I have been thinking a lot of about the issues surrounding Ferguson, New York and other places, and, surprisingly, have some opinions. I would imagine that this will be a series, since these thoughts are somewhat complicated and long. I should have started this a long time ago.
I have to admit that I was not surprised and not appalled when people rioted either after Michael Brown was killed or after the grand jury did not indict Darren Wilson in his shooting. I would say that the authorities screwed the whole thing up as much as they possibly could.
I have a hard time imagining what it must be like to be a person who is not privileged. I am a middle-aged white male in a country run, and thoroughly controlled by, middle-aged white men. So, when I get pulled over for speeding, I might get a ticket or I might not. No one orders me out of my car to search it. No one accuses me of any wrongful things. They give me a ticket. When people see me walking down the street, they don’t think that I am up to something bad. At the same time, I don’t have to convince people that I am capable of doing something at work. I say that I can do it, and mostly people believe this. They don’t question my authority. They don’t question my ability to teach. I am given the benefit of doubt.
The majority of people in this country don’t get this benefit of doubt. If you happen to not have a penis, or if your skin happens to not be white, you most likely do not receive this benefit of doubt. You might be questioned more. Your authority might be tested. You might get snide comments at work. Or, you might get stopped by the police randomly, for no apparent reason.
While I don’t experience those things, I can imagine that they might frustrate people. I can imagine that those frustrations could grow, when these slights continue and continue and continue. And when it seems like they will never end.
Then, let’s say that some white person kills a black kid in Florida for no apparent reason except that that the black kid was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that the white person gets off with no ramifications at all. I can imagine that black people might be a bit (what could be a valid word here?) frustrated.
Fast forward a bit of time, and another black kid is shot multiple times by a police officer. The black kid is unarmed. The community basically freaks the fuck out.
The authoritarian response to this is horrible. The people in charge pull out all of the stops to show that they are in charge. Full on riot gear with tank-like vehicles and armor. To me, the message here is “We are in charge! You WILL obey us!” What a message to send!
Here is another message that they could have sent: “We understand your frustration. The system is flawed and we see that the people in community would like some change. Let us get together as a community and try to figure out how we can make this right.”
They could do this by holding public meetings to talk about the frustrations in the community. The police could put all of their riot gear down and walk around in plain cloths, trying to keep things under control, not by intimidation, but by working with the community. They could recruit community leaders to be part of the solution and work on calming things down.
Did they do these things? No. In many ways, the leaders acted just like the police officers who are accused of killing people. They ratcheted up the situation. They threw down the gauntlet and said “Fuck you people – you will do what we say!”
To me, the police have been trained to ratchet up the situation instead of diffusing the situation. For example, take car chases. By default, it seems like the police chase people instead of just stopping. When they chase the person, they could catch them, but how many people do they put in harm’s way? How much destruction is caused because of these chases? Is it worth a someone’s life to catch the person who is running? Is it worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage? What is the alternative? They could back off and simply go to the person’s residence and wait. They could go to the person’s job and wait. They could pass the car off to others who are ahead in the correct general direction. If the default was to ratchet down the situation, would outcomes be different?
I was talking to a friend about the situation in Canada. He described an incident at an airport in which a guy was killed because he went a bit nuts and started throwing TVs around. In situations like this, it is obvious how the police could ratchet down the situation. By backing off and trying to talk to the person, they could diffuse it and not end it in death.
In the Michael Brown situation, if the default was to ratchet down the tension, it might have ended different. We will never know. If the police officer had not gone for his gun instead of something else (taser? baton?) would Michael Brown be alive? Let’s set aside this.
If the Mayors of Ferguson and St. Louis had come out and said that this was a horrible incident and that it would be investigated as much as physically possible, would there have been riots? If these Mayors had expressed an understanding that the police force is mostly white and the residence are mostly black, and that this could bring about bias on both sides of the line, would they have had riots? If the Mayors had held community meetings to listen to the frustrations of the people who are in their communities, would the people have rioted?
Why do people riot? Because the system has oppressed them so much, that they feel a sense of hopelessness that things will change and rage that this is the way things are.
I have never felt this rage towards authority. But, I can understand why people would feel it. I can understand why people would want to throw bricks through windows and overturn cars. I can understand why you would want to see a city on fire. When you are oppressed to the point that life seems pretty hopeless, what do you have to lose?