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.
Instead, Ferguson has fizzled out, the general public having politely declined to draw any significant conclusions, the lack of available facts having stalled the media’s hype. Polling on the topic, meanwhile, does not tell a tale of a country that is unhappy with the status quo. Only 14 percent of Americans (22 percent of blacks and 9 percent of whites) consider police to be institutionally “racist”; just 16 percent believe that they have been “discriminated against” by lawmen on the grounds of their “race or ethnic background” (55 percent of blacks reporting no discrimination at all); and trust in the police remains reasonably high, with just one in four blacks expressing apprehension and one in nine whites admitting to the same. This may help explain why a majority does not consider it necessary for police departments to reflect the racial makeup of those they serve.
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.
All told, this should serve as no surprise. It is always tempting to regard the more dramatic of our transient political events as the ground zero of radical change. But, in truth, this incident never had about it the quality of the game-changer. If one is going to throw around terms such as “execution,” “lynching,” and “gunned down” — or to charge that a particular episode is indicative of a wider “war on young black men” — one had better hope that the facts quickly bear out one’s positions. As of yet, they have not. Michael Brown’s death remains a great mystery. The witnesses’ accounts disagree, there is confusion as to which pieces of evidence are legitimate and which are not, and the police officer at the heart of the matter has not yet spoken. In lieu of hard information, two possible routes have presented themselves: speculation or patience. By and large, the American people have opted for the latter.
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.