Three Observations on Ferguson

August 18, 2014

The first observation is one the Center for Inquiry has already made, and in its official capacity, but it bears repeating. Although we recognize that the police (and now, apparently, the National Guard), have an obligation to maintain public order, that obligation must be fulfilled in a manner consistent with respect for our fundamental freedoms, including the right to peacefully assemble and protest.

Unfortunately, police action over the last few days leaves us at CFI unconvinced that the authorities are striking the right balance.  Now with the imposition of a curfew and state of emergency, the calling in of the National Guard, and continued interference with the press, constitutional rights are suffering further infringement. There’s no denying that a minority of individuals are taking advantage of the turmoil to engage in looting and isolated attacks on police, but we doubt whether wholesale suspension of constitutional liberties for the many who have limited themselves to peaceful protest is justified.

The next two observations are personal and have not been reviewed by CFI’s Management Committee. However, I feel compelled to make them, especially the next one, because I believe they relate to CFI’s mission—just as the protection of the right of free expression and assembly relates to our mission.

It’s a fundamental principle for humanists and skeptics to conform their beliefs, and statements setting forth their beliefs, to the evidence. It’s distressing therefore to see that some, including some prominent public figures, have already made judgments about the killing of Michael Brown, characterizing it as an “execution” or a “murder.” It is safe to say that the killing of an unarmed person by a police officer strongly suggests an unjustified homicide has occurred. No question there. But it creates a presumption only. Moreover, terms such as “execution” imply an element of intent and premeditation (premeditation under the law need last only a few seconds). Perhaps the evidence will ultimately establish that officer Darrel Wilson did act with intent to kill when he had no reason to fear for his own safety. But all the relevant evidence isn’t in yet. We have just now received news of the second, private autopsy report, and that, in the absence of other evidence yet to be compiled or revealed, is already the subject of differing interpretations. (It does show that Brown wasn’t shot in the back, as one witness had claimed.) Criminal responsibility is a scalar concept, and the killing of another, even if not justified, may be voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, depending on, among other factors, whether the killer acted knowingly, recklessly, or negligently. Even if Wilson acted without appropriate justification, this does not necessarily make him an executioner.

And, of course, the claim being advanced by officer Wilson’s defenders is that Brown attacked him, and tried to wrestle away Wilson’s gun. I have to say I am highly skeptical of this claim. (It sounds eerily reminiscent of George Zimmerman’s claim, no?) It would be difficult to understand Brown’s motivation for attacking an armed police officer while not having any weapon himself. Wilson is going to bear a heavy burden in making good this defense, but that said, as of now, it cannot be ruled out as an impossibility.

As persons who pride themselves on basing claims on evidence, I believe statements by skeptics and humanists about this tragic killing should be measured and should not indulge in characterizations that, as this stage, lack sufficient evidentiary support.

Final observation. In my mind the killing of Brown raises the question whether all police officers need to routinely carry firearms, especially when non-lethal weapons are available. (This question is raised however the killing of Brown came about, even, or especially if, Brown somehow was tempted to reach for Wilson’s gun.) This is not the first incident in which a police officer’s gun has resulted in a tragic killing. Too often they function primarily as magnets for trouble. I just returned from the United Kingdom, where the vast majority of police officers do not routinely carry firearms. Britain has a lower crime rate than the U.S., and, not surprisingly, a much lower rate of death by firearms. Having to make split-second decisions regarding the discharge of a firearm is not necessarily conducive to optimal outcomes. I don’t see why beat officers shouldn’t be limited to non-lethal weapons, with firearms restricted to thoroughly trained officers who would be called upon to provide back-up when needed. In this scenario, the armed officers would have been made aware of the situation prior to their arrival on the scene and, one would hope, would be able to make appropriate decisions regarding the amount of force to be deployed.

Of course, in making this suggestion I recognize I am sailing against the wind. Belief in God may be in decline in the U.S., but worship of the Almighty Gun remains strong and resilient.


#1 Code Monkey on Monday August 18, 2014 at 6:14am

I highly agree that we need to await the evidence to be in. It’s a terrible idea to make judgement without having all the facts.

As for the statements on gun control, the anecdotal statements of the UK having lower crime rate cannot be immediately assumed due to officers not carrying firearms. There are far too many influential factors that could cause this. Anecdotal statements of officers’ guns being cause of misfortune does not suddenly remove all the times they were beneficial. Yet at the same time, I do worry that our brains are too fallible to make such life and death split decisions. But the fact is that guns are the only viable defense against guns. And crazy people have guns and no laws will soon be taking the guns away from the crazy people—if anything laws would take them only from the sane people. Thus, I feel we need to ensure that more sane and competent people have the proper defense against the psychopaths. There are indeed stories of guns saving lives just as there are stories of guns ruining lives. Anecdotes are not good enough for making final judgement.

#2 Anna (Guest) on Monday August 18, 2014 at 6:17am

In all the videos I have seen of officers beating up a person, I have never once seen that person going for the gun. They are always doing what is instinctual, which is defending themselves by using their arms or hands to protect their heads or push away from the violence.

I think it is good to state that we don’t yet have enough evidence to say exactly what happened. But it is safe to say that this would only happen in a non-white neighborhood. I live in a white suburb and people walk up and down the street all the time without policemen barking orders at them to get off the street. This all began because of that.

I feel for the people of Ferguson, it appears there are outside groups stirring up violence and police are too aggressive, throwing tear gas last night when kids were still out. I worry about how the people of Ferguson will be treated by the police once this is all done and the cameras have gone away. I worry that Michael Brown will not have justice because I have already seen a lot of white people pointing at the violence with a smile and a nod and a feeling of justification. Missouri is not technically the south, but there is a great deal of racism here. The majority GOP have denied Medicaid and expanded gun rights. There are many white supremist groups in the state and even the National Guard, which is going into Ferguson, has recently been accused of racism - at the top. I worry about all of this.

#3 Code Monkey on Monday August 18, 2014 at 6:59am

We don’t currently know if “justice” for Brown is warranted, do we?

As to racism, I can’t help but assume it’s propagated by real statistics and a brain’s safety mechanisms. If some large percent of crimes are committed by black people, it’s not “racism” to fear black people. It’s self preservation based upon the statistics (or perceived statistics) within the area. More black people in jail doesn’t immediately mean that black people are picked on (though it could) but rather, perhaps, that more black people are actually committing crimes. It’s not racism to note these things even though people and the media like to act like it is. They are merely data points. My guess, is that if there wasn’t a significant amount of black people sagging their pants and embracing the thug image, there’d be less racism. I’ll probably get flack for my remarks since they’re not perfectly PC, but I stand by them. I’m not racist in the least—I give a respectable black person just as much respect as a respectable white person. The only white person I’ve seen sporting the thug life, however, is Eminem on TV yet I’ve seen plenty of black people sporting the thug life day to day at gas stations and whatnot. If I see a white guy doing the same, I will just as likely fear and shy away. I do not fear a black man in a suit, but I do fear someone sagging their pants, wearing chains, putting gold on their teeth, wearing their hats backward, and speaking rudely. Many black people embrace the image and that will indeed perpetuate “racism” or at least the perception thereof. My data points come from two cities in Michigan. It could be different in Missouri. Is it?

#4 Stef McGraw on Monday August 18, 2014 at 10:04am

“My guess, is that if there wasn’t a significant amount of black people sagging their pants and embracing the thug image, there’d be less racism.”

This is blatant victim blaming. Instead of telling black people how they need to conform to your preferred style of dress in order to avoid racism, why not take a step back and realize that the real issue is how people such as yourself assume that “someone sagging their pants, wearing chains, putting gold on their teeth, wearing their hats backward” is more likely to be a criminal than someone who wears a suit. What’s your evidence? You used the words “statistics” and “data” several times in the above post, but in fact did not make a single evidence-based claim. Come back when you have actual facts to present instead of using this forum as a soap box for how you’re “not racist, but…”.

#5 Code Monkey on Monday August 18, 2014 at 11:06am

@Stef, you did not provide data either. Simply not providing it does not make it incorrect. If you find some statistics on pants-saggers and crimes committed let me know and we can discuss. The point I’m getting at is image. The image that they are purposefully representing is one that intimidates or strikes fear (knowingly or not). It’s not at all race that is causing the distrust, it’s the values demonstrated by the people given the data that has been presented to me. I don’t see proud businessmen (besides drug dealers) dressing as such. And yet I see plenty of gang-bangers poppin’ a cap while wearing such outfits. Does this mean all people dressing as such are bad people or might commit a crime? Of course not. But that does give me a rightful hesitance toward such a person and I will indeed be more reserved in my trust . Again, this has nothing to do with race since it would be the same for a white person dressing similarly. It just happens to be that more black people do it than do white. You can ignore my true position and call me racist all you want, but it’s simply not true. I am perfectly willing to give black people the same opportunities as white people in proportion to their character. Calling people racist just for drawing distinctions between race is ridiculous and causes racism in the opposite direction. I kind of wonder if there isn’t more racism to the white man now because everything they do or say is construed all backward. We need to stop making everything a race issue and start focusing on character. We have differences in skin. So what? A painting of all one color is boring. I enjoy the beauty in all the races. Still, some races have a significant population that do terrible things. I’m against those terrible things, not the race. But since a particular race is more pronounced in doing those particular things, it makes me more cautious around them until they prove themselves which I believe is fully justified. I don’t treat them as less of a person. I don’t treat them unfairly. I’m simply more cautious and aware. There is nothing wrong with that. If 95% of people wearing one shoe are mass murderers then you can bet it’s a wise idea to be cautious around one-shoe-wearers. So what if 5% aren’t? Am I a shoeist now? No, I simply care for my life and well-being. Show me a man with one shoe and good character and I’ll be just fine with the man. Racism is when a person believes that a race is inferior simply based on the race and treats them as such. Racism is NOT merely identifying patterns or statistics in a particular race. We need to start identifying it properly so we can stop accusing people foolishly and perpetuating even more racism.

#6 gray1 on Tuesday August 19, 2014 at 8:57pm

Yes, the problem with having a firearm handy is that a major risk is incurred if your (possibly larger and more powerful) opponent “knows” you will not shoot and/or the would-be perp is feeling invulnerable due to the ingestion of any number of judgement altering substances (or sometimes just plain stupidity).  The chances are better than even that “he who hesitates is lost” and such nice guys will be killed with their own gun. 

On the other hand, there was once perhaps a time when a criminal bully need only assert dominance and perhaps give out some pain or a bloody nose but unfortunately this has now evolved too often into unbridled brutality designed to leave a victim brain damaged and crippled and/or dying.  This while bystanders capture it all on their cell phones, but I digress. 

The law enforcement professionals know this better than anyone and I promise there are very few such professionals willing to “experiment” with their lives on the line by going around unarmed and simply telling people to “play nice”.  As they say, “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6”.

#7 Infidel on Friday August 22, 2014 at 2:20pm

Both Ron Lindsay and the CFI press release on Ferguson manage to avoid any mention of race or racism, thereby abstracting their respective remarks from any social context whatsoever. Because, make no mistake about it, this crisis is all about racism. Pretending that racism and police brutality towards people of color do not exist in Ferguson is a sure-fire sign that whatever you have to say is of very little use in the circumstances.

#8 melvin on Thursday September 04, 2014 at 12:04pm

What I hear Ron Lindsay saying is that we should not reach a verdict before entering the courtroom and hearing all the evidence. (The trial will probably be filmed gavel to gavel, giving the public a front row seat.) The Michael Brown killing is as inflammatory as it is tragic. Outrage in both the black community and mainstream America is understandable. What we should not countenance are demands for “Justice” which entail the lynching of a scapegoat without benefit of due process. Both Michael Brown and officer Darrel Wilson deserve due process.

Lindsay’s “second observation” reveals a deeper concern for the core practices and aspirations of free inquiry that goes beyond the diverse opinions and speculations about what might have happened during the frantic confrontation between Michael Brown and Ferguson police on August 9.

The concern, if I may take the liberty to interpret Ron Lindsay’s commitment to CFI’s mission, is to protect “the right of free expression and assembly [enhanced] by a fundamental principal for humanists and skeptics to conform their beliefs, and statements setting forth their beliefs, to the evidence.”

Whenever an event, such as the Michael Brown killing stokes public outrage and controversy, demagogues waiting opportunistically in the wings are primed to call for a pseudo “state of emergency” that justifies shutting down the public square. Ideological imperatives fortified with propaganda prohibit dissent and discussion on the grounds that suppression of “false’ or “harmful” ideas remedied with corrective thought control trumps first amendment rights.

But where are these improbable “Thought Police” to be found, especially in our tolerant neighborhood? I can’t help but refer to an egregious example very close to home, Greta Christina, who regularly contributes a column to Free Inquiry magazine. Over at her Frethought Blog, Christina posts observations on August 19 which bear an uncanny resemblance to the demagoguery and ideological censorship Dr. Lindsay deplores:

[First:  The Big Lie]:  “For all intents and purposes, it is against the law in the United States to be a young black man. To be a young black man in the United States is a crime — punishable by summary execution.”

[Second:  The Suspension of Free Speech]:  The comment policy on this post is the same as it was on my Trayvon Martin post: I am not willing to host a debate about this on my blog. (The “special rule” announcement is disingenuous. Christina has banned numerous commenters for disagreeing with her on “ordinary” occasions.)  If you have anything at all to say about this that even remotely hints at implying that Michael Brown’s murder was justified or that the police response has been reasonable and proportionate — do not comment in my blog…Get the fuck out of my life, now.”

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