Commentary Magazine


Topic: Michael Brown

Resisting the Ferguson Temptation

Some news stories are like Rorschach tests in that, irrespective of the facts of the cases, they inspire journalists, pundits, and politicians to ride all of their familiar hobbyhorses to death. That is the reality of the massive media coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a policeman, and the violent aftermath of that event is so obvious it barely needs to be pointed out. But as cable news stations embrace the story as another, perhaps juicier version of last year’s trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, it might be better if more public figures embrace the stance enunciated by Rep. Paul Ryan.

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Some news stories are like Rorschach tests in that, irrespective of the facts of the cases, they inspire journalists, pundits, and politicians to ride all of their familiar hobbyhorses to death. That is the reality of the massive media coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a policeman, and the violent aftermath of that event is so obvious it barely needs to be pointed out. But as cable news stations embrace the story as another, perhaps juicier version of last year’s trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, it might be better if more public figures embrace the stance enunciated by Rep. Paul Ryan.

Unlike virtually everyone else who has commented on the shooting and the subsequent rioting in Ferguson, Ryan simply asked that those who speak about these events refrain from attempts to exploit what has happened. Not succumbing to the temptation to use the social pathologies on display in Missouri as fodder to promote his new book, Ryan said the following:

“Don’t try to capitalize on this tragedy with your own policy initiatives, don’t try to link some prejudged conclusion on what’s happening on the ground right now,” the Wisconsin Republican said on “Fox and Friends.” “We should take a deep breath, let’s have some sympathy for the family and the community … and let’s let the investigation take its course and hope that justice is served appropriately.”

That’s good advice, and the media figures and so-called racial activists like Al Sharpton, who have descended upon Ferguson like a ravenous flock of vultures, would do well to heed it if they actually cared about the citizens of this troubled town or race relations across the country.

The Brown shooting, like the death of Martin, has become more of an opportunity to rehearse the usual litany of liberal ideological rants in which this heretofore-obscure town has become a symbol of racism. Rather than let the facts of the case—whatever they may be—be uncovered and then let the legal process play out, the impulse to prejudge the case has consistently prevailed. Whether that means an assumption that the police officer is guilty of murder or that the victim was somehow responsible for the incident, neither set of arguments has done much to advance the cause of justice of the peace of that community.

As Fred Siegel correctly noted in City Journal yesterday, most of those who have weighed in with commentary about Ferguson are stuck in the 1960s, a perspective from which all violence is viewed through the lens of the civil-rights movement. Those who play this game rarely stop to reflect that a half century later, an African-American president now governs the same country. Nor do they ponder the fact that solutions to the problems of such communities cannot be found in the playbook employed by those who protested against now vanished Jim Crow laws in an America that no longer exists. Sharpton and the pack of so-called civil-rights leaders who have parachuted into this mess have clearly done more harm than any possible good.

To acknowledge this reality does not oblige anyone to be indifferent to the anger of Ferguson residents about what they perceive as misconduct by the police or the ham-handed response to subsequent protests and riots by the authorities. But if we were to avoid merely repeating the same destructive narrative about racism that did so much damage in the Martin case, then it would behoove those commenting on the issue to refuse to rehearse, as Siegel says, “The grotesque pantomime of repression and redemption, riots and never-quite-achieved rewards, [that] plays out time and again.” As Siegel says, using Brown’s death to pivot into discussions about race, white flight, or urban/suburban jurisdiction disputes is a mistake.

Neither Sharpton nor anyone else talking on television really knows what happened when Brown died. Until we get a better handle on that question, they should stop fomenting the sort of anger that leads to riots and more violence as we have seen the last several nights in Ferguson. The cable news commentariat is as determined not to learn from their mistakes in this case, just as they were during Zimmerman’s trial. They will, instead, repeat the same cant about race and suggest more of the same failed policies that have helped perpetuate these problems rather than fix them. Until we learn to resist this temptation, as Siegel writes, that failure ensures “there will be more Fergusons.”

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