Moving forward after Ferguson and Staten Island

  • December 8, 2014

For Americans, the 2014 holiday season has not gotten off to a particularly cheery start. As anyone with access to a television, newspaper or Facebook newsfeed is likely aware, the past few weeks have seen two consecutive grand juries decline to bring criminal charges against two policemen, Officer Darren Wilson and Officer Daniel Pantaleo, for their involvement in the deaths of two unarmed African-American men: 16-year-old Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by Wilson in Ferguson, MO, on August 9th of this year, and 43-year-old Eric Garner, who died earlier this year on July 17th after being put in a chokehold by Pantaleo in Staten Island, NYC.

Anger and outrage over these events have erupted into sustained protests in Ferguson, NYC and other cities across the nation and the globe. They have inspired impassioned calls for increased awareness of ingrained racial discrimination faced by black Americans orbiting, in our age of Twitter, around #BlackLivesMatteras well as the inherent privilege and prerogatives enjoyed by white Americans (also orbiting around a hash-tag: #CrimingWhileWhite). Finally, they have ignited a long-overdue national debate regarding institutionalised racism and have shocked and forced us out of our former complacency into a period of intense soul-searching regarding our commitment to our core national values of freedom, justice and equality. 

Only, in regard to this last point, it hasnt. The debate has been raging on for decades, with limited soul searching and maximum stubbornness on both sides. While there can be little doubt that outrage and awareness regarding such incidents of police violence have reached a critical mass in the past few months, Americans have for the most part organised along the same, familiar battle lines as in the still-fresh national debate over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The comments sections in the online news coverage of these events are microcosms of this ideological battlefield, and for those brave enough to wade into the mire, they provide a window into the ugly, degenerate, futile nature of this so called national debate”.

A lack of consensus

Our collective inability to make any sense out of this most recent debate is, for me, one of its saddest elements. If we cant reach any sort of consensus, then where do we go from here, and what do the tragic deaths of these individuals mean? As an older brother to five adopted siblings, several of whom are part black-American, I am, of course, deeply unsettled by the continued existence of the sort of violence that has been thrown into sharp relief these past few weeks. I am, however, also deeply sceptical about the usefulness of raising awarenessor fostering dialoguein the wake of such events. It seems that at this point, almost everyone is aware that police violence affects black-American and other minority groups in the US at disproportionately high rates. We disagree fiercely, however, about the reasons for this reality and the appropriate response. When we try to talk about it, it seems that we end up either only conversing with those with whom we already agree or devolving into the sorts of familiar, heated, blame-centric arguments that only ever seem to sharpen our divisions. Again, refer to the comment sections.

It is equally disappointing that discussion in the past few weeks has almost exclusively focused on the guilt or innocence of the individuals involved in these incidents of violence. In the days after the Ferguson grand jurys decision, social (and normal) media newsfeeds were full of expressions of outrage, shock and disgust at the perceived failure of the legal system on one side, as well as expressions of complacency, relief or smugness on the other. Such expressions, regardless of stance, are founded on opinions about Darren Wilsons guilt. The problem with these sorts of judgements is they are made without access to complete information and are, ironically, the same sort of knee-jerk reactions that many accuse Darren Wilson of making in choosing to fire at Michael Brown. Often, people expressing such judgements appeal to objectivity by citing seemingly-objective evidence, such as eyewitnesses accounts of the shooting. This is problematic, because the eyewitness accounts diverge significantly in detail. It is also hardly shocking; it is well-established that human memory works less like a video camera and more like a sketch that is constantly being re-drawn to serve our current needs and beliefs, and this is why it is considered notoriously unreliable as a form of legal evidence. As with many other contentious topics, we are left with a situation in which both sides can point to the same body of evidence and draw different conclusions.

Somewhat inconveniently for those on the other side claiming that the US legal system is the best and most impartial method of adjucating disputes in the face of contested evidence, the Ferguson jurys decision was followed up almost immediately by the Staten Island jurys decision not to bring charges against Officer Daniel Pantaleo. In this case, the eye-witness video recording of events, widely available and disseminated, seems to suggest strongly that the justice system failed Eric Garner. The finer legal and semantic details (including whether or not Garner was subjected to a chokehold or takedown manoeuvre) are somewhat immaterial; it is hard to watch the video without concluding that Pantaleo was at fault. Yet, some have watched the video and reached exactly that conclusion, proving that even in the face of clearly-defined evidence people can reach different conclusions about guilt and blame (concepts which are maddeningly difficult to assign objectively).

This obsession over the guilt or innocence of the individuals involved, though, deflects from the underlying issues, which, as the black community has itself argued consistently, are pervasive and systemic. The exact factors that led to Michael Brown being shot or Eric Garner being put into a chokehold are not as important as is the existence of systemic processes in society that result in the deaths of thousands of young black men like Brown and Garner each year. In a video that went viral in the wake of Michael Browns shooting, Philip Agnew, executive director of Dream Defenders (an organisation founded in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting), says: The conviction of Darren Wilson, if it happens, though the system and the history would tell us that it may not, will not alleviate the problems here and that are happening around the country.

But is it even worth arguing about the underlying problems? The futility of trying to change each others minds by appealing to reason or factsis well documented. Research tells us that, like memory, our beliefs are underpinned more by psychological needs than objectivity. To put it simply: arguing about factsdoesnt really matter because when it comes down to it, our beliefs are founded on un-falsifiable assertions. If you believe that Eric Garner was forcibly resisting arrest, and I show you a video that proves otherwise, you might try out some alternative arguments, but in the case that these prove untenable, you will revert to an un-falsifiable belief such as police officers are justified in using force, even if they sometimes make mistakes. Thus, we end up arguing past each other, because we are all arguing from different starting principles. We can throw facts and reason at each other until we are blue in the face, but we wont be likely to change anyones mind because our arguments are, in the end, founded on beliefs that are different but just as arbitrary as the other sides. If you disagree with all of this, and believe that people are inherently reasonable, well, thats exactly the point. I wont try to argue with you.

If theres no hope in changing each others minds, then where does that leave us? Or at least, where does that leave those of us who do not see the acceptance of the current status quo as an acceptable or viable option? We could conclude, along with the some of the more radical extremists, that the whole system is rotten to its core and begin plotting its overthrow. Or, the less revolutionarily inclined of us might side with political philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre, conclude that our current inability to achieve consensus is due to the failure of the Enlightenment to produce a coherent, objective, universal system of morality, and retreat back into small self-sustaining communities where we will develop common mythologies that teach our children to be kinder and less prejudiced. If neither of these choices prove practical or realistic (as I would argue they wont), we might consider starting by trying to find some common ground, so we can begin to build a consensus and move forward with a plan of action.

Finding common ground

Where might we find this common ground? For starters, it seems hard to argue that taking some simple measures to increase police accountability would do anyone harm. Wouldnt it be nice if we could all be confident that there was at least a video record of our interactions with law enforcement, if only so that we could ask for proof that we were indeed driving 20 over the speed limit and not 10? Obamas announcement of his intent to provide federal funding for police body cameras is an important step in the right direction, but as many observers have pointed out in the wake of the Eric Garner decision, there appears to be little point in increasing so-called accountability if this evidence can be ignored by a grand jury. While I wouldnt agree that encouraging the use of body cameras for police officers is a futile exercise (a 2012 study found that officers using body cameras were involved in fewer incidents involving force than those who did not wear cameras), I also think it would be a mistake not to turn a critical eye towards the justice system as well. 

The Staten Island grand jury may have made a choice that appears, given the evidence, to fly in the face of reason, but people (and groups of people) make unreasonable choices all the time. Instead of talking about a particular flawed grand jury decision, maybe we should be talking about the flawed grand jury institution in general. Again, wouldnt it be a good thing for everyone if we could remove some of the arbitrariness inherent in the legal system, and improve the way that similar charges relying on incomplete or hard-to-reconstruct information (including many rape charges) are handled?

More importantly, what about the conditions that conspire to create an environment in which the use of deadly force by the police is not only implicitly accepted but necessary? Here, it may be harder to reach consensus. A recent Washington Post op-ed written by a veteran police officer advises: If you dont want to get shot, tasered, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you.The prevalence of this kind of attitude, its codification into policing practice and its protection under the law certainly deserve our critical attention, but having lived and worked in a high-crime Southside Chicago neighbourhood, I can confidently say that the heavy presence of armed officers in the community was a welcome comfort not only to me but to the overwhelming majority of the neighbourhoods residents, who were mostly black. 

In another video that has gone viral in recent weeks, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn lashed out against protestors for not caring about the victimisation of people in this community by crimeand the fact that 80 percent of homicide victims, 85 percent of aggravated assault victims and 80 percent of shooting victims who survive shootings are African-American. It is somewhat ironic that Flynns speech was used primarily as cannon fodder by those on the conservative-right to attack protesters because his comments should have contained an equal amount of ammo for those on the other side of the battlefield. What is disturbing here is that the fact that abjectly poor, predominately black communities bear a staggering proportion of the overall violent crime burden in Milwaukee and almost every other US city is no longer even considered shocking enough to be used as ammo against those denying that the country has a race problem. The violent crime epidemic in black America, it seems, is no longer considered a scandal it is the status quo.

A plan of action

But why should Americans care about poverty and crime in black American communities? As the discussion in the past few weeks has made abundantly clear, many Americans still believe that race is not an issueand that the crime that plagues black American communities has everything to do with personal responsibility and nothing to do with racial discrimination. Arguing the point certainly isnt going to change their minds or do much to help solve the issue. What might help, though, is coming up with solutions to address the astronomically high levels of urban poverty, which, as research has repeatedly shown, go hand in hand with levels of violent crime in both black and white communities. Or, better yet, what if this solution could address both urban poverty and the issue of income inequality, an issue which Obama last year called the defining challenge of our timeand an issue which is increasingly close to home for millions Americans across the political spectrum (especially the younger ones)? What if we could solve the vast majority of urban poverty by simply giving money to those who need it? What if we could eliminate the worst effects of income inequality by giving some money to everyone enough to provide for lifes basic necessities?

It sounds radical, and indeed it is. Before you dismiss the idea as utopian, politically infeasible or overly simplistic, though, you should know that proponents of a basic income have begun to emerge from both the left and the right, and that hard-nosed economists including Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, James Tobin and John Kenneth Galbraith have all strongly supported the idea in some form or another. Left-of-centre sceptical readers may be interested in the growing body of literature that suggests that cash transfers are one of the most effective ways of combating poverty and increasing well-being in poor communities as well as evidence that suggests that such transfers can promote overall economic growth, and right-of-centre sceptics may be interested in the potential of a basic income to reduce government bureaucracy, allow for a less-distortionary income taxation scheme and encourage strong families. Either way, the important thing is that when it comes to basic income there is no need to argue past each other; despite beginning from different core beliefs or starting points, we can potentially arrive at a common solution.

This is where my area of research comes in. Before we can do anything to improve the lot of Americas poverty-and-crime-ravaged inner-city neighbourhoods or the life prospects of those who live in these areas, we have to achieve some sort of consensus regarding how to move forward. In order to achieve this consensus, we need to stop talking past each other (or only talking amongst those who already share our beliefs) and get to work on a solution with appeal that crosses ideological divides and can be shown to be in the best interests of nearly everyone. My specific research concerns this last point by exploring how changes in the income distribution affect house prices and residential investment, I hope to show that introducing a basic income could provide broad benefits by alleviating housing shortages and increasing the wealth of existing homeowners. Of course, I dont expect that everyone will agree that the idea of a basic income is a good one, even if were arguing from the same starting points. That is perfectly fine. There are likely many other solutions that I havent yet considered on which we might find common ground. But please, lets focus on finding some solutions that can move us forward. If we cannot do this, we will have no choice but to dig deeper into our ideological trenches, if only to make room for more bodies.

*Adam Cowden [2014] is doing an MPhil in Planning, Growth and Regeneration. Picture credit: Debra Sweet and Flickr.  Licensed by Creative Commons.

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