During the Great Depression, the Communist scribes at the Daily Worker were forever assuring the more skeptical among their colleagues that the heroic spark was near. Having read about a “small riot somewhere in rural Minnesota,” Whittaker Chambers recorded in Witness, Robert Minor started shouting about “the beginning of the American revolution.” If the paper wished to capitalize upon dissatisfaction and spin it into insurrection and change, Minor proposed, it would need the staff to keep an eye out for the tell-tale sign and, then, to “play it up big.”
Over the past month, the events in Ferguson, Mo., have played a similar role in the imagination as did Minor’s Minnesota riot — the nation’s activists hoping that the harrowing images that have flickered across our television screens would be swiftly converted into widespread upheaval. Those who remain convinced that the United States is incorrigibly and institutionally racist have wished aloud that Michael Brown’s death might provide a tragic illustration of the work that is yet to be done; those concerned by the militarization, impatience, and general unaccountability of America’s police have pointed to authorities’ reactions to the riots in the expectation that the issue might gain wider discussion; and those who are uncomfortable with the number of guns in the United States have asked, semi-rhetorically, whether Ferguson should change our present calculation. While the details of the lamentations have varied, the desire has been the same: Maybe now, something will change.
General attitudes toward the police seem to be similarly unaltered. Not only does the majority deem that the United States needs more — not fewer — cops, but almost three in five are happy with the state of police tactics. As for the Ferguson response per se, a New York Times/CBS survey revealed that only 32 percent supposed that police had “gone too far.” Research tells us that, in the abstract at least, Americans do not approve of police militarization. Nevertheless, they seem to have a funny way of showing it, having broadly approved of the behavior of both the regular Missouri cops and of the National Guard. If voters are gearing up to say “enough” to the MRAPs and automatic weapons that are flooding into their towns, they’re keeping it pretty quiet.
And what about the story itself? Well, there we see widespread hesitancy to jump to conclusions. Most Americans, Rasmussen reports, suspect that the story is gaining special attention only because the victim is black. Nearly 60 percent consider the rioting unjustified. And, despite the hyperbole and prejudgment that we have seen from the press, two in three respondents confirmed that they simply did not have enough information to draw any lessons from the incident, let alone to pronounce upon the officer’s guilt.
Which is to say that when Harvard Law School’s Charles Ogletree proposed this week that Brown’s killing was similar to the murders of Emmett Till and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. he had it precisely backwards. The cases of Till and of King were so powerful because they were so clear-cut — because both victims were self-evidently innocent parties whose lives were publicly taken from them by hate-filled men. Michael Brown, by contrast, could still turn out to have been the villain of the piece. We simply do not know what happened. This has made it difficult for those with an agenda to profit from the case. Ambiguity does not national outrage make, nor can effective political conversations be scripted by know-nothings.
The riots, too, served only to muddy the waters. It was damaging enough to the emerging narrative that those responsible for the unrest had so prematurely determined the officer’s guilt, but it was fatal that their anger was directed at private businesses whose owners and customers were unconnected to the matter at hand. The most effective revolts are simple in nature and morally clear. Legally, it would not have been more acceptable if Ferguson’s mutineers had elected to burn down the police station or to sack the town’s courthouse. But it would have brought their complaint more clearly into focus. Rash and irresponsible as their cry of “injustice!” was, agitators were nonetheless trying to convey to the general public that they are routinely mistreated by the system — that, in other words, Michael Brown is just one of many. There are many among us who would not dismiss this claim out of hand. Most of them, however, will fail to see the connection between striking a blow for the universal rights of man and burning down a QuikTrip. It is tough to keep the attention on the participants in the fight when you have, by your actions, created another set of victims on which the newspapers may fixate.
If, as Justice Potter Stewart contended, obscenity is impossible to define, then effective rebellion must be doubly so. To predict which shots will be heard around the world, and which will fade into obscurity, is an art and not a science — a task for soothsayers rather than for psephologists. Following the striking first act, there will be a contentious investigation and possibly a public trial. Faction and disorder may well return to Ferguson’s streets — accompanied, as always, by the cameras and the microphones. This will teach us something, if we care to look. Those hoping for a deeper change, however, might begin to search elsewhere.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.