LET’S HAVE RESPONSIBLE PROTESTS – Meta Reflections 2015 #20

May 03, 2015

It has happened again. Another American city, Baltimore, has suffered significant destruction from people rioting, looting, fighting, throwing rocks at the police, burning cars and buildings, and in the end—destroying a community. This past week in Baltimore, there was an eruption of rioters who did there what others did in Ferguson Missouri (part of the greater St. Louis area). So, what’s going on? Why is this happening?

It seems that the triggering event is usually framed as “racial injustice.” Typically a single person is involved in a minor activity that brings in the police. Then things gets out of hand with the result that someone is severely injured or killed. Then the “racial” frame is set to interpret the event. At this point, more people get upset about the injustice, but instead of staying calm and cool as they speak up, one or more people turn it into a vendetta for all injustices. Then framing it as “racial inequality,” they set up protests and begin to march. And while there may be some justification for that, because it is not managed well. “Thugs” and criminals come out and use that as a cover-up to riot, loot, burn, steal, destroy, injure, and kill. Then everything gets out of control.

Interesting enough, the actual “injustice” is something that happens pretty regularly. Someone acts in a suspicious way in a neighborhood, steals or tries to steal something from a store, gets into a fight, etc. Then it escalates. In the case of Mike Brown in Ferguson, he strong-armed an older man in a store and stole some items, then walking down the middle of a road (!?), got into a fight with a policeman. When he reached into the car and tried to get his gun, he wrestled with the policeman in the patrol car. As they wrestled the gun went off and the policeman was punched. Brown then fled, but soon turned around and came diving at the policeman (being a very large man, 6 foot 5, 230 pounds), the policeman shot; he died.

Of course, none of that was immediately known. It took six months for the government reports to come out. At first someone said that Brown raised his hands and said, “Don’t shoot!” It was later discovered that was made up by an observer who said it to frame the conflict as an injustice. So it was immediately framed as “racial injustice,” “racial prejudice,” “racial inequality.” All of which inflamed the community.

Now what happened is actually not as important as how it is framed. Ultimately, the framing of the event determines the meanings which people take away from it. And the first to frame it—sets the frame. This is where the kind of thinking makes all the difference whether a community handles it effectively or if everything quickly goes to hell. The framing of the event determines if people will use their critical thinking skills or if they will over-generalize, blame, personalize, awfulize, etc.

The problem is that the kind of thinking people are doing in the moment of the crisis is the kind of thinking that’s making the problem a hundred times worse. Most of these problems seem to stem from the fact that some people begin with the frame of “racial injustice” and in some communities that frame is constantly being reinforced even when it cannot be validated. For some, they look for anything and everything that they can stick into that frame. It happened in the Travon Martin case in Florida. Someone wanted that to be a case of white/black racialism. Of course, the security officer there was not even white, but Hispanic.

In the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore this week, 3 of the 6 policeman who arrested him and took him into custody are black, 3 are white. That fact makes it hard to make the injury to him based on “racial inequality.” The best information that we have right now is that someone apparently put their knee in Gray’s back to restrain him, and then with the police vehicle moving around, the spiral chord was severed, bringing about his death. So it could have been an accident. But that will take time to tell. Additionally, and even more significantly, every year a thousand black young men are killed in Chicago. Never heard of that? Ah yes, most do not reach the media because it is black-on-black crime and that cannot be put into the “racial inequality” frame.

What’s the solution to all of this? Here is a recommended solution: Let’s stop jumping-to-conclusions and over-generalizing about “racial injustice.” If it turns out to be a case of racial injustice, that will come out. In the meantime, what is called for is calmer heads and cooler hearts. Then we can use our critical thinking skills to ask about the facts and to patiently allow the justice system to work. Then the reporters and media, the investigators, grand juries, etc. can all do their job of uncovering the facts so that those responsible can be held accountable. Eventually the facts do come out. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they do not and usually cannot come out in the first 24 hours or even the first month or two. It takes time. Which means that during the waiting time—waiting for the facts—what is there to protest? Is there any injustice?

Another recommended solution: Anyone and everyone planning to conduct a march to protest should work closely with the police and authorities so that the protests are peaceful and not driven by those who would profit from “racial mayhem” or full of over-exaggerated rhetoric. In Ferguson the step-father got on top of a car, yelling to a crowd, “Let it burn!” Isn’t that like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater? And isn’t it that kind of irresponsible words in the heat of the moment what’s amplifying things?

The sad and pathetic thing is that the honest and law-abiding people who want to protest injustices, if they are not careful, and responsibly manager their language and the conditions of the protest, end up creating a context where “thugs” and criminals will use the situation to burn down their communities. And then a greater injustice arises for the business owners of that community. These business owners are usually of the same ethnic race and the consequences sets up a vicious circle. It reduces the economics of the community, the presence of jobs, undermine the possibility of investors investing there and so in the end—greater injustice is done and the community is the worst for it. Protesting is a privilege we have in the United States and in many democracies. Yet it is not a privilege without responsibility.

Calmer hearts and cooler heads are needed. And everybody has responsibility in this. We cannot think critically and carefully when people are framing things in a way that only inflames people. These problems are systemic and they will not be solved framing them in over-simplistic ways.

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.