Sympathy and Riots

Six years into the promised post-racial era of American history, we spent much of Monday anxiously awaiting the official start of the latest race riot. An announcement of a grand jury decision in Missouri that was widely expected to unleash mayhem on the tiny St. Louis suburb of Ferguson was scheduled in the late afternoon, then postponed until the early evening, but didn’t arrive until 8:15 or so here on the prairie. In the meantime there was news that the Secretary of Defense had resigned after an unusually short tenure and under suspicious circumstances, that the deadline for a grand bargain with the mad mullahs of Iran had passed with their nuclear weapons program still progressing, and that a couple of the stock markets had reached record levels, but it was all filler until the long awaited and utterly unsurprising news that no charges would be brought by the grand jury against a white police officer who had fatally shot an unarmed black teenager.
That thumbnail description of a white police officer fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager sounds pretty darned damning and is accurate in a certain strict sense, at least enough to fuel a media frenzy as well as a more visceral frenzy on the streets of Ferguson for several weeks following the incident, but a more complicated and mitigating version of the story that had gradually seeped into the news made Monday’s announcement expected. Leaks from the grand jury indicated that eyewitnesses and physical evidence corroborated the tale told by the officer’s friends that the unarmed black teenager had attacked him and was struggling for the officer’s gun during the fatal encounter, and the counter-narrative that the cop had gun downed a kneeling teenager in front of multiple eyewitnesses for no reason other than the normal racial animus of America’s law enforcement always seemed less likely to pass the more dispassionate sort of scrutiny that would presumably be brought to bear during a legal proceeding. Dispassionate scrutiny of such facts is not a virtue of lynch mobs, however, so it was also widely expected that those who favored the gunned-down-on-the-street version of events would respond with what the more polite media call “unrest.”
As we write this the Drudge Report is already linking to stories of rioting and looting and arson and gunshots being fired. The story about the white officer gunning down the innocent black teenager on the streets for racist kicks is apparently still widely believed in many neighborhoods of Ferguson, much of the media have done little to dissuade them them of this assumption, numerous groups hoping to channel the local resentments in service of their various left-wing causes have been organizing in the city, and the Justice Department has launched an investigation of the Ferguson police and the White House has sent emissaries to the funeral of a man who might have attempted to kill one of its officers, so it was inevitable that at least a few troublemakers would seize the opportunity for the expression of long accumulated racial resentments and the acquisition of some free stuff. What the rioters and looters and arsonists and gun shooters hope to accomplish is unclear, as their victims are businesses and individuals that have nothing whatsoever to do with the shooting in question, and their crimes are unlikely to refute whatever racist attitudes might have been involved, but from what we saw on the cable news coverage that was playing at a local watering hole during a break in our writing they seemed to be having a grand old time.
The President of the United States went on television to urge peace and calm, an obligatory pre-riot oration that stretches back at least to the days of Lyndon Johnson, but even The First Black President had no more success in the effort than any of his predecessors. This time around the speech told the rioters that their anger was “an understandable reaction” given that they claim to believe “the law is being applied in a discriminatory fashion,” and the president explained to all those weren’t rioting that “We need to understand them,” and such sympathetic rhetoric followed the sending of those emissaries to the funeral of man who had tried to kill a cop and his Attorney General’s admonition to the surviving officers not to react too harshly to any rioting and looting and arson and gunfire that might follow a grand jury decision that was not to the mob’s liking, but it seems not to have soothed any of the savage breasts in Ferguson.
Perhaps a more forceful address emphasizing the eyewitness testimony and physical evidence that corroborated the officer’s account and the always far-fetched nature of that story about a cop gunning down an innocent teenager in the street would have been more effective, especially coming from The First Black President who had promised a gullible electorate that he had overcome his racial animosities and would teach the rest of the country to do the same, but by now no one expected that. The president’s party tried to use the Ferguson tragedy to energize black voters in southern states where the Senate and House races were thought to be close, warning black voters that a Republican victory would mean more innocent black teenagers being gunned down for no reason other than racial animus by white cops, and it continues to see political opportunity in the racial anger that is so starkly on display in Ferguson. The left also has an emotional investment in that story about white cops gunning down black teenagers, too, and eyewitness testimony and physical evidence cannot shake not its faith in its moral superiors over such brutes.
One can only hope that Ferguson recovers from its riots more successfully than did Newark or Camden, New Jersey, or Detroit or the Watts area of Los Angeles or any of the other localities that were afflicted by the similar unrest back when Johnson was delivering the presidential scoldings, but we are not optimistic. Even then the broader society tried to be understanding, with the Kerner Commission providing the official rationalizations for rioting and looting and arson and gunfire, but the areas burned to the ground by the very irrational hatreds of the mobs have still not regained the vibrancy and livability they once offered in supposedly less enlightened times, and even the generations of the Democratic governance that has been brought to bear on Ferguson doesn’t seem to offer much help. Perhaps a sterner response wouldn’t do any better, but sympathy for the rioters and looters and arsonists and gun shooters clearly does little to help their innocent victims.

— Bud Norman

Race, Ferguson, and the Movies

Hollywood used to love making movies about brave independent thinkers standing up against the mindless passions of the mob. Dipping into a rich tradition of American literature and drama they came up with such motion pictures as “The Ox Bow Incident,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Twelve Angry Men,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “The Crucible,” all those “Billy Jack” flicks, and several others that we’ll later kick ourselves for failing to mention. These movies vary widely in quality, but all share an annoying self-congratulatory quality. Hollywood types like to think themselves brave independent thinkers standing up against the mindless passions of the American mob, even as they pander to its basest instincts, so the oh-so-noble protagonists of those movies always seemed to derive in some saccharine way from the filmmaker’s heroic self-image.
That was back when the mobs were still likely to be central casting southern rednecks itching for some ad hoc justice against a black man or an Asian-American or a communist or a hippie freak or a space alien or some other sort of sympathetic “other,” and the consensus of bien pensant opinion was always solidly on the side of the brave independent thinker. These days the mob is invariably of a more politically correct hue, the polite people with the right credentials are therefore obliged to go along with whatever they say, the lone dissenters are such unwashed and un-photogenic right-wing bastards as ourselves, and Hollywood seems to have moved on to zombie movies. We don’t expect to see any big-budget epics about the lynch mob brewing in Ferguson, Missouri, or any of the other recent outburst of mob mentality, and if we do the movies will have to stand the old conventions on their head.
Monday’s funeral for the unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot in Ferguson by a white police officer, as he is invariably described in press reports, was a perfectly cinematic bit of mob mania that will never portrayed as such by any Hollywood director. Among the eulogists was the exaggeratedly buffoonish Rev. Al Sharpton, whose¬†long disgraceful history of whipping up fatal programs against Jews in particular and racial animosities against ¬†peopler another color in general would make him a perfect stock character if only he could have been portrayed by Strother Martin, the mourners included the former filmmaker Spike Lee, who became a Hollywood darling by romanticizing race riots in his breakthrough movie “Do the Right Thing” and such blatantly anti-Semitic fare as “Mo’ Better Blues,” and all were crying out for justice. By “justice” they didn’t mean a dispassionate examination of the facts of the shooting, but rather an immediate execution of the harsh verdict that the mob had already reached based on most dubious sort of hearsay and its pre-existing prejudices.
The facts of the matter are frustratingly unclear, but the intense media coverage has already yielded reports that suggest the mob’s verdict is premature. A popular narrative that the decedent was gunned down for no possible reason other than racial animus while peacefully surrounding himself to the unfairly suspicious police has been disproved by the independent autopsy conducted by his own family, an embarrassing video of the oversized decedent manhandling a diminutive convenience store clerk for a box of Swisher Sweets cigars just before his fatal encounter with the police has effectively undermined the heart-warming tale of a college-bound young exemplar heading to his grandmother’s house, and stories about injuries to the police officer’s face add credence to his apparent explanation that the decedent was going for his gun and it was all a case of self-defense. All these facts of the matter have been muddied by the ham-fisted response of the Ferguson Police Department, which managed to offend even the most law-and-order sorts of Republicans with its heavily militarized presence during the inevitable looting, but there’s still ample reason that at this point in the plot of a movie a brave independent thinking hero might start to harbor doubts about the mob. It would make a compelling scene, especially if interposed with a montage of headlines about the race-baiting Attorney General and all the fashionable media promising to placate the mob, but Hollywood is the fashionable media and is thus unable to get the scene quite right. Nor will they ever make a convincing movie about the fraudulent accusations of rape against the Duke University lacrosse team, which had a disgraceful 88 members of that supposedly august faculty proudly sign on the lynch mob that judged them by the holy trinity of race, class, and gender of the team and its accuser rather than the scientifically incontrovertible and entirely exculpating evidence, or the case of that “white Hispanic” down in Florida who shot a young black man for no reason except that the young black man was banging the “crazy ass crackers'” head against the pavement, or any of the other recent failed attempts at demonstrating the overpowering white racism that the independent thinkers of Hollywood still desire to bravely oppose.
By far the contemporary classic account of these ginned-up racial contretemps is the great Tom Wolfe’s novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” which somehow grows more classic with every new brouhaha. There are no heroes in that forlorn masterpiece, especially not the unexceptional young black decedent who hilariously becomes an “honor student” in all the frenzied media coverage, a peculiar feature of every racial controversy that has since come up, and the only character willing to defy the mob for principled reasons is a cranky old Jewish man who inadvertently suborns perjury in his court by the tale’s flawed protagonist. Hollywood completely ruined the book, of course, and changed the cranky old Jewish man to a more heroic black woman, but we suppose this is as close as we’ll get to a new take on the old brave independent thinking hero standing up to the mindless passions of the mob genre. It’s a shame, because we always liked those movies for all their self-congratulatory flaws and we need them more than ever.

— Bud Norman