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Society cracks along the Ferguson fault line

A third night of riots and looting swept through Ferguson, Missouri, a largely black suburb of St. Louis, on Tuesday.  This time the festivities ended with a man getting shot by police, after he brandished a gun at them.  The shock waves may have reached as far as the Galleria mall in St. Louis, which was the scene of a melee with over forty participants on Monday.  Local authorities have gone on record as saying they don’t believe the Galleria incident is directly connected to the unrest in Ferguson, but suspicions linger, especially since the police have every incentive to downplay such a connection in the interests of calming things down.

What started all this was the shooting of an 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown by a police officer, during a roadside encounter on Saturday.  (Forgive me if it sounds old-fashioned, but I think an eighteen-year-old is properly described as a “man,” not a “youth” or “boy,” and while “teenager” is technically accurate, it creates a misleading impression.  I realize that’s terribly out of sync with modern socio-political theory, which officially designates twenty-six year olds as “children,” but I think that’s part of the problem I intend to discuss.)

Just about every detail of Brown’s shooting is hotly disputed, so at this point, conclusions drawn about the incident are likely to be speculation.  This has, alas, not stopped people in Ferguson from engaging in the most dire speculations.  From the standpoint of the police, the worst-case accusation is that the officer – still unnamed, as death threats fill the air – brutally executed Brown for no reason at all, following a verbal altercation.  On the other hand, the police have described eyewitness testimony that Brown entered the police car and scuffled with the officer, leading to the use of the officer’s firearm.  Some say Brown was mercilessly gunned down while he was trying to surrender; others say he was shot while fleeing the scene of the altercation.  There are not many scenarios where this looks good for the cop, who is currently on administrative leave pending investigation.

Sadly, the unrest began because no one felt like waiting for that investigation to run its course.  There have been complaints about police harassment in the area.  There are racial tensions.  A vigil for Brown erupted into an angry demonstration marked with cries of “Kill the police!”  Vandalism and looting commenced shortly thereafter.  By Monday evening, police riot-control units were arriving at their posts in Ferguson with military-style equipment, leading to further complaints about heavily-armed paramilitary law enforcement.

It’s a mess, and it turned into a mess quickly, which does not speak well for the society of Ferguson, Missouri.  It may be an ominous sign of things to come for American society at large.

When I speak of “society,” I don’t mean just the local black community, or civic leaders.  The term includes government officials and the police as well.  Societies are complex machines with many moving parts.  Government can most certainly damage the people it presides over.  Stern critics of the police in Ferguson will say they share responsibility for creating the powder-keg atmosphere that detonated with Brown’s shooting.  Isn’t that precisely the argument advanced by critics of the welfare state, and its degenerative effects on the people it ostensibly serves?

Government force changes people, across the span of years and generations.  Such force is represented in many ways, from the steely example of armed law enforcement, to the maze of cubicles from which “public assistance” is dispensed.  Force is not inherently bad – by definition, any government must be capable of exerting it, and it is the exclusive province of the State, which in a lawful society will be heavily regulated, highly transparent, and fully accountable to the people it serves.  But all forms of coercive force are toxic and corrupting, if not handled with the greatest care.  Leave the vandals and thieves aside, and listen to the angry people of Ferguson.  Their complaints about the failures of local government are not so different from complaints lodged against many levels of government by dramatically different groups of citizens.

That’s not to say that their criticisms are automatically accurate, or that they’re entirely correct about what happened to Michael Brown.  We don’t know yet… which means the outbreak of anger and lawlessness in Ferguson was a form of prejudice.  That’s supposed to be bad, isn’t it?  One of the worst civic sins, in fact.  Prejudice leads people to conclude, in a matter of hours, there will be no fair investigation of a terrible incident.  In this case, that was a puzzling conclusion to reach, given that the odds of the federal government getting involved approached one hundred percent, without any protesters needing to raise their voices.

Vultures descended upon Ferguson with predictable speed, including Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, the latter of which penned a USA Today op-ed warning “there’s a ‘Ferguson’ near you.”  Trayvon Martin’s name was also swiftly invoked.  This kind of victim mythology and paranoia is the reason a social fault line opened in Ferguson before the authorities had a chance to do anything more than announce an investigation was under way.

Jackson writes, “I understand the community’s anger, and protests are legitimate and in order, but Michael Brown’s family said things should not be made worse with looting and vandalism.”  Well, no, protests were not legitimate and in order, especially since they predictably lead to the kind of looting and vandalism that ensued.  If there had been some sort of cover-up to sweep Brown’s death under the rug, orderly demonstrations might be in order.  But when people have been convinced of their perpetual victim status, it’s not surprising to see their fragile society crack under the slightest pressure.  People who have been told The System robs them to get rich feel justified in stealing back from The System when the streets heat up.  The fact that individual law-abiding shopkeepers are injured by such looting – people who have tried to help the community in the only way that really matters – is quickly forgotten.  Of course, to the simple thieves who were merely looking for a riot to cover up their ransacking, such considerations are irrelevant.  But I’ll bet a few of the people who looted stores in Ferguson would honestly feel remorse, in the calm light of a following day, if they were introduced to the people they stole from.

There is kindness and decency to be found in even the most run-down neighborhoods.  Callous and mean people in well-tailored clothes can be found in gated communities.  We must always encourage the best from everyone, while making it clear that crime is utterly unacceptable.  This requires a mature understanding, on the part of people who have no intention of stooping to vandalism or theft, that breaking faith with society creates an environment that encourages the looters.  A strong society can hold up under the impact of a terrible incident, even if that incident opens a window onto government corruption.  A strong society can cleanse and heal its government.  A weak society shatters under stress… or learns to wearily tolerate corruption and government failure.

It’s uneasy seeing police officers deploy with paramilitary gear.  It’s also disturbing to think that such equipment is necessary.  A society that comes to this in a matter of days has serious problems.  No one knows what lessons to draw from the death of Michael Brown yet, because we haven’t firmly established what happened yet.  Did an officer with years of evidently satisfactory experience suddenly snap and murder a young man in cold blood after a verbal altercation?  Did Brown, spoken of as decent and well-mannered by people in the neighborhood, suddenly snap and assault the officer?  If both the police and citizen conducted themselves with polite manners and good cheer, would there be many tragic incidents?  If citizens fully respect each other in a community and meet high standards of good conduct, won’t the police have much less work to do?

The great enemy of anarchy is not law, but goodwill.  Imposing order in the absence of goodwill just leads to different flavors of anarchy.  Likewise, prosperity cannot be engineered and imposed by force.  It comes from cooperation and industry, which require goodwill.  A melancholy demonstration of this truth will be provided if some of Ferguson’s merchants decide it’s no longer safe for them to do business there.

Whatever else can be said about Ferguson, Missouri, it seems rather short on goodwill.  I’m prepared to believe the local government has something to do with that.  I know for a fact the local citizens do.  It’s written on the pavement in shattered glass.

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