The protests over the August shooting in Ferguson, Missouri have become the subject of national and international attention. Rather than set the controversy over this tragic incident to rest, the grand jury decision that the evidence did not warrant indicting former police Officer Darren Wilson has itself incited further outcries, demonstrations, and riots. Those protesting have had two interconnected levels of concern. The first is their belief that in this particular case the officer gunned down a young man without cause (or without sufficient cause). The second level is the perception that this one case is part of a broader pattern of police profiling and mistreatment of black men.
Regarding the particular incident in question, the available facts indicate that the grand jury made the correct decision. The officer's account was coherent, while claims that he simply murdered Michael Brown were mutually contradictory. In some cases, the "eyewitnesses" confessed to giving false testimony and to making up their assertions. Most importantly, the forensic evidence supported a key part of the police officer's version of the events, substantiating his claim that Michael Brown had attempted to grab the officer's gun. It is not completely clear what happened after that, or that Officer Wilson's only option was to fire multiple shots into the young man. But the argument that maybe the officer could have avoided killing the young man is not strong enough to justify a trial. It certainly does not justify angry shouts that the grand jury's reasonable decision was "unjust" or crowd demands that the police officer must be indicted and then imprisoned. But many people have already committed themselves to the image of Michael Brown as a martyr for civil rights. Presented with facts that do not fit this narrative, they seek to reject the facts as manufactured or manipulated by a scheming prosecutor or a judicial system intent on exonerating a murdering police officer.
It is true, though, that the police do concentrate their enforcement efforts disproportionately on lower-income minority neighborhoods and that the police are much more likely to stop blacks, especially black men, than they are to stop whites. The police often do tend to treat those neighborhoods as occupied territory in a war, rather than as the communities of citizens to be served and protected. The black men they stop are not only those guilty of crimes, but also innocent and respectable individuals. Understandably, this provokes resentment. But why does this pattern exist? To attribute it to a bad "system," as some of the protesters do, is to say nothing at all.
Anyone who has a chance to have candid conversations with taxi cab drivers will get some insight into the causes of conscious and unconscious racial profiling. I have talked with drivers who have frankly admitted that they will not pick up any young black men and that they are cautious about picking up black men in general. The cab drivers also say that they try to avoid calls to pick up passengers in black neighborhoods. This discriminatory behavior is not due to prejudice. The cab drivers do not want to be robbed or shot. Unfortunately but realistically, the best way to avoid being robbed and shot is not to go into lower-income black neighborhoods or to pick up black men. While black men constitute only about 6 percent of the total US population, they commit most of the nation's murders. Although most murders by whites or blacks involve victims of their own races, the overwhelming majority of interracial murders are black on white. Other violent crimes also show racial disproportions, and, accordingly, minority neighborhoods frequently have remarkably high crime rates. This disturbing situation can be verified by consulting the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, the National Crime Victimization Survey, or simply by reading local and national newspapers.
As a general rule, if cab drivers will not stop for you, the police will. The high crime rates among black men lead policemen, regardless of race, to associate black men with crime and, in many contexts, to treat young black men in particular with suspicion. Just as the cab driver may not stop for the fellow on his way to work or to volunteer with a charity organization, the police may indeed stop irreproachable individuals, as well as gang members or muggers. Because violent crime occurs so much more often in economically disadvantaged black neighborhoods, the police focus on these locations. If law enforcement acts like an army of occupation in a war, this is frequently because the neighborhoods often have the characteristics of war zones, including, even, children dying in the crossfire of automatic weapons in the hands of fellow residents. The more that police interact with any group of people, the more likely it is that they will be on the receiving end of all kinds of police treatment, both justified and unjustified.
It may well be that the police strategies could be more effective than they have been. Community policing, with officers establishing personal connections with residents, could help. The police can never be too well trained. There are, of course, bad policemen - quis custodiet custodiens is a perennial problem. Police departments do need effective and responsive ways to investigate and punish those in their ranks who violate the rights of citizens. But we should not forget that the heart of the problem is the social disorder with which the police are dealing, fairly or unfairly, effectively or ineffectively.
The issue of why social order has disintegrated so much in minority neighborhoods is more complicated than I can deal with here. It is not just a heritage of historical discrimination because that has existed for a long time and is much less today than in the past. It is not just poverty, because the violence is now greater than it was when the poverty was more intense. The fact that nearly 70 percent of black children have been born out of wedlock in recent years is undoubtedly part of the problem, although the extent to which it is a cause or a symptom of disorder is open to question.
The Ferguson revolt itself (which has spread to other locations) can be taken as part of this larger problem of social order. While people do have the right to peaceful assembly and to express any opinions they may hold, no one has any right to block traffic, impede entry to stores, loot and burn businesses, or smash and overturn cars. We can try to de-militarize the police and we can try to move the police away from behaving as an occupying army. But not while people are turning parts of the nation into a battlefield.