Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Do not follow the multitude..."

As I am set this week to participate in another post-Ferguson protest, I feel I have to express once again in some medium the fact that my conscience is somewhat ill at ease with my decision to do so. The larger message and goal of this movement seems on the one hand to be essential and timely. There may not come again in the near future a moment when there is so widespread and justified a revulsion against the abuses in our criminal justice system. And yet, I continue to worry with Kevin Drum that for the sake of conveying to people the larger truth of the systematic brutality and racial bias of that system, we are playing fast and loose with the reputations of potentially innocent people. I said in my last post on this blog that "I am not particularly interested in the question of whether the facts of each case should be subordinated to a larger social message-- because plainly, the answer to this is 'no[.]'" Unfortunately, though, the fact that something seems "plain" to me is not really a reason for regarding it as uninteresting; especially when it is not at last something that seems plain to a lot of other people. My inbox has been full these last few days of messages endorsing the protests that seem willing to subordinate the individual truths to the larger one. This troubles me a great deal, as it does Drum, and I feel I have to make some effort to stop it, if I am going to further involve myself meanwhile in the protests.

Most of the messaging I have seen from the religious Left these last few days makes an effort to acknowledge the feelings of "discomfort" people may experience, when observing these protests from the outside. Often, however, the only explanation offered for such discomfort is that it is an expression of white privilege -- of an unwillingness on the part of those with power to credit the fact that our institutions treat black people with systematic unfairness. In the end, such messages place themselves into an argument that they cannot lose. Over at Sojourners, Jim Wallis writes in a "Pastoral Letter":
"White people need to stop talking so much, stop defending the systems that protect and serve them, and stop saying 'I’m not a racist.' If white people turn a blind eye to systems that are racially biased, we can’t be absolved from the sin of racism."
That is a very important message, and as a white person I need to hear it now and to be continually reminded of it hereafter. But stated in isolation from any acknowledgement of other reasons people might have for feeling inwardly divided about the post-Ferguson protests, it seems to suggest that it is the only such reason.

Cindy Brandt writes for the same publication:
“When the society is disrupted by scandalizing conflict — whether it is the Bill Cosby rape accusations, or the ‘harsh disciplinary methods’ of certain celebrity parents, or an entire neighborhood weary of losing their young men to police violence — the Christian dare not keep peace by silencing the voice of the victims. Instead, we must make room for the disruptions to take place, to let the voices of those marginalized wear down the reigning power structures. The Christian should not accuse the cries of minorities as ‘oversensitive,’ the desperate pleas of abuse victims as ‘unforgiving,’ and the repetitive calls for gender equality as ‘whiny,’ or ‘shrill.’”
But the problem in cases of "scandalizing conflict" is precisely that we don't always know who are "the victims" and who are the guilty. Meanwhile, the most popular and pervasive judgment of who belongs in these roles is the very last thing we should ever trust. There have been plenty of cases, many of them by no means ancient history, where the true victims turned out to be the people who at first had been accused as guilty. Thus, there are valid moral reasons -- the presumption of innocence, the desire not to join the crowd as it rushes to deal out judgment -- that might be informing our choice not to immediately believe the "scandal."

(It is worth taking note here of just how discredited the reported version of one of the recent "scandalizing" stories of our media has been. I am referring to the allegations of gang rape at a UVA fraternity. The fact that this one story has been discredited, it has justly been pointed out, suggests or proves nothing at all about the real prevalence of rape. It suggests a great deal, however, about the dangers of our willingness to sacrifice the truth of individual cases to a larger narrative that we regard-- often rightly-- as important.)

People who do the things named in the final sentence of the above quotation surely are in the wrong. And there are a lot of such people. My point is just that Brandt makes no acknowledgement that there might be other, more conscientious reasons for feeling ill at ease with the "scandalizing conflicts" that obsess our media.

To come down to the specifics of what I'm talking about, it seems inescapably true to me that we don't really know everything that happened the day Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. We know some things-- that an unarmed teenager was killed, and that he absolutely and categorically did not deserve to die (I am ashamed even to write that line, in so much as it even gives voice to the possibility that he did, if only long enough to deny it). We know that his life and the lives of all black people matter -- more than that, they are of inestimable value. The taking of a person's life is an unfathomable thing-- it destroys the entire universe of thought and memory that is a person's mind and which is eternally unrecoverable after death-- to say nothing of its effects on that person's loved ones.

But the fact that Michael Brown did not deserve to die is ultimately a different matter from the question of whether the person who shot him should be punished for his death. The question of whether or not Officer Wilson was guilty; or whether it was not ultimately the use of guns and the sudden, catastrophic, and irreversible decisions they make possible, added to a host of other unknowables about what exactly transpired between Wilson and Brown that day, that was to blame; is one we cannot settle with certainty.

This fact, however, does not mean "both sides are right." If we treat the presumption of innocence as a moral imperative, and not just as a legal principle, then we must treat Officer Wilson as innocent.

One will say that Wilson has been treated as such-- even by a Grand Jury whose prerogative was not to apply a "reasonable doubt" standard to determining his guilt; even by a Missouri prosector's office that would probably have pressed a far more compelling case for indictment, had Wilson been a non-white civilian (if it's anything like the rest of the nation's prosecutors).

Maybe-- but I'm still seeing at protests those "Hands up; don't shoot!" signs -- the implication of which is that Wilson deliberately murdered Brown. That is the claim that seems not to be true, but that a lot of people still seem to believe-- in part because of these protests in which I am participating. What concerns me, and the reason I am writing this post, is that this story may go down in the public's memory as the official version of events. Wilson may spend the rest of his life being thought of this way by the public, and facing God knows what consequences for it in his personal and professional life, even though it is not known to be true, even though it violates the moral presumption of innocence.

You may say that the protests are ultimately about much more than a single case against a single police officer. This is entirely true-- but it is also exactly what worries me. The fact that the larger narrative these protests are trying to get across is so true and so important may be influencing people to be unfair to one man's reputation. I am not at all willing to join anyone in that. If the message is about much more than Officer Wilson, then let the message reflect this fact. Let it turn its anger on the institutions we know to be guilty, and not on the individual who still deserves a presumption of innocence.

Jim Wallis writes, in the "Pastoral Letter" quoted above:
"The stories of young black men being killed by white police are sparking a national conversation. […] Many white Americans tend to see this problem as unfortunate incidents based on individual circumstances. Black Americans see a system in which their black lives matter less than white lives."
I have a hard time fitting myself neatly into this scheme, because I do absolutely think that the failure of justice reflected in these incidents is a systematic one. Moreover, the very thing that worries me about the protest movement is that it has placed particular "incidents" at the center of its analysis (which are morally ambiguous), to the detriment, in my view, of the critique of larger systems (which unambiguously need to change).


We have a deeply ingrained confusion in our minds, which tells us that to defend the rights of those charged with a crime -- including the right to a presumption of innocence -- is somehow to defend the alleged criminal behavior. We are very afraid that if we do not rush to judge someone accused of racist violence or police brutality or some other atrocious wrongdoing, then we are in some sense endorsing those things.

This is absurd, however. More than that-- it is exactly the kind of thinking that leads to violence and brutality.

Bernard Crick reminds us in his book Democracy: A Very Short Introduction of an instance from Britain's recent past. An English tabloid called News of the World decided to publish the addresses of people convicted of sexually abusing children, once they had been released back into society. Soon the homes of all these people were being picketed and harassed by mobs of incensed citizens (Crick, pp. 85-87).

The point of mentioning this is that the people harassing the convicted sex offenders saw themselves as standing up for the "victims," the vulnerable, the innocent. But in fact they were doing no such thing. They may have been attempting to condemn a real and horrible crime -- the sexual abuse of children -- but it is their actions in the process that at last seem most criminal -- in the moral if not the legal sense of the word.

I am not saying that the post-Ferguson protests are an expression of this same mentality. I am using the story as a reminder of how muddied the distinction between the "victims" and the "perpetrators" can become, when society's retributive instincts are piqued.

I plan to continue to participate in the Black Lives Matter protests -- if they will still have me. I will do so because they are still primarily about the effort to do away with the systematic racism and unfairness in our criminal justice system.

But the greatest injustices of that system are surely that it has continually placed the prejudices of the majority ahead of the truth, and that it has written people off as unworthy of redemption and saddled them with criminal records that they will never be able to escape for the rest of their lives-- that will shadow them any time they seek to find a job or escape from their own past. It is a system that has no tolerance for moral nuance; one that condemns people absolutely and for all time, even though, as Bryan Stevenson says, "Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done."

It is therefore a source of tremendous inner dissonance and sadness to me that the big protest movement against this criminal justice system of our time is replicating some of these same features. It should lead to some considered self-reflection on the part of protesters, to be faced with the thought that the great uprising of this moment against the punishment and vilification of the innocent, may be doing in some measure the very thing it is trying to end.

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