In 2018, the town of Ferguson, Mo. remains a kind of shorthand for police misconduct, particularly against unarmed black men. News of police shootings of young black Americans spawns talk of “another Ferguson.” The deceased in Ferguson, Michael Brown, is usually the first of a litany of names, followed by Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin, uttered by activists trying to raise awareness about perceived policing issues in minority communities.
Yet President Obama’s Justice Department conducted a thorough review of Officer Darren Wilson’s role in Brown’s death, and found that Wilson’s use of force was justified because Brown had attacked him and attempted to grab his pistol. This was not a case where there wasn’t enough evidence to charge an officer with wrongdoing. The results of the investigation into Wilson’s conduct were not “inconclusive.” He was affirmatively cleared.
Yet, even with as comprehensive a factual investigation as one could have, conducted by an administration that could not have been more sympathetic to the community’s outrage and perception of Michael Brown’s shooting as unjustified, the narrative that Brown was “yet another” young black man done in by a racist, overaggressive cop who had no justification for his actions persists. So it is not without justification that Trump supporters, among others, look skeptically at those who, facts be damned, continue to cite Ferguson as an example of an unjustified police shooting, ignoring the Obama DOJ’s own fairly conclusive report.
Having worked on civil-rights issues at the DOJ, I understand where those who cling to the now-disproven Ferguson narrative are coming from, even if I don’t agree with pretending Officer Wilson committed a heinous crime. There are real issues surrounding policing in inner-city minority communities, many of which go far beyond use-of-force policies or shootings, which are, thank goodness, relatively rare. Many members of minority communities feel that all of the structures and institutions of society — from schools to employment opportunities to economic development to systems of civil fines — are actively working against them. Moreover, from their perspective, the community’s problems and their attempts to bring attention to these issues are being ignored by the political class and the media.
Even people who are ‘wrong’ can have something important to say, and it would behoove the rest of us to start listening.
Thus, for many urban minorities who feel, and often are, ignored in the national political conversation, incidents like the Brown shooting become a proxy for a constellation of unrelated issues. Rational or not, rejection of the legitimacy of the “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” narrative seems to many like a rejection of their concerns as a whole, not a specific factual finding in a narrow investigation. This doesn’t make perpetuating a smear against Officer Wilson justified, but it does help explain the emotional current that drives such a smear.
Strange as it seems, I thought of all this a great deal while listening to an audio version of Salena Zito and Brad Todd’s excellent new book, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics. The book is a sophisticated blend of data and interviews with Trump supporters in key Rust Belt counties that swung from Obama to Trump — an overwhelmingly white group of people who, like many inner-city minorities, feel abandoned by the institutions around them and ignored by the political class and the media.
It seems clear to me that just as Michael Brown served as an avatar for many minority communities who were tired of being ignored, Trump is an avatar for many rural and exurban whites who feel the same way. Thus, rejection of, or even criticism of, Trump for any specific issue (e.g., Trump’s false implication that Philadelphia Eagles players kneeled during the National Anthem and disrespected the flag) can be ignored by his supporters, because they perceive an attack on the president to be, in some way, an attack on their legitimate demands for cultural and political attention. Proving that a given claim about Trump is true, or that a given claim of Trump’s is false, will not change most of his supporters’ minds.
None of this makes me think that facts, as they relate either to police shootings or to Trump, don’t matter. None of this makes me less depressed about seeing politicians of any stripe flat-out pretend that falsehoods are true or truths are false. But I do find it interesting that, at least in some respects, white, culturally conservative Trump supporters and liberal, minority Trump opponents might have more in common with each other than either group would like to admit. For one thing, both groups prove that even people who are “wrong” can have something important to say, and it would behoove the rest of us to start listening.