Mind dump: Parsing Ferguson


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For the second time this year, I was glued last night to live streams from on the ground in Ferguson. I have a lot to parse and process for myself, and I thought I'd mind dump here. Maybe it will spark some conversation.


Here are the filters I'm viewing this through.

I am white. I am middle class. I have an admiration for those who have it in them to act on their own radicalism. I have a strong preference for information presented through as few filters as possible (a camera on the ground will show you what the camera holder wants you to see, but that's infinitely better than a reporter in a studio talking about what s/he sees through a drone lens). The only "conflict" I've ever had with a police officer was as a journalist when there was some small-town squabbling between the chief and an elected official. I have a healthy respect for authority that comes with a healthy dose of skepticism regarding that authority (read: I respect an officer's authority to enforce laws, but I'm willing to question the law being enforced and to ask respectfully about my rights and responsibilities).

I also understand as a Freemason I have taken an extra obligation to adhere to the laws of the places I venture, but I also understand the context that a bunch of Freemasons were involved in founding the U.S., in direct violation of the obligations they took when being raised under the laws of Britain.


While I watched the actual announcement of the grand jury decision on whatever TV station was on in the house, I spent most of the night watching Bassem Masri's Ustream channel, with occasional checks on Argus's livestream clips.

I largely followed reaction on Twitter.

I didn't catch any of the news of the bridges being blocked in New York City until this morning. While I certainly understand people demonstrating in other areas, I feel like it was more important for people to express themselves in Ferguson directly.


Here are some facts I can't be blind to.

The announcement was scheduled for a bad time. The announcement came in prime time. Most people were out of work. Many people were glued to the television. People were available to demonstrate, and people were available to watch. If you want to minimize both, have it at 11 a.m., before the East Coast heads to lunch and as the West Coast hops in cars to commute to work.

Demonstrators were organized, and were prepared for both peace and violence. This was certainly an organized demonstration. People with bullhorns had access to benches or other structures to stand on and be seen. People with cameras and strong social media presences were allowed to be close to those people. Leaders called for 4 minutes, 30 seconds of silence after the announcement. While a lot of people were clearly prepared for smoke/gas, I saw a lot of hands up and I didn't see any weapons.

Police were also organized, but only appeared prepared for violence. I understand you prepare for the worst-case scenario, not the best, but if you don't appear ready for the best-case, you're never going to get it. This photo made the rounds last night. I have no way to verify this is from Ferguson, and I have no way to verify it's from last night, as opposed to the night in August when things blew up. But it's an accurate representation of what I saw. Nothing in this photo says, "We're ready for people to just hang out and hold signs."


A couple of things to consider. These are things we can easily make changes on with policy, rather than trying to change attitudes or train people.

The grand jury system needs some help. From data blog Five Thirty-eight:

U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

Tech entrepreneur Chris Sacca has this to say about that statistic: "Failure to indict only happens when the prosecutor wants that to be the result."

Call it a conspiracy if you like, but a system with with two possible outcomes that comes out one way 99.993% of the time is only working in one direction.

Body cameras for police officers could help. For the past three and a half months, Michael Brown's family has been succinct in their reactions in the press. They haven't asked for riots, they haven't asked for money (although I think the system should allow them to file a wrongful death suit, and I certainly would in this case, given the option), and they haven't asked violent demonstrators to do their bidding.

But they are asking for some reforms that could avoid the hearsay reports in this case. Only two people for sure know what happened the day Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, and one of them is dead.

Vox breaks down some of the pros and cons of body cameras (including things like, if an officer enters a home and the video is public domain because it's a police officer, is it a violation of privacy if there's nothing illegal going on?).


Some things I remember from watching on-the-ground video.

• Some protestors were certainly peaceful. They stood around with signs, chanted, took photos and tweeted.

• Some protestors were certainly not peaceful. They threw rocks and other objects, broke things, and some stores were looted, while others were burned.

• Some protestors were not violent, but were belligerent, taunting officers, who I thought showed good restraint under the circumstances.

• Officers used some strategies that were clearly aimed at creating arrests, like boxing in protestors and then telling them to disperse, without leaving them a route to do so.


Todd's a good friend of mine, and I didn't want to address this in 140 characters, but I think it's important and it's going to be a common question.

There's a larger context here. Last night didn't go from "No indictment" to "burn down Ferguson" in one step. It went from demonstrators on edge to a militarized police unit on hand to tear gas to cars on fire to stores being looted and burned. And, if Five Thirty-eight's data are correct, there was probably some institutional meddling in the grand jury's decision-making, and if businesses are seen as institutional, they're not "innocent." But remember, the steps along the way are important. If everything remains peaceful, or if violence is quelled early instead of perpetuated by a back-and-forth, it probably never gets that far.

I'm not so naive as to think nobody went out to burn stores and steal stuff. But I think that was an opportunistic byproduct of the night, not a goal of demonstrators.


Chris Kluwe is back at it, and I'm glad to see it.

You might remember that the NFL player once told a legislator that if gay people were allowed to get married, the legislator would not turn into a lustful cockmonster.

Kluwe posted more photos and such on his Twitter feed as well.

Two things stand out to me very quickly. In the sports photos, almost everyone's white. Also in the sports photos, I see very few police officers.

Also note that in the Seattle and San Francisco photos, these people are happy that their team won. Holy crap.


And finally, at least for now, some links, photos, etc. that I think are, or could be, of importance.

• Here is what the Post-Dispatch looked like this morning, and here's what I think should be media's responsibility in the coming days and weeks.

This photo is not-so-vaguely reminiscent of Tiananmen. A slideshow of photos from The New York Times starts with an even scarier view.

10 powerful minimalist pictures that beautifully challenge police brutality in America

• Far away from Ferguson, protestors shut down bridges in New York City.

Where people were tweeting about #Ferguson last night

• This isn't just a police brutality or racial divide case. It's a human issue, and this is a good truth:

I'd love to collect some of your thoughts and hear about some other angles I should consider. I probably haven't thought of a lot of things.

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One Comment

  1. First, let me say that your response to Todd was proper and spot on. I did a video after the decision and I said that same exact thing. When stuff like this happens all most people can see is what’s happening “now”; they have no real clue as to what’s been going on way before that.

    Second, based on the fact that we had video in Ferguson and in NYC and two cops got off, I’m now wondering if police wearing cameras would help at all. Not unless, like here in Syracuse, there are civilian police review boards who get to look at that stuff & make the decision rather than, as you pointed out, DA’s who are going out of their way to violate the reason they were put into their positions.

    Third, I don’t respect the police as a whole; never have. I do respect the job they have to do “most” of the time; that might seem like a contradiction but I don’t see it that way. I can hate groups of people who, when they take on the mantra of their position are jerks, but still applaud when they actually do the “serve and protect” part of their job because it’s what they’re trained to do. As you pointed out above once again, the cops in Ferguson did seem to set up some of the protesters; was that deliberate or accidental… based on track record I know where my thought it.

    Finally, also based on track record, all this stuff will die down and almost nothing will change. People will move on to the next thing, no one will talk, no one will exert their political power for positivity movements because “voting is boring”… yada yada… Not me being cynical, just being historically honest. In the end, whoever can tell the best and loudest lie will end up being on the “right” side; that’s all I’ve got.
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted..My 7th Year Anniversary; This Means 7 Lessons Of Course…

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