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Fanning the Flames in Ferguson
Why do only handful of such tragedies trigger national outrage?

Anger on the streets of Ferguson, August 14, 2014. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Victor Davis Hanson

Violence following the recent fatal shooting of an unarmed robbery suspect in Ferguson, Mo, has tragically followed a predictable script.

On average, more than 6,000 African Americans are killed by gun violence each year. That startling figure is nearly equal to all of the U.S. combat fatalities incurred in both Afghanistan and Iraq over some 13 years. African Americans are the victims in about half of the homicides in America each year despite the fact that blacks represent only about 13 percent of the U.S. population.

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One would think that these alarming statistics would provoke the sort of protests that we’ve seen in Ferguson, but that is not the case. Nor does racial unrest automatically follow cases in which white police officers fatally shoot black criminal suspects. Only a small handful of such instances trigger outrage in the black community.

Instead, the sort of civil unrest we’re seeing in Ferguson is most likely to be ignited by the infrequent and disparate cases in which someone white, whether a police officer or not, fatally shoots an unarmed African American.

Controversy, for example, arose over George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. Now, small-town Ferguson is in an uproar over a police officer’s fatal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

There is a second theme in such cases. The media almost invariably distort the facts, sometimes deliberately seeking to incite tensions. In the Trayvon Martin case, journalists published photos of Martin as a diminutive adolescent, not more recent pictures of Martin as a 17-year-old who was much taller than Zimmerman.

Zimmerman was referred to by the New York Times as a “white Hispanic” (a term not usually accorded those of mixed ancestry). ABC News was accused of airing footage of Zimmerman shortly after his encounter with Martin that concealed the severity of Zimmerman’s head injuries. NBC edited a recording of Zimmerman’s 911 call to police in a way that suggested Zimmerman was a racist. CNN speculated that Zimmerman may have used the racial slur “coon” during his 911 call.

In the Brown case, the media has rushed to portray the victim as a “gentle giant” who was almost certainly gunned down by a racist, trigger-happy cop. Only days later it was reported that just minutes before his death, the 6-foot-4, 292-pound Brown had allegedly committed a strong-armed robbery, bullying and assaulting a store owner half his size — and had been almost immediately been stopped not far away for walking down the middle of the road.

A third theme is the entrance of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and the New Black Panther Party. Almost immediately, they incite tensions by issuing wild, unfounded charges. Jackson said of the Martin shooting that “targeting, arresting, convicting blacks and ultimately killing us is big business.” Jackson just called the Brown shooting a “state execution.” Sharpton called the legal acquittal of Zimmerman an “atrocity.” In the Zimmerman case, the New Black Panther Party put a bounty on his head, and in Missouri it called for violence against the police.

Fourth, demagogic politicians use these tragedies for political advantage — usually in ways that only make things worse. Libertarian senator Rand Paul, who is eyeing a 2016 presidential run, blamed the police for their overt military appearance and their crowd-control tactics. Yet street violence still persisted days after police in military-style riot gear were pulled from the scene — until finally there were requests for National Guard intervention.

President Obama did not soothe tensions when he claimed that Trayvon Martin looked like the son he never had, an implication that any president of the United States might have greater sympathy with those who shared a similar appearance. Obama initially weighed in on the Brown case before all the details had emerged, faulting both sides equally for the violence. In 2009, when police arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at his home, Obama blasted the police as racial stereotypers and thereby only spiked tensions.

Finally, these shootings for weeks on end spark racial finger-pointing. Liberals acknowledge high black violent-crime rates but cite poverty, racism, and unfair police enforcement as the catalysts. Conservatives counter that high rates of single-parent families, dependence on government entitlements, and glorification of misogyny and violence in popular culture account for inordinate black violent-crime rates.

Eventually, the unrest peaks, then abates, and the country goes back to business as usual — a little more racially divided as we await the next predictable controversy.

Meanwhile, we might remember that the American experiment to unite various racial and ethnic groups into one culture is as noble as it is rare in history. When it has previously been tried in the modern world — Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Iraq, Rwanda, Syria, Congo — it usually has failed spectacularly.

What will save us are not more elite and self-serving “conversations” about racial difference, but a new classically liberal effort to consider race irrelevant in our shared American culture. Perhaps if we started treating people as unique individuals and not as hyphenated and anonymous groups, we could deal with these tragic shootings as individual tragedies rather than collective conspiracies.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected]. © 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Clashes in Ferguson
TUESDAY, AUGUST 19: The daily protest gatherings appeared to heed calls for calm on Tuesday evening, only to see a return to violence aimed at police forces and a resulting crackdown that once agin filled the air with lights, sirens, and tear gas.
As with previous days, the gatherings and marches during daylight hours were largely peaceful affairs, punctuated by heated rhetoric directed at law enforcement, as authorities strove to keep demonstrators moving through the usual location.
Some arrests were made during the daytime demonstrations.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson again walked among the crowd to call for an end to the violence.
Law enforcement and Ferguson community leaders appealed for a night of calm to help ease tensions. A noticeably smaller crowd remained after dark, changing the mantra “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” that has become the protesters rallying cry throughout the unrest.
A young demonstrators waves a sign that reads “Justice!”
After clashes broke out with police, some in the crowd stove to prevent further escalations, locking arms and confronting those in the crowd bent on violence.
A man stands between police and protesters to appeal for calm.
An older man appeals for calm from a group of younger men wearing masks and face coverings.
Some demonstrators and onlookers took shelter inside a nearby business.
A business owner tussles with a young demonstrator, forcing him outside.
Verbal confrontations escalated later in the evening after bottles were thrown at police.
A policeman speaks with demonstrators as tensions escalate.
Authorities reported that some protesters had thrown urine at police, and additional threats were made from a passing vehicle. In all police made 47 arrests on Tuesday evening.
MONDAY, AUGUST 18: More clashes shook the streets of Ferguson on Monday as the arrival of the Missouri National Guard and the cancellation of the midnight curfew failed to quell the growing crowd of protesters and the growing anger surrounding the investigation of the death of Michael Brown more than a week ago.
Authorities report at least 31 persons were arrested in renewed clashes, which saw the air along Florissant Avenue once again filled with smoke and tear gas as police and demonstrators vied for control.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson told reporters that there was information that some of the more disruptive participants had travelled to Ferguson from as far away as New York and California. Pictured, protesters tip over a porta-potty onto Florissant Avenue.
Johnson had been sent to Ferguson to try and reduce tensions between police and local residents, but that mission appears to have failed as clashes have only increased in intensity since the weekend.
As on previous days, earlier demonstrations were largely peaceful, though arrests did take place as police tried to keep people moving along Florissant, where most of the unrest has taken place.
Rapper Nelly arrived on Monday to join the protests.
Among the large group of demonstrators, a man with a megaphone speaks to the crowd.
Anger rises among the demonstrators.
A melee ensues as police move to arrest a demonstrator.
Heavily-armed special police units were once again out in force.
Police units form a line to prevent demonstrators from moving further.
Riot police advance on the crowd.
Police wear gas masks as they deploy tear gas in the crowd of demonstrators.
A man reacts to the effects of tear gas.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 17: After the curfew on Saturday evening broke down into more clashes and arrests, police increased their presence on the streets on Sunday. But as night fell the situation again turned violent, with demonstrators taunting police and drawing a firm response from police.
After another day of violent clashes and flaunting of the town's midnight curfew, Missouri governor announced late Sunday evening that he is deploying the Missouri National Guard to restore order.
Said Nixon: "Given these deliberate, coordinated and intensifying violent attacks on lives and property in Ferguson, I am directing the highly capable men and women of the Missouri National Guard ... in restoring peace and order to this community,"
Police with riot gear assemble earlier in the evening to deal with the gathered crowd.
Special units prepare to head out as a tear-gas shell streams from behind an armored vehicle.
Police respond to reports of looting at an area business.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 16: By Saturday, Missouri governor Jay Nixon announced a midnight curfew in an attempt to gain control over the streets of Ferguson in the wake of Friday's continued unrest and growing anger over emerging details of the investigation. Pictured, police maintain order during daylight.
Local business owner Mustafa Alshalabi cleans up his store, Sam’s Meat Market, the morning after looters ransacked it.
Local shopowners brandish firearms to protect their property from further looting.
Two groups of demonstrators march down Florissant Avenue.
Demonstrators pass a line of police.
Captain Ronald Johnson talks with demonstrators earlier in the evening in attempt to head off more clashes with police.
Police stand guard at the 911 Hair Salon.
Police stand guard at area businesses.
Police stand guard at area businesses.
The energy level of demonstrators remain high.
Demonstrators hold up homemade signs.
Police shoot smoke cannisters into the gathered crowd.
Demonstrators run to grab smoke cannisters and hurl them back at police.
Demonstrators and journalists run as police fire tear gas into the crowd.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 15: By week's end, the stronger police presence had returned after several businesses suffered damage and crowds of demonstrators continued to challenge law enforcement.
A demonstrators wears one of many tee-shirts with the image of Michael Brown.
A demonstrator wears a bandana as a mask to conceal her identity. Some have also used masks to cope with smoke and tear gas fired by police.
Fellow Ferguson residents try to restrain energized demonstrators.
Demonstrators stand and kneel in front of law enforcement officials.
Demonstrators climb vehicles travelling Florissant Avenue.
Cars crowd Florissant Avenue as rain begins to fall.
Capt. Ron Johnson, joined by Missouri Congressman Lacy Clay (at left) uses a bullhorn to appeal for calm.
Looters among the demonstrators raid an area liquor store.
Looters emerge from a local business.
Looters flee the scene.
Law enforcement prepare to move against the demonstrators.
A police officer chases a demonstrator.
Particles from a concussion grenade explode into the air.
A demonstrators walks amid gas cannisters fired by police.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 14: Protesters walk down Florissant Avenue as demonstrations continued.
Demonstrators show the "Don't Shoot" hands-up gesture to gathered media.
Demonstrators gather near the location where Michael Brown was gunned down by a Ferguson police officer on August 9.
Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson walks among demostrators as night falls. Johnson, a Ferguson native, was brought in to take over security from local police in an attempt to quiet tensions.
A child's train joins the demonstrations on Florissant Avenue.
Tear gas spreads through the crowd.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 13: Some 500 demonstrators gathered Wednesday to continue protests against the shooting and delays in identified the police officers involved. Protesters vented their anger and in some cases taunted police.
Local police and other law-enforcement personnel have stepped up their presence on city streets over the past several days. But some observers wonder if the show of force, including military-style weapons and tactics, is only exacerbating tensions.
Though confrontations have been loud and vocal thorugh the week, there has as yet not been a repeat of the looting and arson the broke out on August 10, when some two dozen local businesses were damaged and a convenience store was gutted by flames. Nine persons have been charged in those incidents.
Throughout the night, as they have done since the demonstrations began last weekend, many protesters advanced on police lines with arms held high in the air in a gesture of surrender, exclaiming “Don’t Shoot! Don’t Shoot.”
After repeated calls to disperse were ignored, police cracked down with riot gear and tear gas.
Police line up to push the protesters back.
Some demonstrators responded by throwing the tear gas canisters back at police, while others attempted to hurl homemade molotov cocktails.
An Al-Jazeera news crew flees the scene as teear gas strikes their camera location.
Police guarded area businesses to head off a repeat of Sunday's looting and arson.
Tear gas and smoke filled the night air as police moved against demonstrators.
A demonstator braves the smoke to grab a gas cannister and hurl it back at police.
Smoke from tear gas and gas cannisters drifted into nearby neighborhoods.
Police fan out to secure nearby neighborhoods and search for violent protesters.
Updated: Aug. 20, 2014

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