On Monday, I decided to spend my evenings flipping back-and-forth between Fox News and MSNBC as the two cable channels dealt with the dueling stories of the United States tiptoeing into a third war in Iraq and the sudden appearance of what appeared to be a police state in a little town outside St Louis. From Monday to Friday, the Ferguson, Missouri story has gone from that of a bizarre and dangerous war zone to one of a relief-filled carnival in the streets.
MSNBC dove headfirst into the Ferguson, Missouri story. An unarmed 18-year-old African American named Michael Brown had been killed by an unnamed police officer. Furious, unarmed African American citizens were confronted with determined cops dressed in camouflage battle fatigues, wearing helmets with plastic face masks, brandishing automatic weapons and backed up by huge, armored-up vehicles topped with officers pointing sniper rifles at them. It was a full-bore manifestation of the militarization of community police equipped by the Pentagon with millions of dollars worth of surplus Iraq and Afghanistan war weaponry. The stated purpose of all this military weaponry in our towns is to fight the War On Terror at the local level. It seemed to aggravate an already terrible situation.
Over at Fox, the heavy focus was on Iraq and ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or in another version, ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. (The Levant refers to the eastern end of the Mediterranean, which of course includes Israel.) ISIS in western Iraq has declared itself The New Caliphate. Over and over, Fox showed excruciating video of the desperate Yazidi people trapped on a barren mountain on the edge of the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. US and Kurd forces dropped desperately needed supplies. A US military team was dropped into assess the situation. Sean Hannity fulminated at his most vigorous trying to establish fundamentalist Islam as the living resurrection of the Nazis from World War Two. President Obama was the cause of everything. George W. Bush was never mentioned. History was absent.
Al Sharpton hosts a nightly MSNBC show, but now he was a pumped up political activist on the ground in Ferguson. Fox hit him hard on this, virtually blaming Sharpton for stirring up the unrest, which did include several instances of looting and the burning of a gas station. The visuals from this were reminiscent of 1968, and Fox played them over and over. This despite Sharpton and the dead boy’s father, Michael Brown Sr., both eloquently begging the crowd to stop the looting and the burning.
Fox brought in Jason Riley, a black editorial writer from the Wall Street Journal, who criticized Sharpton for failing to focus on black-on-black crime. And so it went with Fox hosts and guests overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Ferguson police department and its decision not to release the name or race of the officer who killed Brown and not to report the autopsy results on how many bullets had entered Brown’s body.
MSNBC discounted the looting and burning (reportedly limited to several incidents) and stressed the statistical history of the town of 21,000 souls. In 1980, Ferguson was 85 percent white and 14 percent black; while 30 years later, it’s 29 percent white and 69 percent black. The mayor and police chief are white; five of the six city counsel members are white; the school board is six white people and one Hispanic; the Ferguson Police Department has 50 white officers and three black officers, two female and one male. The shooter is presumed to be white. Eighty-six percent of traffic stops in Ferguson were for black people, and 93 percent of the arrests following those stops were for black people.
MSNBC featured an extended interview with the killing’s main witness, Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson, a wiry, young African American male with dreadlocks. MSNBC interviewed him on camera with his attorney, Freeman Bosley, Jr., an African American former mayor of St. Louis. Johnson said he had yet to share his story with the police; he did not feel the police were interested. He had witnessed a cop shoot his friend multiple times, and he did not trust the Ferguson Police Department. On a subsequent flip over to Fox, they had located a Ferguson police officer who said the department was very interested in Johnson and had been trying to contact him. The suggestion was, Johnson was avoiding them.
This is polarized America 2014. It’s a little like an extreme Bach-like, radically-contrapuntal melody of alternating narratives. Or like Rashomon, jump-cuts back and forth between two conflicting narratives. The Fox narrative was trying to hold onto some kind of image of honorable police authority from the foggy past, while the MSNBC narrative was focused on the unfolding moment. Sensing the weight of its unfolding story, on Wednesday night, MSNBC went live with crude, greenish social media video until 2 AM. Traditional, remote transmitting trucks had been banned by the police.
The African American community and its sympathizers like MSNBC, Twitter and other social media tools made the story go global. As the Ferguson Police Department and its friends like Fox marshaled its story as well, aiming its information at police sympathizers around the nation. We saw this shaping of narrative in the Trayvon Martin homicide case in Florida, where the George Zimmerman's story distilled down to whether or not, as the shooter, he felt afraid. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, seemingly unaware of the loaded history of the term, blamed “outside agitators” for the disturbing scenes. Then several geared-up warrior cops harassed two reporters working on laptops in a MacDonalds. Were these the “outside agitators”? A black Washington Post reporter who caught the exchange on cell phone videotape was bum-rushed out and, in the process, banged hard up against a soda machine. He was finally arrested, though, in the end, no charges were filed and there was no record of the arrest.
Listening to eye-witness Johnson tell his story and listening to Chief Jackson relate the killer’s version second-hand, you can parse out a plausible picture of what likely happened. The cop line is that Michael Brown actually got inside the police cruiser and was struggling for the anonymous cop’s gun; in such a circumstance, the cop had no choice but to shoot Brown. That Brown was ultimately shot numerous times fleeing from the patrol car has not been disputed. Johnson’s version is that the boys were walking in the street and the cruiser passed them, then stopped and backed up, ending up very close to the boys. Johnson says the cop opened his door and it hit Brown bodily. Brown apparently reacted by shoving the door back.
This seems to be the critical issue. Johnson says the cop reacted to the door bouncing back at him by reaching out and physically grabbing Brown. It would make sense that Brown might, then, instinctually react to being grabbed like this. It also makes sense, given examples of police reaction, that the cop would take this as provocation and escalate the struggle, even to the point of un-holstering his gun and shooting the “attacker.”
A gunshot in such close quarters no doubt induces a release of adrenaline all around. The boys began to run, while the cop got out of his car and shot at the running boy’s back. According to Johnson, himself hiding behind a stopped car, Brown was possibly hit from very close range before he took off running. Then he was hit again in the back, whereupon he turned and put his hands up. Then, Johnson says, the cops shot him in the front several times, his body collapsing onto the roadway.
The narrative reality in such a rapidly unfolding incident is that there’s plenty of wiggle room for lawyers to present two, incredibly oppositional stories, each playing to the polarized factions represented by the two cable channels and to their respective prejudices. We saw this in the George Zimmerman / Trayvon Martin murder trial. The story that prevailed was a matter of whether or not the shooter felt afraid and threatened. While those on the losing side of the trial emphasized a story in which a great many white people feel afraid of young black males, and that can’t be an excuse for murder.
I taught creative writing in the Philadelphia prison for 12 years. As part of the introduction to the class, my colleague and I liked to emphasize the importance of narrative and story in life. One way we did this was to point out to the inmates in the class, most of them young African Americans, that they had gone through a formal duel of stories -- what we call a trial -- and their story had lost, something that was clear due to their presence in the class. It had nothing to do with guilt or innocence; it had to do with “justice” and the realities of story telling. This usually got their attention. In the process, it made our point about the importance of telling one’s story well while being aware of an audience.
In the struggle of competing narratives in America, Michelle Alexander’s important book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, applies nicely in the Ferguson case. Her argument is that the blatant oppression of blacks under slavery and Jim Crow has now been shifted into the criminalization process and the stigmatization of African Americans, especially young black males, as dangerous felons.
“In the era of colorblindness,” she writes, “it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. … Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. … We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
She tells a story that may be difficult for many to accept. But events like this week in Ferguson, Missouri, make grappling with that story critical if we are to consider ourselves a free nation.
The other major narrative relevant to the confrontation between the African American community and the Ferguson PD is the increasing militarization of community police. Radley Balko examines this is his book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. In this narrative, police become less community-oriented and more like a cohesive unit in a war zone. Citizens take on the attributes of the enemy. Camaraderie among cops is like being “battle buddies.” It’s reinforced in the minds of cops that civilians just can’t understand what they have to endure. This dynamic gets really impacted and weird when you add a post-9/11, War On Terror psychology of “first-responders” fighting a dirty war where anything goes and when you you also put such amazing amounts of surplus war weaponry from the invasion and occupation of Iraq into their hands.
This week, live on MSNBC, the little town of Ferguson, Missouri became the living, breathing embodiment of these two intertwining narratives.
Full disclosure: I tend to believe Dorian Johnson’s version of the shooting of Michael Brown, and I’m inclined to “lean in” with MSNBC in the cable wars. The shooter’s story sounds too much like a desperate narrative version of the planted gun on the body riddled with bullets. In Brown’s case, his body was left in the street face down for hours while community members collected around it.
The visceral confusion over the door hitting Brown and being swung back and maybe banging into the officer reminds me of the recent case in New York where Cecily McMillan, a young woman activist, was grabbed harshly on her breast from behind by an unseen cop. When she swung around automatically in reaction, she hit the cop with her elbow. She was, then, charged with, and later convicted of, felony assault of a police officer and spent time on Riker’s Island. Maybe in the current case in Ferguson, the cop did get hit by his patrol car door. In the hands of a master attorney, such a circumstance before the right jury could be tranformed, like McMillan's elbow, into a potentially mortal wound and a justifiable provocation -- in Brown's for murder.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon reacted after Wednesday night and appointed a black State Trooper who had been raised in the Ferguson area, Captain Ronald Johnson, to take over the town’s security problems. The tear gas, rubber bullets and even a few Molotov cocktails of Wednesday night were replaced Thursday night by promenading cars, horns blaring and young black men pumping their arms in the air triumphantly. The police watched. The next day, Chief Jackson released the shooter’s name: Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of the department who he claimed had no record of complaints in his file. There was a sense that the people in the street had won something big. The urgency over Iraq was de-escalating and seemed less urgent, although President Obama had reached the 60-day mark so important in the War Powers Act.
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was now live on the street in Ferguson. He was buoyant as he described the peaceful carnival as “a sense of complete organic relief.” A young black man named Rashad Robinson, director of something called Color For Change, spoke of it as “an absolutely new moment.” At this point, I flipped over to Fox New and Laura Ingraham was kvetching with a media critic over the cellphone-videotaped arrest of the Washington Post reporter in MacDonalds. The cops were only trying to protect him, she said. But, somehow, it wasn’t working. She’s smart, and you could sense defeat in her manner. The Fox/Police narrative had lost a major round.
In the end, the decision to go all out on the story was a coup for MSNBC. On the street, the attorney Freeman Bosley, Jr. told Hayes the local prosecutor was now moot in the Brown case; it was now firmly in federal hands. Referring to meetings with Justice Department officials, he said he expected a federal grand jury to act quickly. He thanked Hayes and MSNBC for the live coverage employing all sorts of social media observers. He said it had made a difference; the world was really watching.
“I believe as a result of that we’re going to see some changes,” said the former black mayor of St Louis.
It would be naïve to suggest the struggle is over. Antiwar activist friends of mine from Veterans For Peace, which has its headquarter in St Louis, flew from all over the country to be there Thursday. Ferguson, Missouri was suddenly the front line in a larger struggle. Rashad Robinson put it this way to Hayes: “If anything comes of this, I hope people remain vigilant.”