of the protesters, violent or not, was to complain that a cop had gotten away with killing one of them, then I can't have much more sympathy for them than most people have shown. Would they have come out in such numbers, with such force, if the cop's victim had been white? If they answer that no white youth would be so victimized, they betray a narrow if not tribal viewpoint that guarantees a dead end to their marching or rioting. The issue for the nation in Ferguson is not the identity of the victim, however important that is for one segment of the population, but the procedure of policing. But this point is lost if protesters assume that the cop acted as he did primarily if not solely because his antagonist was black. If Ferguson is going to influence the future, we have to get past the question of Michael Brown and his conduct. We should be able to concede all the arguments against him, yet still insist that, being unarmed, he should not have been shot, and that there must be some form of accountability for police who shoot unarmed people. Body-cams and other suggestions for making a record of all such encounters are good ideas, but they don't substitute for changes in police procedure. If the police are public servants, then the people have every right to set down the standards they choose for police conduct. If the people demand that police should be able to subdue big guys who are pummeling or grappling them without having to use guns, so be it. The expectation may be unrealistic, but we shouldn't have to take the policemen's word for that. The Ferguson protests will be useful if they inspire movements to force changes in police procedure. Unfortunately, the violent protests will only encourage certain people to favor more draconian procedures, just as they reinforce the prejudice that Brown and the rioters are of a common type that simply needs to be put down. Few minds were changed by last night's spectacle. The challenge for those who saw injustice done -- by the cop and by the grand jury, that is -- is to steer outrage in a more radical if less violent direction, to take power. If you can make law, you don't have to change minds; it'll be someone else's turn to comply or else.