Edge of Chaos is a political podcast starring Joe Ryan and Neurotoxin. Its aim is to have a free-flowing discussion of news and current events that also examines the empirical outcomes of public policy, avoiding biases based on ideology and policy intentions. Listener discretion is both advised and encouraged.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Michael Brown Shooting in Ferguson: A Plea For Patience and Logic

As the details surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown slowly emerge from Ferguson, Missouri, we find there is still much we cannot know for sure, at least until a full investigation and possibly a trial is allowed to happen. The danger in what’s going on right now, with both sides squaring off both in the media and in the streets much like the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, is that certain facts get clouded amidst the rhetoric flying around. But let me try to piece things together and give my opinion on what we know so far.

Michael Brown, an 18 year old that was about to start college this week after just graduating high school, was walking down the street with friend Dorian Johnson. At some point they encounter an as yet unnamed officer and member of the mostly white Ferguson police department and are reportedly told to walk on the sidewalk instead of the street, to which both youths respond that they are already near their destination, Dorian Johnson’s own house. From here narratives differ, and the officer either slammed his door open so hard it bounced off of Michael Brown, after which the officer choked him, and then shot him, causing him to run away. After this the officer shot Michael once more and when he fell to the ground, he reportedly held both hands up and said “Don’t shoot me, I don’t have a gun.” The officer ignored this and shot him dead anyway.

The police department’s version says that Michael Brown engaged the officer physically and reached for his firearm, discharging one round into the cruiser. The officer then responded with force and eventually shot Michael Brown dead. Quite obviously with these two stories the end is the same: a young man is dead, and a community has lost one of their own. Obviously we cannot take anything said so far, by the police, by witnesses or by Dorian Johnson, at face value. Everyone has an angle, and just as the police are likely going to portray the shooting as a regrettable but necessary act that was unavoidable and to portray Michael Brown as a dangerous and violent individual, the friends and family of this young man are also going to portray him in the best light as a 100% innocent person with no violent impulses. Similarly, the right wing media will go overboard to portray this young man as a thug, just as the left wing will play up the race issue. The outcome of this is predictable because a lot of the same names, Trayvon Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump and activist Al Sharpton among them, are the same. In my opinion we do need to treat this with the seriousness it deserves, but let me lay out a few reasons why the looting, rioting and supposed incitements of violence are grossly inappropriate and misapplied, if that weren’t already obvious.

Simply put, we have no choice but to let the system work from here. Federal oversight is already being applied, and simply race baiting on either side will not help us discover the facts. Above all, I want to know who did what that day, and mete out consequences accordingly. Now, having said that, the facts we already know, to me, already speak volumes. What business does an officer have shooting a youth dead who was not armed himself? Whether he tried to grab the officer’s gun, and obviously failed, or not is immaterial. Anytime we condone a police officer shooting someone who is unarmed and running away from them, we take one more step away from constitutional protections for citizens of this country. Was there really no other resolution to this? To me this, aside from racial bias, indicates once again that police departments in this country are poorly trained, and now thanks to post-9/11 militarization, are too heavily armed. Give a man a toolbox with only a hammer in it and suddenly the whole world is full of nails. Time and time again we see that the police in the US have simply become too trigger happy, and seem to have lost all capacity to deal with threats in any way other than simply shooting them down with weaponry. This needs to change.

On the subject of race: yes, I think it is relevant here. But I think that obvious grandstanding charlatans like Al Sharpton are using race in this case not just to discover truth, but to cloud the issue with their own politics. I think he tacitly encourages the looting and the other violence we have seen in the wake of the initial shooting, and I think his mere presence is interfering with the search for truth that everyone ultimately wants to happen here. Those who condone violence in response to violence are no better than those who commit the original act of violence. Dr. King knew this well. The non-violent protests, which had citizens of Ferguson stand with hands raised high in the air and chanting “Don’t shoot, we’re unarmed” are a much better idea, and more clearly demonstrate what is at issue here. Predictably though, the police have responded as you would expect, with all of their military toys and combat gear on display. This is the very reason why looting and violence will not solve this. Simply put: the cops are better armed than you. Your only play is to at least be shot with your hands raised, a helpless and innocent victim that will hopefully serve to finally show the brutality of the Ferguson police to the world in unmistakable fashion. This scenario is more along the lines of what Dr. King would have wanted to do here.  Please do not conflate this point with Fox News' penchant for using Dr. King against protestors in this type of situation, all the while lecturing African Americans on their own history though.  It does seem that in Ferguson there was indeed one night of isolated looting and violence, which many people said was precipitated by the police cracking down on an otherwise peaceful protest, and that the level of violence and damage that has occurred since is being exaggerated by the police in an obvious political move to discredit the protests themselves.  Obviously, once again, truth is difficult to come by, but some of the stunning video of police using their riot gear, flashbangs, and etc to crack down on citizens in otherwise peaceful looking neighborhoods sure does not help to inspire confidence in their motives.  Again, the citizenry has no choice but to document, to peacefully protest, and to hope the country is paying attention.  I certainly am, and you should be too.

With the recent police homicide in New York due to a misapplied choke hold, and the Michael Brown shooting, and all of the other cases we have discussed on Edge of Chaos, it is obvious that police are out of control, and that African Americans, and other nonwhites, seem to encounter this problem more. But above all, what we need is an organized movement that sticks to the facts: that over policing is a problem, that police militarization is a problem, that shooting unarmed citizens dead in the street is a problem, that using combat gear equipped, military grade vehicle driving foot soldiers to shut down entire cities and neighborhoods at will and for flimsy reasons is a problem, and that ubiquitously searching, accosting and arresting citizens, particularly those of color and/or in poor neighborhoods, in search of “meeting quotas” is a problem.  Citizens are not the enemy, and the police ought to return to the mantra of "serve and protect."  We need to stay focused on these things if we are to see substantive change.



  1. I'm still collecting the details, and reflecting on them. But, I would agree that if Michael Brown was fleeing, it does appear there can be no just cause for shooting him. I believe the original police report said one shot was fired while they struggled in the police cruiser, followed by others outside the cruiser. Does that mean Brown was fleeing? Or did the struggle continue outside the vehicle and the killing shots were from short range? Wonder how long before an autopsy report.

    1. I think we have a lot of unanswered questions until both an autopsy and a full ballistics assessment on not only Michael Brown's body but the police cruiser as well is completed, and then reviewed by an independent party. Whether or not a round was discharged in the cruiser during a struggle for the gun, as the police claim, is a provable fact. And how and when the officer shot Michael Brown, and from how far away, from what angle etc is also provable and will indicate their relative positions to each other and Brown's position to the gun, etc so in time we'll know if he was shot running away, or up close, or both, etc. But all of this will take weeks, probably months, to come out definitively. This is why for me the real problems in Ferguson today, especially as unrest continues to spiral out of control, are the over the top, militaristic police responses to protesters as well as the few bad apples that are simply using this time as a good excuse to loot some stores. Since the local and county authorities seem to have only two modes: "let people run amok" and "military crackdown circa Cairo in 2012" even the governor himself is asking for outside help and taking the locals off the beat. This incident has exposed many systemic failures so I hope people across the country are paying attention. --Joe