The bizarre psychology of the Michael Brown protest movement

Ferguson after the riot / Photo: Paul Sableman, used under Flickr creative commons license
Ferguson after the riot / Photo: Paul Sableman, used under Flickr creative commons license

WASHINGTON, December 4, 2014 — The tumultuous reaction to the St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson appears to be subsiding, leaving behind continuing political furor. One aspect of the Ferguson events that has not received much critical attention is the strange psychology of the protest movement that accompanied the investigation and judicial process.

No matter how you look at the behavior of the mobs, none of it adds up to anything that would have the effect of winning public sentiment. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a group of people holding a conference intended to strategize how to move public opinion in their favor devising the tactics we saw in Ferguson and other trouble spots around the country, such as Oakland, California.

Imagine a discussion in which someone says, “I’d like to go around the room and have each of you share your ideas about ways that we can appeal to citizens, public officials, and the business community regarding the toxic relations we have with law enforcement.” Someone answers, “how about we perpetrate racial violence?” Or, “suppose we burn down businesses, including some that are minority owned?” Or, “let’s send out gangs to steal and vandalize. That ought to gain us some sympathy for the problems we have with law enforcement and the justice system.”

If someone were setting out to devise a plan of action to inflame racial tensions in America, they would be hard pressed to effect a more successful result. No matter how artfully the message from the Racial Identity Politics syndicate was framed, the substantive effect was chaos, disorder, criminal activity and destruction.

No one who watched businesses burning felt any sympathy with the protesters.

No one who simply wanted to return home from a long day’s work but saw traffic grind to a standstill in front of them because of protesters blocking the freeway was favorably disposed to the message.

No one stranded when the West Oakland BART station was taken over by Ferguson protesters was receptive or enthusiastic about the social objectives behind the disturbance.

There are legitimate grievances concerning excessive force on the part of law enforcement. But what is impossible to reconcile is the inherent psychology of exclusive victimization based on race. The facts don’t support it.

Whites, Latinos and Asians also experience unlawful behavior and infringement of civil rights and liberties by police, but there is no narrow racially focused political movement connected with it.

And neither Al Sharpton, the national media or public authorities express more than tepid interest in violence and murder committed by blacks against whites, which is overwhelmingly more prevalent.

It’s not as though there aren’t some successful models for lawful protest. Blacks experience a great deal of un-provoked harassment from police in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district in New York, but the community movement is centered on awareness and reform, not rioting and destruction.

Los Angeles escaped anarchy and lawlessness by channeling emotions and managing the responses to the Michael Brown decision. The Christian Science Monitor details how community leaders pro-actively guided blacks away from counter-productive behavior:

One organization singled out by several observers for effective, pro-active grass-roots activism has been the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. It is headed by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, the author of several books on the black experience in America. The group holds regular Saturday meetings with guests and open mikes on a variety of issues affecting the wider community.

“We laid out a three-point instant response plan that gave people constructive channels for their anger and frustration – petition campaign, planned peaceful rallies and marches, and justice and peace monitors on the streets,” says Mr. Hutchinson.

“There was never an issue of a possible violent response because we educated, prepared, and provided pro-active leadership in the community,” he adds. For several weeks, the Los Angeles Police Department, along with religious, education, and civic leaders, held meetings at the LAPD’s downtown headquarters, readying the city for dealing with the grand jury’s decision whether to indict the white policeman who killed Mr. Brown, a black teen.

The other logical disconnect with the political movement behind the protests nationally is the refusal to distinguish the particular facts of the Michael Brown shooting from the general focus of dissatisfaction. The demonstrators had no interest in the evidence that emerged that Brown’s death was a result of having attacked Officer Wilson and not a racially motivated killing.

All of this is unfortunate, because the Eric Garner killing at the hands of the New York Police Department truly does appear to call for more than a mere conclusion that all that happened was just a procedural mistake by officers. If there were an authentic example of aggressive and abusive policing, one couldn’t find a better example than the Garner case. The International Business Times describes the situation in Tompkinsville:

Comparisons between Ferguson, Missouri, and Tompkinsville, New York, are inevitable, but the latter was quiet on Wednesday, even at the site where Pantaleo put Garner in the NYPD-forbidden chokehold for allegedly illegally selling cigarettes. More news trucks, photographers and reporters stood along Bay Street than residents. Freezing drizzle kept people inside, where they leaned on deli counters and made conversation, but there were no signs of protests similar to those that unfolded across New York City after Garner’s death this summer.

If Pantaleo doesn’t face prosecution, Staten Island barber Angel Sanchez said, people will be upset. But he doesn’t anticipate violent outcry. “We’ll have our rallies, people will express their feelings, of course,” he said. “But we ain’t going to start breaking storefronts and robbing TVs and stuff like that.”

And in the middle of all of the pain he’s experienced, Eric Garner’s son has been very clear about the proper reaction. “There can’t be any violence. Violence will get us nowhere. It’s not going to be a Ferguson-like protest because I think everybody knows my father wasn’t a violent man and they’re going to respect his memory by remaining peaceful. It’s not going to be like it was there.”


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