Pre-blog note: This blog is largely a technical one: the object here has always been to do the best I can to unpack complicated news stories that I think are important so that people who want to care about what’s going on in the world but are turned off by shitty or oblique coverage could get an access point into world events that affect them. There are plenty of blogs that do something similar and do it better than I do. You probably read this one because you know me or know someone who does. Anyway, the point is, while I try to stay on the technical side where I can back up all of my thoughts and observations with facts and stats, sometimes I take a guilty pleasure in straying over to the more pure values-oriented opinion-based side of things. This blog today is largely on that latter side, but if you’re reading this, odds are you give a shit enough about my opinion to allow me to take a shot at this and forgive me my lack of evidence-based faux-journalism for this post…
They are rioting in the streets in Ferguson, Missouri. A lot of facts are unclear at this juncture, but here’s what we know:
- Ferguson, MO is a largely poor, majority-black community outside of St. Louis
- The commotion started when police allegedly shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Mike Brown. This attracted national media attention and sparked community outrage
- Shortly after, people started rioting in the streets, looting was reported, and police were dispatched.
- Since then, reports have been mixed, some emphasizing the violence and wanton looting of the rioters, some speaking to the militarization of the police force, the disrespect for civil rights, and the aggressive response.
- To the former, we know that stores have been looted. We know that people have been injured. We know that property has been damaged.
- To the latter, we know that the police are well-equipped, have video-documented evidence of brutality and aggression (though it should be noted that some have claimed their response is appropriate to the situation), we have evidence that the Alderman (local government representative) of the area has been arrested by police, as have two journalists covering the event, both of whom claim to have suffered police brutality.
- Rioting and violence continue for a third day, and Ferguson is essentially in a state of chaos.
So that’s what we know. Now, I can’t claim to have any more insight on this than anybody on the ground, but I can respond to the way I’ve seen the dialog going on social media about this event. I am what you’d call a “systems” thinker. I believe that complex systems of rules, power dynamics, and institutions, as well as the often difficult to understand social networks to which we are all connected often affect human behavior far more than any other model we have of understanding why people do what they do. To put that another way: we’re social animals, and while we all believe in personal responsibility, I tend to feel its lazy thinking to not look at the reasons behind someone acting in a particular way and to simply write that person off as stupid, irrational, or evil. We’re all stupid and irrational sometimes (more often than we care to admit), and evil is just another word for an adversary whose value system you can’t understand.
So where am I going with this? If you’re with me so far, I think I’ve laid the groundwork for the argument I want to make. Mainly, I want to refute the popular response that rioters are simply opportunistic idiots who care nothing for social justice, and that they are the clear bad guy here for their irrational response to this tragedy. Feel free to disagree (as you always should), but here’s what I think:
- A majority-white, well-funded, near-militarized police force is charged with “keeping the peace” in a majority black, majority poor community
- The people in this community have little to no economic activity or opportunity
- The people in this community, speaking generally and from a socioeconomic standpoint, have lives that suck compared to almost anyone reading this blog right now.
- Throughout world history, the relationship between the police and the poor has always been a tenuous one, and especially so when there are clear racial divides between the two groups. In Ferguson, as in many other poor communities (and I am claiming this based on interviews I’ve heard and read, but have no statistical evidence to back it up) people do not trust their police force.
- (this is where things might get a little too “academic” for you) The police force is the most visible and regularly interacted with apparatus of the state in any given community. We do not see our politicians on the street, we do not think of our public utilities as “state” utilities, but the police are everywhere and very clearly represent authority.
- When the most ubiquitous representative of the established order appears openly hostile, racist, insensitive to your frustration, has an established reputation of being violent, aggressive, and is equipped in a para-military fashion, imagine for a second what the average person’s view of “society” must be.
- Society wants peace. Society wants order. Society wants these things because people for whom society is working (AKA anyone who is doing just fine playing by the rules (this means you)), law and order benefits us because it protects our well-being and the things we own (our cars, our money, our homes, our businesses)
- When everyone benefits from being part of society, everyone wins when society is peaceful and orderly. This isn’t some high-minded concept — this is simple playground logic; when the rules benefit everyone, most people play by the rules. When the rules benefit most everyone but you, odds are you get pissed off. You may still play by the rules, unless you feel really cheated, in which case you probably go play with some other kids. Now, if everyone feels cheated by the rules, that’s when everyone decides to play a different game. The object of this game is usually “fuck the rule makers”.
- So: we have a socioeconomically depressed community with very little tying many of its members to establishment society, which bears witness to what it considers to be a blatant and pure injustice (the shooting of Mike Brown). Anyone in this society who still has faith that the established order is looking out for them feels utterly betrayed by the lack of response and culpability of the police on this issue. They collectively decide to play a different game entirely.
With that scene set, from my perspective this gets a lot easier to understand. Is rioting and looting in your own community a rational response to much of anything? No. But imagine yourself as a member of that community and look at where we are: we are a community with very little, we deeply distrust or are even fearful of every symbol of establishment law and order, and we feel as though the state has just openly declared us fair-game for violence through what we see as the unjustified and unrepentant murder of one of our children. None of these feelings are rational feelings, and odds are they aren’t expressed so succinctly by anyone there: like with any human being, these feelings manifest as anger, as pain, and as fear. What does one human do when it is angry, in pain, and afraid? Okay, now multiply that by a whole community, and add the rallying cry of injustice, and what you have is very simply a grassroots movement of “anti”. Everything that is at all representative of the established order is now inexorably emotionally connected to an institution that not only does not care for you, but seems openly hostile toward you. An entire community, backed into a corner, and the evidence that all of our fears are justified is all around us in the form of riot police, beatings, shootings, and sirens. This is chaos.
Yes, some people are opportunistically looting. They have no justifiable political motivation for doing so. Some people just want a new TV and see chance. If there were no rules and your community was in utter chaos, you would likely still go to work and file your taxes and pay all the parking meters, right?
This is not a cause. This is an effect. This is the effect of ignoring and marginalizing the poor for so long, concentrating them in small enclaves of desperation, and then being surprised when their interests begin to strongly align against those of the greater society at large. There is a system of violence at play here: violence against human dignity begets violence against decency and order, which in turn begets violence against each other. You want rationality? You want logic? There it is, plain as day: cause and effect.