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The Temptations of Tribalism
The one-sided media and the mob aim to beat doubters into silence, but striking back is not the answer.

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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I stayed silent, like a lot of white folks, while events unfolded in Ferguson, Mo.

I was flabbergasted at the anger of the protesters and their certainty, which seemed to doubt any narrative but the one presented by the family attorney, who replayed his Trayvon Martin appearance: Brown was “executed in broad daylight.”

A young man — not a boy — lay dead in the streets of a quiet suburb that, whatever its flaws, does not fit our usual image of the inner-city crime scene. Ferguson is a quiet, majority-black, middle-class suburb full of educated, hard-working, law-abiding, decent Americans of all races.

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People like me did not see how to respond to the unfolding story in a way that might make sense, might make things better. This is the polarized America we live in, one in which factions with dueling narratives battle for political power so they can beat the delegitimized other into submission and silence. The worst are full of passionate conviction.

I could not dismiss the good people of Ferguson as just a mob, and I could not understand how a decent cop would just shoot a man for no reason at two in the afternoon. The dueling narratives seemed to exclude many of us. Consider the video of what police describe as Mike Brown roughing up a store clerk who is trying to get him to pay for cigarettes. If you see this video – and the decision to release it — as anything other than an outrageous effort to taint the jury pool, then you, too, are one of the terrible people who think black lives don’t matter.

A family member of mine, who was born in India, noticed what others without his experience might’ve missed: “That Indian clerk he roughed up was so small. He must have been so scared.” There is no organized lobby for South Asian store clerks who make a modest living serving neighborhoods of every color. (Ask Joe Biden.)

My doubts stem in part from my own experiences. People like me depend on the courage of people like Officer Darren Wilson to feel safe in the world.

But the parents of too many black boys do not feel their sons are safe around cops. The concerned citizens of Ferguson, who worked hard to separate themselves from the thugs and the hustlers and who tried to protect the local stores from the looters, deserve to be heard by the rest of us, too.

Eric Holder, to my surprise, appears to have helped calm the fracas in Ferguson by reassuring these parents that the investigation will be thorough and fair. He recounted times he had been stopped by police, apparently for no reason, including once on the New Jersey Turnpike and once in Georgetown while walking to the movies with his cousin. He wasn’t a kid at the time. “I was a federal prosecutor,” he said. “The same kid who got stopped on the New Jersey freeway is now the attorney general of the United States,” he points out. “This country is capable of change. But change doesn’t happen by itself.”

I pray he means he’ll bring justice to bear and not politics. We do not know the details about how and why Mike Brown died, and we cannot try him in the press. No due process, no justice. We don’t leave justice to grieving family members, for obvious reasons.

I don’t want to respond with tit-for-tat stories about race, detailing accounts of unarmed white young men shot down by black cops, as happened recently in Salt Lake City — unnoticed by nearly everyone in the media. I don’t want to dwell on the angry protestors who threatened to attack the one or two pro-Wilson demonstrators, accusing them of trying to incite a riot. We have to find a way out of tribalism, back to America.

During my years leading the fight against gay marriage, there were so many efforts to paint a picture of me as motivated by anti-gay hatred, and there were so many people hoping I would respond in kind. Some who opposed gay marriage even criticized me for refusing to strike back. They saw my gestures of respect for gay-marriage advocates as a desperate attempt to placate, rather than as a refusal to become the caricature my opponents hoped to make me.

To make something good improbably come out of Ferguson will require work from both sides of the racial and political divide. 

To me the suggestion that makes the most sense was offered by retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Michael Bell, whose 21-year-old son was killed by cops — while handcuffed, Bell says. Colonel Bell spent a decade getting a law passed that requires an outside review of all deaths in police custody. He used the money he won in a wrongful-death lawsuit to run ads featuring the famous New York police detective Frank Serpico. “When police take a life, should they investigate themselves?” the ad asked.

No man can be his own judge and jury.

As I write, thousands of Americans frustrated by the one-sided media and mob have donated to a defense fund for Officer Darren Wilson. Yes, a few are openly racists (and I hope Wilson’s friends will return the funds from those donors). Most are anonymous, fearful of becoming the next target because they doubt the dominant narrative. But one Joseph, a son of a cop, gave $20, writing:

In memory of my father, he risked his life just as officer Wilson did. Thank you for your service and may God Bless all the residents of Ferguson and the family of Mike Brown.

I hear in Joseph — the voice of the excluded middle — a compassion for the family’s loss, a voice that seeks justice for us all.

— Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project. She blogs at MaggieGallagher.com.


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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