Gateway journalism review - 2016

It's complicated

By William H. Freivogel

Kelsey Proud had spent two months curating social media chaos when she went off on a honeymoon cruise in October, 2014.  From the day Michael Brown died, Proud had compiled a live blog on St. Louis Public Radio’s web site containing the most newsworthy and reliable posts from social media.   She had tweeted at a rate of three or four a minute for weeks at a time.

“I was on a boat in the middle of Lake Union in Seattle and the docent asked…where everyone was from and we said St. Louis and they said, ‘Oh man, is it still burning?’  Even though it was October someone asked us if St. Louis as a whole was still burning. 

Proud was take aback.  “I said it is a lot more complicated than that.”

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, made the same point this July in the wake of the assassination of five police officers in Dallas and the deaths of two more black men at the hands of white police.  People make too many generalizations, Brooks said.

The Ferguson story illustrates the tendency by partisans to overgeneralize.  For just about every generalization, there is a conflicting evidence that things are more complicated.

1.  Most eyewitnesses interviewed by the media and police said Brown had his hands up when he was shot.  But eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable and the FBI found all of these witnesses not credible.  Many admitted they had lied.

2.  Social media broke almost all of the news about Ferguson and made it an international cause. But social media also spread most of the false witness statements and false rumors beginning minutes after Brown died.

3.  Social media were a way for protesters to reach out to a national and international audience. National media sometimes swallowed the social media hook, line and sinker and spread false information. 

4.   The Hands Up, Don’t Shoot story quickly took hold in the nation and the world.  But it was seven months before the country learned it didn’t happen. 

5.   Even though Hands Up Don’t Shoot turned out to be a myth, Black Lives Matter became a powerful national force for addressing the truth that underlies the myth -- the long, festering problem of white police officers shooting unarmed black suspects and allowing minor stops to escalate into life-or-death situations.

6.   The powerful call for civil rights that emerged from Ferguson often failed to recognize Officer Darren Wilson had civil rights too, a constitutional right of due process.  Protesters wanted -- and still want -- to call Brown’s death murder, but murder is a legal charge that requires proof that did not exist.

7.  St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch inspired little confidence that the investigation of the shooting would be fair and complete because of his pro-police background.  But McCulloch’s handling of the grand jury addressed the most common civil rights criticisms of the grand jury process -- that evidence is kept secret (McCulloch released it) and that prosecutors don’t elicit evidence that might clear a target.  By contrast, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, initially praised for a more aggressive prosecution strategy in the death of Freddie Gray, now has failed to obtain a conviction in four tries.

8.  Even though there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Wilson on criminal charges, Wilson mishandled a jaywalking stop by allowing it to escalate into the confrontation that turned into a fatal shooting. 

9.  Just as the press was slow in recognizing the myth of Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, it also failed to recognize the magnitude of the unconstitutional policing in Ferguson until the Justice Department revealed it excruciating detail.  About 90 percent of those stopped on minor charges -- failure to obey, improper walking etc. -- were black.  But just because Wilson worked in a department with unconstitutional and racist policing didn’t make him guilty of killing Brown.

10.  Too many black males are shot and killed by police, but the disparity is nowhere near ProPublico’s claim that young black males are 21 times more likely to be killed than young white men.  The Washington Post found that the chances of an unarmed black man being shot and police is six times greater than an unarmed white or Hispanic.  Still, more whites are killed by police than blacks. And it’s more likely for a white police officer to be shot by a black suspect than for a white officer to shoot an unarmed black suspect.


What then is true?

Ferguson is forcing the nation to face up to issues of race and policing that had received little attention before Brown’s death.  The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing has made important recommendations for deescalating police confrontations with civilians.  The Missouri Legislature reformed municipal courts, although the reform has fallen far short of fixing the problem of municipal courts acting like debtors’ prisons.  The Justice Department has forced Ferguson to end its racist policing.

Video evidence of white officers mistreating unarmed black men in places like North Charleston have forced many white Americans to acknowledge that there is truth to the claim that officers sometimes brutalize citizens and that race is sometimes the obvious reason.

Much more can be done to reduce police shootings of blacks and to heal racial divisions -- better police training, better police tactics and strengthened laws for removing bad officers.

But in a nation now divided so deeply, recognizing the complexities is more important than risking over generalizations.

As Proud puts it: “It is extremely tempting to paint the situation that St. Louis found itself in in 2014 with very broad brushes. It is very easy to do that. It is much more difficult to sincerely take a look at what your own biases are and then try see what happened from everyone else’s perspective.  Only when you get a lot of media sources….can you even come close to a true understanding of what happened and continues to play out.  This is not The End….It is not over.  And I don’t think it ever will be, because it did not start with Michael Brown.”




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