The Corner

The Mob Logic of Ferguson

In events like the Ferguson “crisis,” the most revealing moments occur in plain view and in the full light of day. One such moment was the reaction of the crowd of protesters to the two people who were protesting against them. To judge from the televised reporting of the event, they were surrounded, shouted down, and more or less intimidated. They had to be rescued by the cops and ferried away to safety. What they were arguing — insofar as scrawled signs constitute argument — was that justice demanded a fair trial for Darren Wilson in a court of law but not a conviction determined in advance. This was interpreted by the crowd as unacceptable provocation.

Now, that sentiment is an impeccably liberal one — almost an ur-liberal belief. One can hear John Stuart applauding it as vigorously as his temperament allowed. What made it intolerable apparently was that this liberalism leaves open the possibility that Wilson might be acquitted. And the crowd’s belief in his being guilty (of murder) is so all encompassing that the thought of his acquittal has to be denied or at least its legitimacy questioned. And though it is a breach of etiquette to say so, that kind of crowd certainty is the beginning of lynch logic.

That is so even if Wilson is shown to be guilty of Brown’s murder. Many of the films and dramas about lynching — usually Westerns — depict heroic characters who prevent the lynching of someone known by the whole town to be guilty. The argument that quells the crowd’s violence is that his guilt will be demonstrated in court. And that argument is the basis of legal justice.

Of course, in real life some guilty accused are acquitted by a jury – sometimes corruptly, more often through error – and they go free. O. J. Simpson’s acquittal seemed to be a case in point. We all at that juncture have a duty to accept the verdict (though there are non-criminal civil actions that relatives can pursue in perverse verdicts). But false acquittals and false convictions are both more likely to occur if we decide to short-circuit the laborious processes of collecting and evaluating the evidence of specific acts and simply decide the guilt or innocence of the accused on the basis of whose ox is gored — in the Ferguson case on the basis of stereotypes about either cops or young black men. I make this case in the current London Spectator here.

Having criticized the street crowd, however, I should point out that they are less guilty than many of the lawyers, bureaucrats, and media talking heads who are supposed to have a good grasp of the law, who generally do have a good grasp of the details of law, but who seemingly lack the spirit of blind impartial justice that is supposed to infuse it. As I argue in the Spectator:

Today . . .  many influential people are less interested in the facts before the court than in whether a verdict strengthens their political or ideological interests. When they demand justice, they want Wilson convicted to confirm that America is waging war on black youth. And vice versa for an acquittal. A real person must be imprisoned (or his death left unpunished) in order to prove a point.

These are the social and community leaders who in plays and films would be upbraiding the crowd for its willingness to short-circuit justice at the possible cost of perpetrating a worse injustice. Instead they pander to the crowd and reinforce it prejudices. At this point the two people with placards were treating the crowd that shouted them down with greater respect.

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