The Temptations of Tribalism

by Maggie Gallagher
The one-sided media and the mob aim to beat doubters into silence, but striking back is not the answer.

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.

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

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