In the wake of continuing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, the narratives that have been conveyed by social media, and the media in general, remain irremediably contradictory and effectively polarizing. Questions surrounding the circumstances that led to the death of an unarmed teenager at the hands of a police officer seem to only beg more questions. The protests and violence that have risen out of the anger and frustration due to this lack of satisfying answers have been called, in more or less equal measure, both understandable and unforgivable.
There is much more of this story that needs to be told. First and foremost, a transparent, thorough and unbiased investigation into the events of August 9 that left one man dead and a police officer in hiding needs to be concluded. Given the irrefutable bungling of the Ferguson Police Department’s attempts to do so thus far, public outcry appears, at very least, justified. Add to this the nature of the response of Ferguson and St. Louis County police as protests grew more vocal and more intense, and as opportunists wreaked a different kind of havoc that was all too quickly and all too lazily identified with those in the streets demanding justice, and the debate over a traffic stop becomes absolutely irreducible to any “accurate” depiction of some linear chain of events.
Yet this is how many reports appear to approach the debate over “right” and “wrong” related to the events ongoing in Ferguson. Sunil Dutta, for example, wrote a guest column in the “Washington Post” today, Aug. 19, in which he attempted to express the matter from the point of view of the police. While his credentials give the impression he is well-suited to voice an opinion on the relationship between police and the citizens that they are meant to protect, his article, “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me”, introduces a series of generally valid points behind the straw man of optimal manifestations of police-citizen interaction.
Dutta presents this relationship in a vacuum. The police have a difficult job, one in which it is advisable to approach even the most routine situations with circumspection. With this in mind, he suggests a reasonable, if obvious, idea:
“Community members deserve courtesy, respect and professionalism from their officers. Every person stopped by a cop should feel safe instead of feeling that their wellbeing is in jeopardy. Shouldn’t the community members extend the same courtesy to their officers and project that the officer’s safety is not threatened by their actions?”
In answer to the second question: probably. But many of the citizens of Ferguson, those who have taken to the streets in protest since the day Michael Brown was killed, would not identify with the “community members” in this construction. That is, each particular interaction a police officer has with one of his or her citizens is not abstractable from the social and economic conditions in which this interaction takes place. By many accounts (an overwhelming number of which were and are viewable only on various social media outlets, and were posted by concerned, often brave, sometimes reckless citizens) the police in Ferguson have not lived up to their end of the bargain. Worse, some of the police have been complicit or outright active in the fostering and perpetuation of an environment far removed from anything resembling democratic equality. No, not all cops are monsters. But, if you’re a cop in Ferguson, you are identified with a institution of documented and very real discrimination, oppression and brutality.
For many like Dutta, the presence of protesters and militarized police is a direct result of a law officer confronting a young man and the tragic events that followed. Either because of misguided moral discomfort or a refusal to consider social reality with requisite honesty or humility, these kinds of assessments gloss the fact that it was a white cop that shot a black kid. It is irresponsible to suggest without qualification that the reason Brown was stopped was rooted in the color of his skin. The truths that are recoverable in this case will not include the thoughts running through Officer Wilson’s head, unless Wilson himself earnestly reveals them. But it is just as irresponsible, in addition to being dismissive and hopelessly out of touch, to suggest that such considerations don’t matter. Such arguments keep shifting back, and are therefore problematically reduced, to the six bullets fired into the body of Brown. Certainly, the answers as to why these bullets left Officer Wilson’s gun are of the utmost importance. For the citizens of Ferguson, however, these answers cannot, and by the looks of the protests will not, be ultimately framed by the context of a lone traffic stop.