Monday, August 11, 2014

You Keep Using That Word...

Over the weekend, 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in what is being described as an 'officer-involved shooting' In Ferguson, MO.  More plainly put, he was shot and killed by a police officer.

As usual, eyewitness accounts differ from the police reports, but they all pretty consistently put Brown on his knees, on the ground, with his hands in the air to show he was unarmed.  Some describe a small altercation with police, some say he was put into a chokehold, some say he started running and officers fired on him, after which he knelt and surrendered.  Several more shots were fired, and Brown's body was left in the street for several hours.

Local residents, predictably upset, gathered to protest.  I've heard this protest called a 'riot' across a variety of news sites like this one, but the pictures look to me a lot more like a very energetic protest with a heavy and visibly nervous police presence.  Some store windows were smashed in, and a Quiktrip store seems to have taken the worst of the abuse, as shown in the pictures at the above-linked article.

Come to that, those Quiktrip pictures comprise the vast majority of the 'eyewitness looting accounts' I've seen.  A couple other storefronts, and a report of Wal-Mart employees 'taking shelter' and some folks banging on police cars.  There are some videos of people shouting, and running, but I must admit that when I think of 'rioting' and 'looting' I think of Watts, of the LA riots after the Rodney King verdict, of the 1999 WTO Conference in Seattle.  In comparison, I have to say that the rioters of Ferguson were decidedly under-achievers by comparison.

I'm not making light, not really.  I'm suggesting, though, that perhaps there are reasons that a few smashed windows and an angry protest might be better spun to the rest of the country as riots and looting, as further evidence of black people's lawlessness and dangerous instability.  It's entirely possible that the use of the word 'riot' instead of 'protest' to describe what really appears to be relatively peaceful civil unrest is being used to color the debate, because the word choice itself has become a weapon in race and culture wars.

That plays a part in the dialogue, make no mistake.  Funny note, when I did a quick Google search to make sure I had dates and facts at hand for each, I found the following common descriptors:

  • Watts Riots
  • Rodney King Riots
  • Seattle Protests

Interesting thing there, that the one made up of mostly white college kids is more frequently described as a protest, while the others, mostly made up of poor and middle-class blacks, are definitely riots.  If it were an issue of scale, of size of damage, then...why does Ferguson get to be described as a riot on the strength of one battered gas station and a few broken windows?  Coincidence, I'm sure.

I have three primary points to make in this.  The first is that a lot of people are going to spend the next few days saying "race shouldn't matter" because a dead teenager is a dead teenager regardless of ethnicity.  And you know, it shouldn't matter.  I'd be as outraged if Michael Brown had been white.  But I can't escape the belief that if Michael Brown had been white, he'd be in police custody at worst, and at best sent on his way with a "Kid, stay out of the street, that's what sidewalks are for."  Race does matter, because the structure that put him on his knees in the street, and that left him bleeding there moments later, is based on racial inequality, as is the structure that calls this action a riot and another a protest.

The second point is that people will say "Well, he shouldn't have run.  He should have stopped when he was told to stop, been polite to the officer, obeyed instructions, not given any reason to think he was resisting."  You know, given what happened to him when he tried to surrender, and given how often we see reports of brutality, of abuse, of beatings handed out to people who *did* follow police instructions, I can't really blame him, or any other person from a marginalised culture, for thinking maybe the odds were better running than cooperating.

And the third is simply this:  Every time you shoot a man on his knees, you give incentive to those who would rise from theirs.

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