Sunday, December 14, 2014

The case of Michael Brown

Michael Brown was an 18-yr-old black boy from Ferguson (a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri) who was shot dead by a white policeman on Aug. 9. He was unarmed. Initially, it was reported that Brown was shot multiple times while trying to surrender, with his hands up. Some said that he was on his knees and/or with his back to the policeman. The latter, who claimed self-defense, was not arrested. Heated protests by local blacks (who are majority in the population, but practically not represented in police and government) started immediately and continued for days.

In the beginning, I believed that the shooting was completely unjustified and that the policeman must have made a fatal mistake (mildly said), driven by anger, fear and possible racism. After all, such things do happen, don't they? However, 6 days later, the Ferguson police released two important pieces of information: the name of the policeman (Darren Wilson) and video evidence that Michael Brown, together with a friend who witnessed his killing, allegedly robbed a convenience store minutes earlier, taking some cigars. He used only his physical force to push the store clerk, no weapon. In US law, this is called "strong arm robbery".

As soon as I heard this, I changed my opinion. Nobody then could say whether Darren Wilson, who approached the two youths because of jaywalking, even knew about the robbery. However, I (and many others) immediately figured out that, regardless of whether Wilson knew or not, Brown knew perfectly well that he had just committed a robbery, and this influenced his behavior. I think that, if I were a Ferguson protester, at this point I would go home. Why? Because, first, it was quite possible that events had not developed exactly as Brown's friend and other witnesses had described them and the killing could be justified after all. When the size and weight of Michael Brown first became known - 6 ft 4 in (1.93 m) and 292 lb (132 kg), his family and friends said he was a "gentle giant", so gentle that he could not play football. In the face of the new data, this now looked either deep delusion or, more likely, brazen lie; I was not happy with being lied, and wondered how many more lies were circulating.

Second, if a community is already stereotyped as pro-crime, the last things it needs is to rally behind a person shot by police in the immediate aftermath of a robbery. Making him a cause célèbre can only reinforce the stereotypes. Even if the shooting was unjustified, the way to help was by quietly donating to Brown's family to help them find good legal council - as I guess would happen if the victim was white, or of any other race. And it was time to end the meme of "police shooting the citizens they are to protect", because police are not to protect citizens like Michael Brown, but to protect other citizens from them. In fact, behavior such as Brown's on that day is the reason we need police in the first place.

However, Ferguson protesters were far from going home. On the contrary, their protests became more violent because police released Darren Wilson's identity too late (why in fact did they need the name earlier? to lynch him?) and because releasing the video of robbery was an attempt to smear Brown's character (though it was authentic). There had already been rioting and looting, but it became worse. What made in me a particularly ugly impression was that the store robbed by Brown was targeted (according to some reports, looters initially mistook it and looted another store first). I am not even talking about international reactions, whose indignation was proportional to their anti-Americanism (I've briefly mentioned the finger-pointing of Russia).

I still hoped, however, that reasonable people would stop defending the protesters and let the justice do its job. So it was unpleasant surprise for me when on Aug. 20 I found a strongly pro-protesters, pro-Brown post on Dr. Amy Tuteur's Skeptical OB, a serious blog devoted to the science of pregnancy, birth and child care. I posted the following comment:

"I disagree with this post. I do not think the police officer should have risked more serious injury than he allegedly already had in order to protect Brown. Would everybody be happy if he had not shot and was now in hospital with coma? I also wonder whether police guidelines say that you must check whether a suspect is armed before treating him as such. I guess they say quite different things. Because my common sense says that if police officers first check whether a violent person is armed, in too many cases they will not survive to finish the check.

I also think police was right to release the video. If Brown's character was of no importance, why were community members spreading lies about it? But the question is not even about the victim's character. The question is about his adequacy. If you are robbing a shop in your own town in broad daylight at 11 AM, this means you have completely lost touch with reality. And if the victim has done this minute before confronting the police officer, God knows what he did during the confrontation. Let's wait for the facts. But no, people rush to judgement based on the words of two or three biased witnesses, one of them allegedly Brown's accomplice in the robbery. We already know that some of the initial claims were false. They said that Brown was shot in the back, the autopsy shows all shots were from front. God knows how many more things will turn out different. But people have completely forgotten the "innocent until proven guilty", see themselves as a jury and have already convicted the policeman. Why should police apologize before it is proven that their man was wrong?

I think US citizens should support law and order and send a clear message that skin pigmentation does not put anyone above the law and does not entitle anyone to anything. Say that it is OK to attack a policeman as long as you use your bare hands only (never mind that many murders are done by bare hands and feet), say that looting and other property damage is legitimate expression of anger, and you are subscribing to more of the same

For this, I was called a racist with a tiny hateful brain (and many other names) and told to shut up and go away. In a word, my opponents, particularly those identifying themselves as non-white, were the most aggressive bunch of cyberbullies I've ever seen. For comparison, none of the Muslims to whom I have criticized their religion and their Prophet has come anywhere near this.

Among other things, protesters and other "progressives" demanded the case to be handled by a special prosecutor, because the local one was "biased" - his father had been a policeman and was killed by a black criminal some 40 years ago. (Someone commented that, by the same logic, this man should have been denied the job of a prosecutor altogether because he was likely to hold a general bias against criminals.) The only way the prosecutor could satisfy his critics was to indict Wilson. He, however, preferred to leave this job to a grand jury, a procedure existing within US law. Then, Brown supporters screamed that the jury was not adequate because it included 9 whites and only 3 blacks. The jury was constituted before the case and its "demography" matched that of the region; but apparently some people's idea of justice is to fill the juries with black racists who would pronounce verdicts based solely on the race of individuals involved, as in the O.J. Simpson case.

As time passed, more and more facts came out and the initial testimony of many witnesses turned out to be, as a deputy prosecutor put it, "a bunch of lies". Gradually, the following reconstruction of events emerged: In his last morning, Michael Brown was walking with his friend and showed the first sign of inadequate behavior by stopping to give a perfect stranger an unsolicited lecture about Jesus. Immediately after that, the two entered the convenience store. Brown took some cigars (worth a little less than $ 50) to use them for smoking marijuana. He was still under the influence of previously consumed marijuana. Contrary to those who describe the incident as "shoplifting", Brown tried to bring out the cigars openly, not secretly, and pushed back the store clerk who attempted to stop him.

The clerk never called police, a fact described by some clueless Brown supporters as a proof that the robbery had not taken place. Actually, it is an ominous sign that in Ferguson, the law of the jungle was overcoming the rule of law, and law-abiding citizens were submitting to criminals. However, in civilized societies, there is always resistance to the law of the jungle. Another customer called 911 to report the robbery.

After that, Brown and his friend did not use the sidewalk but walked in the middle of the street. This seems to be done by some young men for the sole purpose of harassing motorists. The two young men apparently were so used to it that did not realize how unwise it was in their situation. Darren Wilson, who had just heard about the robbery, saw them and told them to go to the sidewalk. Brown's friend, by his own admission, answered, "We are less than a minute to our destination" (translation: we'll leave the middle of the street when we want to, not when you tell us).

Wilson had driven a little away when he realized that Brown fitted the description of the robbery suspect and was holding cigars. He returned and tried to apprehend Brown. There was a scuffle in the car. Wilson, who shot Brown in the hand, claimed that Brown tried to take his gun, and the physical evidence was in agreement with this. Then Brown and his friend ran away. Wilson told them to stop. Brown stopped and turned around. It seems that at some moment Brown's hands indeed were up, but he was far from surrendering. He walked towards Wilson and the latter shot him several times. The last two shots, in the head, were fatal.

To my (and not only my) opinion, these facts showed that Michael Brown brought about his own death - as is said in such cases, committed "suicide by cop". However, when the facts didn't back his supporters' narrative, they dismissed the facts. And when on Nov. 24 the grand jury, predictably, decided not to indict Wilson, enraged protesters left Ferguson in shambles. I wonder, did they really expect the jurors to indict a probably innocent person just to appease rioters, looters and arsonists? I have little sympathy even to the peaceful protesters. They actually demanded mob justice. They wanted Wilson to be stripped of his right to self-defense, and of fair trial after successful self-defense. And, while accusing him and all whites of racism, they were themselves bitterly racist - because they would never protest if Wilson had been black. We never see protests against black police, although they are as likely as their white colleagues to kill a black citizen in the line of duty. The only good thing in peaceful protests was that their peaceful nature made it possible to ignore them. From moral point of view, however, these racist protesters against justice were hardly better than pro-lifers or religious fanatics protesting over cartoons.

Unlike some who place heavy blame on Michael Brown and his parents, I think that the problem lies deeper. It is an open secret that among too many black Americans, there is a subculture in which the proper way to get things is violence, and hard-working law-abiding blacks are "Uncle Toms" who must be despised for "acting white". This culture more than anything else keeps blacks behind. As the protests proved, it has deep roots in Ferguson; and I guess that only rare strong personalities can escape its grip, so it is not entirely fair to blame Michael Brown, an 18-yr-old with modest intellectual ability, for failing to do such a feat. Here, I wish to cite Brian Willingham, a black church pastor and policeman: “I now realize, that we who consider ourselves leaders in the black community can’t just be against racism. We have to also be against a portion of black culture that has become increasingly anti-authority and antisocial to a point of self-destruction. This is an enemy we’ve yet to engage in the black community."

I also think that those white "liberals" who supported the protests and keep lamenting about "white privilege" are doing a disservice to everybody. And especially to the black Americans they allegedly want to help. By encouraging social ills, these whites are behaving as bad neighbors and bad citizens.

Last but not least, let's remember that Brown did the fatal petty robbery in order to smoke marijuana, and he was under the influence of a previous dose of marijuana. He behaved like a person obeying a vital necessity, like someone dying of hunger who will break a shop window to steal bread. People say that marijuana is not addictive and does not cause violent behavior. However, we see that anecdotal evidence points otherwise. In my country, one of the most cruel and senseless murders in recent years was also over marijuana - in 2011, a 17-yr-old butchered his 12-yr-old friend for breaking a pot with the precious plant (link in Bulgarian). Marijuana is to be decriminalized in the USA. I am not firmly against it, but I fear that it will add fuel to the widespread opinion that it is innocent. Because people, even when claiming self-reliance and ability to make wise choices, usually regard the state as a nanny that will spin a safety net around them and protect them from their own stupidity. So it goes, "after it is allowed, it is not too dangerous". Let's keep in mind that it is a mind-altering substance with poorly known effects that have not been extensively tried in our culture and, as far as I know, in any culture.


Estranged said...

I have to disagree with you on your last point.

The effects of most drugs have been extensively studied, and in Bulgaria we have this book, written by a person, who specializes in biochemistry of the brain: Наркотиците... от Юлиян Караджов The book lists the positive and negative effects of different drugs. I'd trust someone who is a specialist in this field.

I personally have consumed marijuana for 1 year (2009) without getting addicted to it. I'm a very addictive person, but I don't find losing control over my brain process to be fun (that's why I don't drink alcohol either, unless I'm invited on a social event).

I think if you are an agressive person, any drug can help you increase your agression, but based on experience, I'd argue that alcohol is much more likely to do that.

The effects of marijuana on me and my friends have been the following:

- Losing short term memory and a getting your mind driven to do wild associations between words and concepts. As a consequence of these wild associations, one of these three effects follows:

1) feeling that you're extremely smart and making amazing mental connections (in reality you're thinking about something mundane, but it seems like you have an epiphany about the universe); questioning your current beliefs and asking yourself provocative questions

2) slight paranoia, suspicion that people around you may be plotting something against you; even though your suspicions look ridiculous, unlikely and implausible, they are still there for a while.

3) finding even the slightest unexpected or weird thing to be extremely funny

Some complementary effects that can be combined with 3):

3.1) Just like with alcohol, you can get very chatty and mention something personal that you wouldn't otherwise share with others
3.2) Everything you touch or taste feels better than normal; you have increased heartrate and time seems to move slower

Given these common effects, you can imagine why Brown would preach the Bible on random people (that would be effect 1) or act weird when confronted by a cop (that would probably be effect 2). However, his carelessly agressive demeanor, his arrogance, stealing from the shop, pushing away the store owner, the jaywalking, the disregard for any authority, even if the authority has a gun, this can't be coming from anywhere else but from his own personality. Drugs are just an excuse to do what you want to do anyway.

Most mind-altering substances don't really change who we are. Even though your emotions and memory may be changed, it's still you; that's why you can actually mentally disregard the paranoia or the feeling that you're very smart or the "fun effect" from marijuana. That's also why you can disregard the "everyone is my friend" or "why don't I just do whatever I want" feeling from alcohol. (And again, I'd argue that alcohol would have made him way more dangerous).
Mind altering substances like alcohol can remove some barriers between you and your innermost desires and get people to be more reckless if they choose to (because they can still choose to NOT be reckless if they have a strong idea of what is appropriate and what isn't).
I'd even argue that a person is still responsible for his decisions and CAN be responsible for his decisions under the influence.

Widespread ideology on the other hand can change your personal beliefs, it can wash away inconvenient memories, it can make you delusional, inadequate in your perceptions and actions, it can make you dangerous for society. Ideology does that better than most drugs, the Ferguson case being a good example of this.

Estranged said...

Nice one

Maya M said...

Thank you very much for the comments!
I admit I haven't educated myself much about research on drug effects. Recently, some articles on the long-term effects of marijuana were published, e.g.:
This sounds like work from a field still in its infancy, and actually does not give more information than the anecdotal report of William Burroughs (in Junkie).
I fully agree that mind-altering substances (maybe a misnomer) tend just to bring out what is already inside our mind. Nevertheless, when a combination of aggressive mindset and intoxication leads to disaster, I tend to regret more the intoxication. Because abstinence or reasonable use of these substances, though often utopic, still seems to me more realistic than any significant improvement of human nature.
Alcohol is of course an extremely dangerous substance (I've seen it ruin several people), but it is already here. At least, we know in what quantities (approximately) it can be used, we have rules such as - use it in company, together with food, not before lunch... Of course, some break these rules, with dire consequences. I wonder, however, do marijuana users have any similar rules at all.
Thinking of marijuana, I try to extrapolate my knowledge about alcohol. All alcoholics I know deny their problem (actually, this is one of the symptoms). When regular users of marijuana deny even the possibility of addiction, the language is the same. Such praise of marijuana makes me more worried than any criticism.
I also worry about the "passive smoking" of marijuana. I wouldn't wish nonusers of marijuana to be terrorized by users the same way as smokers treated nonsmokers before introduction of current anti-smoking laws.

Charles N. Steele said...

Again, I realize I've missed the boat in not following your blog. This is an extremely perceptive analysis. Spot on!

Maya M said...

Thank you!