The #Ferguson debacle involves much more than just one issue, but it seems the media and most commentators want to focus on the “guilt” of Officer Wilson, and the “failure” of “justice” that was not applied to him. Frankly, as viscerally satisfying as that is to the anger particularly among African Americans, it does not address the real issues.
Officer Wilson is not the problem. He may not even be a good example of the real problem, which is the way in which police treat African American males in our society. People say it as if it were simply a given in life and society. African American men, particularly young men and boys, are treated unfairly, disproportionately accused of crimes, disproportionately convicted, disproportionately jailed and have longer sentences than other segments of society. Until someone dies or is hurt, that fact seems to merely sit at the back of the mind of society, hidden and ignored. The mistreatment is a symptom of prejudice and discrimination, as well as actual criminal behavior generated primarily by circumstance. We all know this is the case, yet until a Ferguson comes along we ignore it. We shove these facts unobserved and unresolved into the shadows of our collective consciousness where we need not look at them.
Despite the increasing population of middle class African Americans, such Americans are still disproportionately poor and ghettoized. This means that young men growing up as they do in poverty and a lack of diversity are going to be angrier, more prone to criminal behavior and more likely to lash out at such circumstances. At the same time, American society has for generations had an ingrained false prejudicial image of the African American man as frightening and angry. This likely began with prejudices that pre-date slavery in the United States and stem from the images of “savages” in “darkest Africa,” promoted in the early days of exploration and colonization of that continent by Europeans. Images fostered in European society for probably six hundred years and only enhanced by the brutalities of slavery, the slave trade, and the eventual ghettoization and mistreatment of freed slaves. In the last 50 years those images have only been enhanced by the advent of gangs, the destruction of America’s inner cities, riots, and the treatment received from and, in all honesty, contributed by, popular culture.
The blame for its view of young black men can not solely be laid at the feet of white society. Indeed, popular culture promoted this image in film and television, but then around twenty five years ago, with the advent of hip hop and rap, it seems that African American popular culture seemed to take a “if you can’t beat them, join them” stand. Young African American men began to promote themselves as angry, aggressive and indeed barbaric, and white society embraced this image and even made it cool.
Houston, we have a problem. On the one hand we have prejudice and prejudicial treatment, on the other we have popular culture promoting images that reinforce the prejudices, and we have entered a vicious cycle. At the same time, the police are frightened of all the guns in society, afraid that every time they encounter a simple traffic stop, they will be shot. And, of course, one of the chief preservation mechanisms of the human animal is profiling. Make an intelligent judgment regarding the class of the danger and avoid or eliminate that class. It is one way humans since the beginning of time have learned to protect themselves. Yet we say to police “don’t profile.” Of course they profile. Everyone knows it. Everyone has prejudices and that is what profiling is. Particularly in dangerous situations people profile all the time. Telling them not to profile is like telling them not to be human. What we really need to do is to train police to recognize when they are profiling and teach them mechanisms for analyzing, avoiding and counteracting it.
We also need to get back to the basics of training police not to use their weapons. That’s right, not to use their weapons. It seems that police are far too free with firing their guns. They shouldn’t be. In fact they really should never shoot someone unless a person points a weapon at someone or they are fired upon.
There is however a problem separate from the problems involving the profiling of young African American men. It is a problem inherent in many cases we see on TV and on to which the media latches. It is the rush to judgment and more importantly the mob mentality generated by the anger at seeming injustice. We have a desire to blame. We have a desire to ensure that “justice” is done. The mob rises up in response to these incidents and we get not only violence and looting on the streets, but we destroy people like Officer Wilson’s lives without convicting them of any crime because we feel “justice” was not done.
One learns in law school early on that justice and the law are at best distant relations that meet occasionally. The law is about process and rules. Justice involves emotions, morals, societal norms. The law is much less malleable than justice. Justice may mean different things, in different circumstances to different people. The law by design is supposed to apply the same to all.
A crowd and a mob shouts “Murder!” and “Justice!” when they have decided the law is wrong. A mob lynches. A mob out for “Justice” in Ferguson in 2014 has very little to distinguish it from a mob out for “Justice” in Mississippi in the 1960s. They both want to apply their form of justice to a person who they believe has done them deep harm. The only real difference is the mob in Ferguson can’t find the object of their desire for justice and drag him into the street. I have no doubt they would if they could.
And that is the second problem exemplified by Ferguson. A problem nobody seems to want to discuss. That problem may be somewhat less important to many than the problem of the treatment by authorities of young black men, but it is just as endemic and very dangerous and very personal, and ultimately may be one of the reasons for the first problem.
Our society has come to believe something that is very dangerous. We have decided that the ends justify the means. There could be a whole book written about who is to blame or how this has come to pass. People can blame popular culture, they can blame the “media,” they can blame all sorts of things. Nevertheless we have decided utilitarianism is the way to go. Utilitarianism is essentially an ends justify the means philosophy. The greatest good for the greatest number. Kill one person to save a hundred. Torture someone to save thousands. Commit injustice to get justice.
This has given those in Ferguson the belief that to hell with the Grand Jury, to hell with the Law, we want Justice and we will get it by hook or by crook. That is the mob mentality. What nobody will say is that it is that same exact view, that same exact morality, which allowed Officer Wilson to shoot in the first place. The ends justify the means. A young black man charges you, shoot him. It takes a criminal off the street and it saves your life. Unarmed doesn’t matter. The ends justify the means. A young unarmed black man is shot. String up the shooter. Torch the community. Set fire to police cars. Shoot the police. Then there will be justice. The ends justify the means.
The ends never justify the means. It is not right to torture, it is not right to kill an unarmed man without just cause, it is not right to get revenge, it is not right to string someone up without a trial.
In an Op Ed for the New York Times, Michelle Alexander said “The system is legally rigged so that poor people guilty of relatively minor crimes are regularly sentenced to decades behind bars while police officers who kill unarmed black men almost never get charged, much less serve time in prison.” That is true and deeply unjust. But the focus should be on that system not on Darren Wilson. If the law is not followed, if we simply reject the findings of the Grand Jury because we disagree with them, we are no better than a lynch mob. We want to change the system. We should protest on behalf of all the young black victims, not against a single white cop in an individual situation. We should protest against a society that has branded a segment, not against a cop whose individual thought process we have not examined. We should protest against prosecutors in general, authority in general, laws that have a negative effect, the failure to train, the promotion of violence, the misuse of power. All those are legitimate objects of our protest. We should not try to virtually lynch a cop in the name of “Justice,” just because we object to the way the law happened to come out in this instance. That is a dangerous path down which there are very frightening things.