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From Boston to Ferguson: A Lesson in Passion and Prejudice

From Boston to Ferguson: A Lesson in Passion and Prejudice

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog piece expressing my outrage at the confrontational and militarized nature of the police that faced the Ferguson protestors. That piece had nothing to do with the case itself that sparked those protests, because I preferred not to speculate, saying: “we are always too quick to jump to conclusions about things we don’t know based on what the media has told us.”

I’ve been thinking about the way that the media tends to exasperate tensions and flare up passions in the wake of headline-grabbing stories like the tragic Michael Brown shooting. It’s not a new phenomenon of course. We all remember this Paul Revere engraving of the Boston Massacre from American history:

Boston Massacre

As it turns out, this depiction which ran in major press at the time was completely inaccurate, and served to enflame the passions of colonists whose true outrage about the injustices of the British tax regime were squarely focused on the actions of a few British infantrymen who had fired into a rowdy crowd on that fateful night. The colonists’ anger was not wrong, and it would later by catalyzed on a grander scale into a full-on revolution against the British Crown. But when John Adams defended the soldiers against charges of murder, he was not appointed to be a defender of the colonial system. His job, despite being a colonial sympathizer himself, was to defend the action of the officers in this one case. His job was to convince a jury to look at only the facts, and to adjudicate based on the evidence and not on the politics of the moment. In a surprise decision, the jury found the soldiers not guilty. It is worth noting that several months had passed between the events of the shooting and the trial, which probably served to calm the passions of the court in reaching a fairer verdict on the case.

In Ferguson, the historical parallels to Boston are hard to ignore. An officer of the law, acting in what he claims was self defense, shot and killed a young man under circumstances clouded by politics, passion and widespread injustice. It is a national tragedy, as it should be when an American citizen is killed by an officer sworn to protect and defend him. There is a simmering and rightful hatred of the police for widespread injustice against black Americans and other minorities, shared by white Americans (including myself). There is a widespread distrust of police and federal agents for abusing their power in general, for stretching the limits of the law and outright breaking it, shared by many Americans (including myself). There is no doubt that the shooting of Michael Brown was an avoidable tragedy, and the chain of events leading up to his untimely death was started long before Darren Wilson went on patrol that day. For black Americans, Ferguson is only one chapter in a long history of police violence against them, and the media attention focused on Ferguson is a rare spotlight on the injustices they face every single day in cities and towns across America. Such a case demanded swift action, yet today that action happened in the form of a no true bill delivered by the grand jury.

No one knows what happened that day, except for the officer himself. The tapes and transcripts that have come out about the grand jury have revealed a cacophony of contradictory eye-witness testimony (and we know about the unreliability of eye-witness testimony especially when influenced by the media) and physical evidence that more or less supports Darren Wilson’s self-defense claim, but doesn’t necessarily support his justification of deadly force. In this case, the grand jury seems to have caught the responsibility that would normally be reserved for a trial jury: to review all the available evidence and return a judgment. (In a grand jury proceeding, 9 out of 12 men and women needed to vote for an indictment on a charge, whereas in a criminal trial, all 12 out of 12 jurors need to vote for conviction.) Ultimately, in our innocent-until-proven-guilty justice system, more than 1/3 of the grand jury that heard the case wasn’t convinced that even probable cause existed to bring charges against Darren Wilson, even without the defense presenting its own case. Personally, I would have preferred an indictment so a proper trial could have been conducted, but given that the bar for the indictment was even lower than that for conviction, it seems fair to say that Darren Wilson will never be seriously punished for killing Michael Brown.

It’s really hard to accept this, because I don’t believe it’s right for someone to get away with killing someone else, except in the most clear-cut cases of self defense. Moreover, it is hard to watch the due process afforded to Darren Wilson unfold, when Michael Brown received no such treatment under the law. Something is clearly broken in our justice system when an unarmed teenager can be shot and killed by the police in the first place. Darren Wilson himself is only an agent of a larger justice system which incentivizes stop-and-frisk tactics contrary to the Fourth Amendment, racial profiling contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment, and shoot-to-kill policing contrary to the Fifth Amendment. As far as I am concerned, the entire police state should be on trial because, as I wrote in that post about Ferguson a couple weeks ago, the police have been mobilized beyond their actual necessity and even their mandate.

Which is what makes it so much harder to accept the grand jury decision on Darren Wilson as nothing more than it actually is: one verdict on one case. Like the jury in John Adams’ day, this jury is not there to put the system on trial. It is only there to decide if in this one case, this one time, this one officer is guilty of a crime. I’m sure a lot will be said in the coming days about the racial biases of the jury itself, about the lack of vigor with which the prosecutor pursued this case, and much else. There are a lot of angry people that would like to see Darren Wilson severely punished for what he did to Michael Brown. And I believe that prosecutors should be tougher on police in general, a point succinctly made by Jay Smooth on Twitter: “The fundamental danger of a non-indictment is not more riots, it is more Darren Wilsons.”

But the fact that no indictment was returned against Darren Wilson, despite media and popular pressure to do so, and despite the overwhelming tendency of grand juries to return indictments, should tell us something.

I’m not saying that I’m not angry about the police brutality that led to the death of Michael Brown, and the system writ large. I am vocally discontent with the police state and have expressed my frustrations about it in much of my public and private writings (and this coming from the perspective of someone who is not a target of the police state).

I am only asking myself if I am fairly separating my passions and prejudice about the justice system from the facts of this individual case. The grand jury, as with the history of the Boston Massacre, has given me pause about jumping to conclusions before their time. Only Darren Wilson knows whether he is guilty of a heinous act beyond simple self-defense–and if I may confess, I believe he probably is–but our justice system is not, and should not, be built on innuendo and prejudice. It is built to withstand the skewing effects of anger and revenge. We should not imprison people for politics or to satiate primal desires. The time will come to have our new American revolution founded on constitutional principles that this country has lost, but it is not today.

Darren Wilson’s due process is a sobering reminder of what our justice system is capable of. Michael Brown’s tragic death is a chilling reminder of how far our justice system needs to go.

Edit: 14 hours after I posted this, I see that (overwhelmingly peaceful) protests have erupted all over the country in response to the grand jury decision. I really do hope that these protests, and the spotlight on police violence, lead to meaningful change in how America polices its police. Maybe Ferguson will be the catalyst of true reform. We can only hope.

Edit #2: Several months later the Justice Department report is out on Ferguson, and Ta-Nehisi Coates has an excellent piece about how much justice has failed Ferguson (and of course, many other towns and cities across America), despite Darren Wilson’s innocence. He concludes: “the focus on the deeds of alleged individual perpetrators, on perceived bad actors, obscures the broad systemic corruption which is really at the root. Darren Wilson is not the first gang member to be publicly accused of a crime he did not commit. But Darren Wilson was given the kind of due process that those of us who are often presumed to be gang members rarely enjoy. I do not favor lowering the standard of justice offered Officer Wilson. I favor raising the standard of justice offered to the rest of us.” I wish I had his eloquence!

November 25, 2014Comments are DisabledRead More
Ferguson is America

Ferguson is America

I apologize in advance for invoking Godwin’s Law, but as always, Nazism is such the prime historical example of snowballing fascism it’s hard not to bring it up. So I’ll get it out of the way with a brief look at Martin Niemöller’s well known and probably over-quoted poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

We know the poem, and we know the message of the poem is supposed to be “speak out before it’s too late.” But I think a more important message of the poem is that fascism never announces its arrival with jackbooted stormtroopers marching down the town square. It arrives slowly, with the creeping support of legitimate and well-intentioned citizens who desire greater safety, more control and maybe more comfort. Friendly politicians with ambitious plans are far more the province of fascism than angry men with beards. There’s that old nickname the Egyptians had for their dictator of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, “La Vache Qui Rit,” The Laughing Cow. It’s easier to convince people to surrender their liberties and critical faculties with a smile on your face and a plan to eradicate undesirables in your back pocket. If these undesirables are socialists or trade unionists or Jews, all the better.

It is also a fact of fascism that ideology comes long before cults of personality dominate the scene. We are historically trained to look for dictators who seek to create fascist societies, but if you read the biographies of dictators it is as likely the dictators are created for the society they live in. They fill the power vacuum created by inept government or a weak economy, or they take advantage of scripture which demands a strongman to usher in a god-fearing society. The fascisms of the world today in full force–whether it’s the monarchical fascism in T h a i l a n d or the Islamofascism of Boko Haram or ISIS or Hamas–started as ideologies in need of leadership. We know where to look when we seek out the hot spots for burgeoning fascism: places where ideology trumps individual liberty, or threatens to do so (Zionism certainly falls into this latter category, as does Russian exceptionalism/Putinism and a host of other almost-fascisms).

Which brings me to another quote from author William Gibson:

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

It is this quote that has had me thinking the most since protests and the violent police crackdown erupted in Ferguson last week, and the world has been watching images of our country the way we often look in disbelief at images from oppressive regimes all over the world.

I will for the moment suspend my judgement on what happened in the Michael Brown shooting, because we are always too quick to jump to conclusions about things we don’t know based on what the media has told us. I’m not going to participate in speculation about motives or racism. This is what I care about right now:


I am not in the out group this time. I’m not black, I’m not poor, I don’t live in a place where police suspect me and everyone around me, and I don’t think I’m likely to even commit a petty crime that would get the police called on me in the first place. But I see this picture and the first thing I think is, how hard would it be for those guns to become pointed at me? What laws have I broken that no one knows about yet? What situation in this country could lead for more security such that such scenes become commonplace?

The future is here already, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Despite the fact that most of us remain isolated from this sort of show of force, we’ve known that local police forces in small towns like Ferguson have been acquiring military grade gear for years, including tanks, grenade launchers and assault rifles. And we know that SWAT teams are becoming more and more normal as responses to small crimes, with the inevitable consequences of innocent causalities. And even agencies of our own government are stockpiling ammunition. What does the Department of Homeland Security need with its own military?

The fact that they’re coming for poor black people concerns me, not only because of the wrongness of it on its own, but because I know that somewhere down the line, I’ll be on their target list, too. There’s a long list of types of Americans that other Americans, if they had the means, would love to lock up or outright execute: everyone from petty thieves to looters to drug dealers to the homeless to Muslims to “the 1%” to meat eaters. Do you really want to sit here and take your chances that the police next week don’t have something against you? Especially if we’ve handed them all the tools they need to make your life miserable?

Most Americans are fortunate that we don’t encounter police every day, or situations don’t become tense enough to merit this sort of military presence on our own streets. But we saw during the Boston Marathon Bombing that it takes very little to panic Americans into creating a police state around themselves. And when you create a police shield for yourself, you have to find someone to shield against.

I don’t think the problem is “speaking out.” We all know it’s a problem, and the media–since we have a blissfully free press in this country–has reported constantly on overmilitarization of the police. The problem is despite the fact that we see the images on TV, and we know that one day it’s very possible that our own worlds will be turned upside down by a SWAT raid or a bad shooting in our neighborhoods that tips off a riot or police crackdown, we don’t do anything about it.

And what can we do? Knowing your rights is a good place to start. But what’s the best response as citizens to an omnipresent, obviously growing threat from the police of America to our own freedoms? Should we all buy guns, as people near Ferguson are doing right now? Other than arming and waiting patiently, how do we stop the rising tide of police violence and intimidation in America? Or do we just hope that at some point, our politicians come to their senses and limit their own power? Historically speaking, I don’t think that’s very likely.

I welcome ideas in the comments for immediate, actionable things that citizens can do right now to stop the tide of police militarization in America before we all get swallowed up by it.

August 25, 20147 commentsRead More
Soccer and Sushi in Ukraine

Soccer and Sushi in Ukraine

The weekend started off with a disappointment. Although my brother and I had made the necessary reservations in advance, the Ukrainian authorities unceremoniously cancelled our planned trip to Chernobyl. The good news is, once we were over this initial letdown, the weekend could only get better.

I find that emerging economies are the most interesting places to visit, precisely because the rules of order (I would say over-order) we have become used to in the United States and Europe are nonexistant. The first sign of this unorderness for me was the “taxi” from the airport, which was a normal, unmarked car called up by the hostel to pick me up. Unmarked, and ready to drive me 30 minutes to downtown without a seatbelt.

After checking in at the hostel (Marshall is working there for the summer) it was already 11pm so we went across the street to a bar where we ordered beer, pizza and hookah, normal fare for that place. Then, before putting away the menus, I realized that there was an entire menu just for sushi. It seemed odd to me that a pizza, beer and hookah place would serve sushi, but Marshall told me that apparently, the Ukrainians are obsessed with sushi. I would soon find out that “obsessed” is an understatement. There is sushi on every menu in ever restaurant in the city.

While we were sitting outside eating pizza, we were fortunate to witness another incident. Across the street, a SUV was pulled over by a cop car. One cop got out and went to the window and started talking to the driver, a young woman in her 20’s. After a couple minutes of talking, the cop stepped away from the vehicle and looked back at the road, where he flagged down another car. The second car was not speeding–and we know, because we saw several speeders go by in the short time we were there–but it pulled over anyway and stopped a couple parking spaces in front of the first car. Meanwhile, the girl in the first car had gotten out and went to sit in the police car with the other officer. We could clearly see money changing hands from our vantage point. Then, she got out, went back to her car, and drove off. Evidently, the second car was in the process of bribing the cops as well.

Marshall tells me that cops taking bribes is about as normal as it gets in Ukraine. When he was in Odessa, he and his friend were stopped for drinking in public (in reality, for talking English in public) and had handcuffs dangled in front of them before one of the cops took him into an alley to negotiate a bribe of about $30. Such is how justice works in Ukraine.

On Saturday, we walked around the city, covering a good third of the city center. It’s a decently large city, with normal city things (shops, parks, the Dnieper, and churches, lots of churches). The day was largely uneventful, although we did visit the deepest metro station in the world, which took two escalators over at least seven minutes to get to the bottom of, and we met some heavily accented eastern Europeans who said they lived in Hartford, Connecticut.

For lunch, we got traditional Ukrainian food–sushi at Yellow Sea, a restaurant decked out like the Japan stall at Disney World. The exclusively white staff wore ninja headbands and kimonos. The walls were ornamented with Chinese characters. There was, of course, the obligatory water-wall. The waiter poured tea from a 15-inch spout. And when the sushi came, it was on a wooden boat in classic junk style. Surprisingly, the sushi was delicious, and to my delight, the yellow tail was actually fresh. The Ukrainians really like their sushi.

We got back to the hostel late afternoon and we took a siesta. I powered through the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapágos, which was alright, and napped for a bit. Then we met up with a bunch of other hostel goers. There was a girl from California who was teaching English in Kiev. A Polish stoner from Krakow. The hsotel owner, whose name escapes me. An Irish guy and an English guy who just met while travelling over their love of football. And there was Kevin, a Northwestern student we had met the night before and with whom we had shared pizza, hookah and beer.

We started the evening by trying to get a “Taxi,” which I soon found out involved flagging down cars on the street and asking to pay for a ride somewhere. Apparently hitchhiking is not only common in Kiev, it’s the only way to get around reliably. We found that all “Taxis” were such glorified hitches. Our car was driven by an African immigrant who agreed to drive us to our destination for $4. On the way, he had Lady Gaga pumping through the sound system on repeat.

That destination was a bar, “Room 6,” which was in the basement of an old hospital or sanitarium. The bar is unmarked but evidentally enough know its reputation. We had steaks which went for $5 a pop–excellent meat–and had a beer while watching the pregame. (One of the reasons Marshall is there–and why I wanted to visit–was because the EuroCup is happening right now in Ukraine.) The bar is staffed by “nurses” and “doctor” bartenders. One of the specialty shots they do is called the “Straightjacket,” where they put you in a straightjacket and lie you in the lap of a large-breasted nurse who spoons you a drink.

Marshall tells Kevin and me that we will be spared the “Straightjacket,” but we have to do a “Flaming Head” shot instead. They take us to the bar and seat us, and strap a World War II helmet on our heads. They then dab lighter fluid on each helmet, light it on fire, and start blowing whistles. They take three shots–red, white and blue–and successively bang them on our heads to activate the latent carbon, then blow whistles as we shoot them. While one is going down empty, the next is being banged on our flaming heads. Then, when all three are empty, they take a beer keg and bang that on our heads, too. Then they extinguish the flames and the whole bar erupts in applause. The whole ordeal lasted maybe two minutes, but it was memorable…and somewhere, I’m sure, there’s a video. We then went to another bar to watch the game, but it was pretty empty, so we went to the FanZone instead.

There were no games held in Kiev this weekend, but the “FanZone” attempts to give you the game experience. It is in the center of town decked out with jumbotrons, and thousands of spectators gather in drunken tidal pools to cheer on the matches. Ukraine had long since been eliminated. Tonight was Spain vs. France, and it was a boring, boring game. About two hours later, Spain had won 2-0 and the night was still young. Much jubilation and reverie ensued–indeed, the Ukranians are well suited for their drunken reputation. I have never been so impressed by the amount of alcohol that can be dispensed of by a population. I think I ended up getting back to the hostel at 4am, although my phone and only timekeeper had long since died. Some point in the evening, we went to a run-of-the-mill coffee shop and had sushi. The Ukrainians really like their sushi.

In all, it was a perfectly fine experience exploring a new city like Kiev. We could have gone to Chernobyl, which would have been amazing, but I guess it just leaves something for me to do when I go back. I also know now that if I want good sushi, Kiev’s only a short distance away.

June 25, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More