The radio host asked over the phone whether I was in Ferguson. “No,” I told him. “I’m watching the news unfold just like your listeners.”
By the time the first caller asked his question—why I and others were ignoring the role an “anti-social culture of thuggery or gangster rap” plays in teaching young people like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin to have no fear of consequences—the mistake in my assumption was clear. It seemed as if I was watching the news from Ferguson from a vantage point a universe away from that inhabited by host Jim Bohannon and, possibly, many of those who listened in on more than 500 stations nationwide Tuesday night.
I expected a reasonable discussion in which Bohannon, a veteran broadcaster, would take a position to the right of one I had taken in this space on the topic of Ferguson. What I got instead was some perspective on the challenges of having such a conversation across race and political divides at moments like this, when facts are so hard to come by.
The findings of recent polls on public perception of events in Ferguson run by Pew Research Center and The New York Times in partnership with CBS News reveal vastly different understandings of what’s happening depending on the race of the person polled. According the Pew report, four in five black Americans believe that the shooting of Brown by Darren Wilson “raises important issues about race,” compared to 37 percent of white people polled. Sixty-five percent of black people polled said the police had gone too far in responding to protesters in the wake of the shooting, compared to a third of white people. On Tuesday night, the host’s arguments and his selective reading of the coverage offered some context to the numbers. Among his arguments and framing of the issues were the following:
The primary problem in Ferguson is violent protesters.
The first question Bohannon asked was what police might do to quell the crowds, which seemed to me an odd place to start the conversation. Of the 163 arrests that have reportedly been made in Ferguson since Wilson killed Brown, 128 of those arrests have resulted in charges for failure to disperse. Just four have been for assaulting officers.
Audio from a correspondent in Ferguson that Bohannon played at the start of the segment confirmed that protesters are overwhelmingly peaceful. Yet the host still wanted to frame the conversation as one about violent anarchy raging in the Midwestern suburb. It’s a perspective similar to those described in a recent report from St. Louis in which white residents interviewed characterized the Ferguson protests as the result of “misplaced anger” and “bullshit.” They appear to be primarily concerned about how protesters’ actions (not Wilson’s) make their city and region look to the rest of the world.
The starting point for any conversation on what’s happening in Ferguson should be that a young man was killed and his lifeless body left in the street for hours. The starting point should be that his family, the community and the nation are still waiting for answers as to why.
The police shouldn’t be criticized for their use of force—including their militarized response—given that it’s hard to tell peaceful protesters from those who are violent.
See above for the breakdown of who among the crowds is doing what.
Melissa Harris-Perry made an important related point in her on-air exchange Saturday with MSNBC correspondent Trymaine Lee: it’s also worth considering that the people of Ferguson can’t tell police officers who take seriously their mission to serve and protect apart from those whose training or biases leave them unable to use appropriate force during encounters with members of the community. NPR’s interview with retired twenty-three-year veteran DC police officer, Ronald Hampton, offers his take on what appropriate force looks like:
If I go to arrest someone and they are resisting, the policy is that I am authorized to use force necessary to make the arrest that is equal to force being applied. I might be wrestling around them, but all I need to do is get the cuffs on them and get them to the police. Anything beyond that violates the policy.
But Wilson’s actions were justified because Brown was charging him.
Bohannon had decided to echo a version of events that has come to dominate conservative blogosphere: that Brown was running toward Wilson in the moments before the officer killed him. If you watch the video at the link, be sure to hang in until the 2:10 mark, when the woman claiming to be Officer Wilson’s friend offers the well-worn crazed-and-“drug-fueled Negro” angle, saying, “He [Wilson] really thinks he [Brown] was on something, because he just kept coming.”
In Bohannon’s opinion, any eyewitness accounts (and there are at least three) that challenge the mystery woman’s version of events have no merit. He won’t consider them, he said, because one of those eyewitnesses—Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson—has been reported to have been with Brown at the unrelated alleged robbery that took place before the shooting. It’s difficult to see how or why eyewitnesses who say Brown was running away from Wilson when he was killed would be collaborating in a lie, but that’s what Bohannon seemed to think.
What is clear is that the details are in dispute. That’s why people have been protesting in Ferguson: They want a thorough and just investigation that results in a presentation of the facts. Nationally, there’s some skepticism that this is even possible. According to that Pew poll, more than three in four black respondents say they have no or not much confidence in the investigation into the shooting, compared to a third of white respondents.
Let’s hope for an investigation that surprises the skeptics. Let’s hope for an investigation that somehow transcends the stark divides between the parallel universes from which Americans seem to be observing Ferguson.
Read Next: Mychal Dezel Smith on strange fruit in Ferguson