Thoughts on the Ritual Now Taking Place in Ferguson, Missouri

Eight days ago, a Ferguson, Missouri police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, a young but very large (6′ 4″, 300 pounds) African-American, under circumstances that remain murky. Since then, a ritual with which we have become tiresomely familiar has unfolded: demonstrations that turned into riots, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson–still!–descending on the scene, pleas for peace, intervention of federal authorities, calls for reappraisal of American race relations. Followed by more riots and looting.

We have been here before, too many times. But why? What is so special, so symbolic, about the death of Michael Brown? In the month before the Brown case exploded on the nation’s front pages, 40 people were murdered in Chicago, a large majority of them black. This led to no demonstrations or riots, no news coverage outside Chicago, no appearances by Sharpton and Jackson. So what made the death of Michael Brown so newsworthy?

Two factors: first, Brown was killed by a white man; second, the white man was a police officer. But here we come to a fork in the road. Was this particular death noteworthy because it was typical of so many others, or because it was so rare? Evidently the latter. Last time I checked the numbers, there were several about 15 times as many instances where blacks murdered whites as where whites murdered blacks. Why do we never have riots over the murder of a white person by a black man? Such events happen, relatively speaking, all the time.

As for the fact that Brown was shot by a white police officer under circumstances deemed dubious, this is a particularly rare occurrence. So unusual that every time it happens, as best I can tell, it becomes a national news story. In this particular instance, the press (along with many residents of Ferguson and the St. Louis area) leaped to the assumption that Brown was an innocent victim, killed in a hail of gunfire as he fled from the police, or as he turned to surrender. The New Yorker wrote:

[Brown] was eighteen years old, walking down a street in Ferguson, Missouri, from his apartment to his grandmother’s, at 2:15 on a bright Saturday afternoon. He was, for a young man, exactly where he should be—among other things, days away from his first college classes.

That was how Brown was first introduced to the public. Only later did it come out that he was not, in fact, walking “from his apartment to his grandmother’s,” nor was he “exactly where he should be.” Rather, he was fleeing after robbing a convenience store and assaulting a store clerk. Liberals now say that this fact is irrelevant. But then, why was it so important to tell us that Brown was just walking to is grandmother’s house and was about to start college?

Was Brown an innocent victim? We still don’t know. The Ferguson Police Department has not released any detailed statement from its officer, Darren Wilson. Amazingly, given all that has transpired, the riots and the commentary, we don’t know why he shot Brown. A possible clue emerged yesterday, as a recording came to light in which an eyewitness said that Brown started to retreat from the police car, but then “doubled back” and “kept coming toward him.”

Wilson might have shot a fleeing Brown repeatedly in an act of unwarranted, almost insane violence, but that seems highly unlikely. The truth, while almost certainly more complicated, is still unknown. An autopsy may shed partial light. How many times was Brown shot? In the front or the back? From what approximate distance? And was he hopped up on meth or some other drug, that might have caused him irrationally to steal a box of cigars, attack a store clerk, and charge an armed policeman? These questions may explain why Eric Holder has ordered a second autopsy to be conducted under auspices of the political arm of the Democratic Party.

Given those uncertainties, and given the rarity of such incidents–white officers killing blacks under doubtful circumstances–what accounts for the media hysteria and the riots? Why does this incident–a tragedy, to be sure, but one among many–merit such an extraordinary degree of attention?

The answer lies in the political realm. A great deal of power–and, sadly, a great deal of money–turns on the perpetuation of certain myths. Chief among them is the myth of black victimization by whites. The killing of Michael Brown is deemed to be emblematic of something, but what? The most common answer is, the way in which our legal system discriminates against African-Americans. But this makes little sense. Darren Wilson was not acting on behalf of the legal system when he shot Brown. Rightly or wrongly, he evidently felt threatened and acted in what he thought was self-defense. The judicial system will be far harder on Wilson than it ever would have been on Brown.

Although there is no apparent connection to the Brown case, it is true that African-Americans are disproportionately charged and convicted of crimes. But that is because they disproportionately commit crimes. The black homicide rate is eight times the white rate. We know from victims’ reports that the frequent prosecution and conviction of blacks is due to the fact that they commit so many crimes. Scott has done as much as anyone to report on this fact. The idea that the judicial system discriminates against African-Americans is a myth.

But think how much depends on perpetuation of the myth. The Democratic Party desperately needs racial polarization. It can’t win national elections without a ridiculous proportion of African-American votes–perhaps as much as 90%. No other ethnic or demographic group votes so monolithically. It is, frankly, unnatural. Yet the Democratic Party needs that absurd level of polarization to continue. So what does it do? Its reporters and politicians gin up controversies like the Brown case to instill fear and paranoia in blacks. How else can the Democrats expect voters to overlook its failed policies and continue to toe the party line?

This is why the Obama administration lost little time falling in with the protesters, rioters and looters. Barack Obama has not yet said that Michael Brown looked like the son he never had–probably not because the physical resemblance is implausible, but because he has already used that line. No matter: everyone knows whose side the administration is on, and it isn’t Darren Wilson’s, even though Wilson’s story is still unknown. There is way too much power and money at stake to wait for the facts to be known before choosing sides.

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