Mike Brown vs. Darren Wilson: We don’t need to “wait for all the facts to come out” before taking sides

[Jase Short at The Ansible argues that if police violence is systematic and legally-entrenched, self-defense is warranted. The following builds on that thesis, with my thanks.]


It is undeniable that police kill and injure at a higher rate than the civilian population. This is typically defended on grounds of special workplace hazard: It isn’t that the cops are so homicidal and injurious; they just spend so much time dealing with all the other people who are.

But this fails as an explanation. For one, it can’t explain why cops kill and injure more in their civilian capacities too. (It isn’t the stress, either. Other high-stress jobs don’t show this.) Nor does it explain why police are arrested, prosecuted and convicted at a lower rate than the rest of the population when they act out. Moreover, these trends are stable across periods of greater and lesser crime, and across all variety of policy changes designed to abate the trend. Presently, the average officer is literally, mathematically more likely to provoke a deadly incident than to prevent one.

The problem is, of course, concentrated in poor communities of color (especially black) like Ferguson, MO. In the US, a black man is summarily executed by a police or security officer at a rate of about one every day and a half.

But violence is only the most dramatic expression of a generalized climate of harassment: Last year, the city of Ferguson issued ten thousand more arrest warrants than there are actual people living there. This is almost entirely for frivolous crimes: tinted windows, underpaying a parking ticket by $20, or using a trash pickup service other than the one designated for one’s area. The municipal court system has to pump these cases through at an average of one every 12 seconds.

Over the years, the city has replaced an increasingly large percentage of tax revenue with income from civil fines—to the point where now, they have to harass to meet the budget. The abuse has become—in the most literal sense—institutionalized.

Again, this falls mainly upon Ferguson’s black citizens, who are detained, ticketed, fined and arrested in numbers far outpacing their population share. They are far more likely to be pulled over than whites, while far less likely to be found with anything illegal.

(Note: In “high-stop” areas like Ferguson, or New York City under “stop and frisk,” the percentage of detentions that actually lead to arrest and conviction for any crime are exceedingly low. This should tell us something about the police shootings, where “the facts” are often murkier: If we know the average victim of “soft” police harassment is innocent, then, is it reasonable to assume that the average victim who is killed by police was guilty—that is, was shot with good reason? Not likely.)

* * *

Unless this is the grandest web of coincidence in history, white cops are targeting the black citizens of Ferguson. It isn’t a matter of uncharacteristic “bad apples,” but systematic.

Some observers have likened this kind of police presence to a foreign occupying army. One way to test if this comparison is true, or just hyperbole, is to ask: If it isn’t an occupying force, how would an occupying force behave differently? If we can’t answer, the “resemblance” is one of identity.

* * *

To paraphrase The Ansible: It follows that the black citizens of Ferguson are entitled to self-defense, up to and including that of physical resistance; and the more “fervent” responses of the protesters should be assessed in this light.

But I would add two points to this assessment:

(1) It also follows that Michael Brown’s own behavior, leading up to his death, should also be viewed in this light. (Whatever that behavior may have been.) This is why it doesn’t matter whether Mike Brown attacked Darren Wilson first. The Ferguson protests are not solely about the actions of Darren Wilson; so the justness of the community response doesn’t depend on “the facts” of this particular shooting death. Resistance is justified apart from this incident, and was justified the day before it happened. And that goes no less for Michael Brown. Whether he understood it as such, an attack on Wilson would have constituted self-defense in a larger sense.

(2) The “facts” we already know about Brown’s shooting tell us quite enough. The Ferguson police department has admitted Officer Wilson fired at least once on Brown (missing the target) while the latter was running away. No matter what happened before or after—even if Wilson was later justified in killing Brown—this is a crime. This is attempted murder. Wilson may be guilty of more, but he cannot be guilty of less.



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