Ferguson, Police & Race

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On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson. Repeating an all too common pattern, Brown was unarmed when he was killed. While some claim that Brown was murdered, others claim that the shooting was justified because Brown was attacking the officer. While this might strike some as implausible, unarmed people do attack police officers and, though this might seem odd to some, an officer can be morally justified in using lethal force against an unarmed attacker. As this is being written, the facts of the matter have not been established so I do not know whether Brown was shot down in cold blood or in a legitimate use of force. Obviously enough, if the officer used force legitimately (that is, in defense against an unprovoked attack), then he acted in a morally acceptable (though regrettable) manner. If Brown was not a threat or if Brown was a threat but could have been subdued without killing him, then the shooting would be immoral. This is, of course, a matter of the ethics of the incident taken in isolation. That is, was the officer morally justified in shooting Brown or not, regardless of the broader context? Settling this will require knowing the facts of the matter. In discussing this matter, I have found that some people consider this aspect of the incident the most important one. That is, the critical issue is whether or not the officer was justified in shooting Brown or not. This view is clearly reasonable, but has an obvious defect: it does not consider the broader context. Roughly put, it could be the case that the officer was morally justified in shooting Brown in what could be regarded as the individual context of one person facing off against another. However, there is also the broader context that involves the social roles of the individuals, the social context, the history of race in America, the political context and so on. That is, the incident is not just a matter of two men who confronted each other. It is also a confrontation of class and race heavy with the weight of history. These considerations lead to the broader moral concerns regarding why Brown and the officer were in that situation. One obvious part of the answer is the history of race in America, both recent and in the more distant past. This history, as it has done so many times before, has set the stage for death. To state a truism, being black in America is generally rather different from being white—despite the untrue claims that America is post-racial. Since I look very white, my experience has been the white experience. However, I have taught at an HCBU (Historically Black College and University) since 1993 and this has given me a perspective somewhat different from most other white folks. One rather obvious difference between whites and blacks in general is how they tend to be treated by the police. It is a considerable understatement to say that blacks tend to be treated rather worse by the police and young black men tend to be singled out for some of the worst treatment. It is, of course, important to note that many police officers are decent people—one should no more stereotype people by profession than by race. Not surprisingly, young black men tend to look at the police rather differently than white folks and the dynamic between young black men and police is often a rather bad one. I have had indirect experience with this dynamic: many years ago I was training for a marathon with a fellow grad student who happened to be African American. While running through a neighborhood we apparently did not belong in, we were stopped by a cop who inquired what we “boys” were doing. I have never been fond of being called “boy” and my friend clearly hated it. Not wishing to be arrested so close to the race, I reigned in my pride and engaged my diplomatic skills while my friend stood in silent anger. The cop let us go and we left the area at a good clip. I am not sure how things would have gone if my friend had been alone—but I suspect it would have not gone quite so well. I have been stopped by police while running one other time and also while biking—although I was not doing anything illegal on any occasion. From these incredibly limited experiences, I can only imagine what it would be like to be subject to such police attention on a regular basis. Once again, to be fair to the police, I have also had many positive experiences with the police and it would be unjust to sweepingly condemn all police because of the actions of some. However, there is clearly a serious moral problem in America in this regard. Another obvious part of the answer is the philosophy of order held by many in power. While perhaps not familiar with Hobbes, they tend to operate in accord with his view of order and morality. The practical application of this view is that force is the primary (sometimes sole) tool in the toolbox of order.  The most visual manifestation of this is the militarization of the police: even small town police forces have combat gear and sometimes even armored vehicles. As Thoreau noted, “thus the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” That this approach leads to violence is hardly surprising. When the context of race is combined with a philosophy of force, it is hardly a surprise that violence and death are all too often the results. As such, even if the officer was justified in his individual actions, they were taken in a context that is fundamentally morally flawed.   My Amazon Author Page My Paizo Page My DriveThru RPG Page

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  1. Great post, thank you for shedding some light on some much-needed context.

  2. I’m white. I’ve been stopped by the police in the U.S., in Brasil (during the military dictatorship) and in Chile (during the military dictatorship), all in routine circumstances, walking by myself at night.

    The U.S. police were less courteous (in fact, not courteous at all), more threatening and more abusive. In the U.S. I was thrown up against a wall and searched, for no apparent reason and when they found nothing, they told me to move on, without an explanation or even a courteous, formal farewell.

    In Brasil and Chile the police were always formally courteous and never pushed me against a wall or used physical force of any kind. It might have been different in Brasil and Chile, if I had been suspected of some political offense, although the one time I was arrested in a street demonstration during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, I was treated in a formally courteous manner.

    I think that the U.S. police are trained to be threatening and are not trained to be courteous at all.

  3. Unfortunately history weighs not only in relationship between individuals but also between nations. Nothing else can explain the conflicts across the world.

  4. Dennis Sceviour

    The first challenge is to demonstrate there is a definition for Police that can be proven by reason and not proven by force. Without reason, the discussion does not belong in philosophy. People’s opinion of what the police are and what the police ought to be is heavily biased and prejudice from television shows and edited news reports. Let us start with the wiki definition of Police:

    “The civil force of a national or local government, responsible for the prevention and detection of crime and the maintenance of public order.”

    The part with “maintenance of public order” seems to make some sense. Is a military body necessary for crowd control management? What are the non-violent activities if this was the only definition of police? It would be composed of a construction team to build fences and barricades, mount lights, put up emergency health tents, sanitation facilities and set up platforms for public speakers. The presence of horses is supposed to be very good at calming people during times of public disorder. So far, there is no indication of a need for arrests, moral interference or individual judgment, nor is there a definition that requires a use of force. It is clear – there is a lot of work without force.

    Historically, the person handling public meetings was called something like the Sergeant-at-arms. The duty of the Sergeant-at-arms began when the meeting assembled and ended when the meeting closed. The Sergeant-at-arms was not a permanent appointment, but a volunteer or nominated person from the citizenry.

    Next, is the wiki part “the civil force of a national or local government” a viable definition of Police? Probably not. There are a myriad of organizations trying to attach the name Police to their task: Sergeant-at-arms, private security, bank guards, sheriffs, marshals, border guards, prison guards, military, detectives, officers, university police, and levels of policing: municipal, county, state, federal, and international. Let us not pretend these organizations defend the law equally. On the contrary, each body defends its own interests that deliberately conflict with a different organization of police. This means a definition of “the civil force of a national or local government” is not possible to prove by reason, only force.

    Socrates tackled the problem of conflict in policing in the Republic. To unify the task of a police he divided the citizenry into three classes of people: gold, silver and bronze. The gold people were elite philosopher kings who would dictate the utilitarian good of the people. The silver people were the soldiers and police who would mindlessly enforce the orders of the gold people – like Robocop. The bronze people were the dark citizens who if not slaves were at least impoverished servants and taxpayers. Many philosophers are content to accept this sadistic arrangement – even within the pages of this website. Bertrand Russell perhaps best summed up the Republic:

    “When we ask: what will Plato’s Republic achieve? the answer is rather humdrum. It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations… There is no question of proving or disproving; the only question is whether you like [choose] the kind of State that Plato desires. If you do, it is good for you; if you do not, it is bad for you. If many do and many do not, the decision cannot be made by reason, but only by force, actual or concealed” [A History of Western Philosophy, pg. 133].

    The above quotation understates the importance of the Republic. The subsequent Roman Empire refined the ideas into a steamroller of mass organized destruction. Before the recent invention of tools for mass extermination, the Mediterranean ideologies were the best method of conquering and destroying. The difficulty with Plato’s theory is that once “might makes right”, that is all there is, and the ideology can only then turn upon itself.

    Lastly, the definition part “responsible for the prevention and detection of crime” has been interpreted in the Western hemi-sphere by the Principals of Sir Robert Peel:


    This post is already too long, so a discussion will be deferred to another time, but the points are worth reviewing.

    Mike LaBossiere has outlined the race problem in America. This can be added. Dialectic politicians can promise equality, but the people of all races do not want equality no matter how much propaganda is printed. They want self-determination, control, autonomy and power. The conclusion of the article “As such, even if the officer was justified in his individual actions, they were taken in a context that is fundamentally morally flawed” is certainly an understatement. The old suggestions and the current methods will not solve problems. New ideas are needed.

  5. Dennis Sceviour,

    “This can be added. Dialectic politicians can promise equality, but the people of all races do not want equality no matter how much propaganda is printed. They want self-determination, control, autonomy and power”

    Here is where you’re critically wrong. The people never are, or never were, a single homogenous group. Even in segments that appear to be homogenous there is still great diversity. And their interests are not static at any one given time. A major point in Edward Said’s Orientalism, is that not only do we misapprehend the Oriental, to be homogenous, static and unchanging, and everything we project onto their otherness as being reality, we do the same for groups we belong to.

    And when politics fails, war begins. Politics by other means.

  6. There are concerns about police training in the US, especially in terms of how the police interact with other citizens. The situation in Ferguson has illustrated some of the differences: the local police met the protesters wearing combat gear, but when the highway patrol was brought in, they wore their normal uniforms and the captain talked to people.

    To be fair to the police, their profession often puts them at odds with people and they do have to face considerably stress and hostility. That can really wear on a person.

  7. What I meant to say and didn’t say well is that if I am white and never appeared threatening to police in two military dictatorship, but somehow did to the U.S. police (NYPD), who treated me like a dangerous armed criminal, throwing me up against a wall without an explanation, I can imagine how the same U.S. police, all of them white in my case, would treat a black person.

    I know that police are under a lot of stress, but there’s a way of treating people on the street, courteous, but firm and alert to possible armed criminals, which police in other countries seem to have mastered better than the U.S. police have, in my experience at least.

  8. There is so much emotion connected with this shooting, it is similar to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. It is difficult to be rational about it. It is still not clear what exactly happened. The liberal media are outraged and see an abuse of police power. The conservative media are claiming the police officer has a fractured eye socket. If it was self-defense was it justified, or could it have been dealt with without causing a fatality? If it was not self-defense, and the teen was shot while standing in place with arms raised, it would require the full extent of the law against the policeman.

    While it is true that young black men are at risk if confronted, it is equally true that the police are at risk. A police officer in New Jersey was shot while sitting in his car.

    That young black men are at risk emphasizes a cultural divide, as well as a racial divide. In a cultural divide reactions are different; there are missed cues, reactions occur that would not occur if there were a similar cultural experience. Would the police officer have acted similarly if the suspect was a six foot four white teenager? Would he have felt less threatened, not just because the teen was white but because intention would be easier to read and interpret?

    These are questions for sociologists. From a philosophical perspective, the society that philosophy came from, although one culture, had stark divisions between the elite, the army, women, and slaves. Philosophy can propose what is appropriate in terms of what is the right thing to do in any particular circumstance but the progression in real time appears to be sensation, thought, and memory thoughts. The first thing that comes to the fore in a crises is not abstract thought.

  9. Dennis Sceviour

    I agree there is no homogeneity and it is true that what people want may not be what they will get. However, there is a distinct polarity between white and black in America that will not disappear.

    The world has seen a century of industrialization where everyone benefited. If the economic trend continues in America of dependency on foreign production in the Far East and Africa, the black community will suffer the worst. For example the city of Detroit, once the manufacturing heartbeat of North American, has bankrupt and is now called “Zombieland” by the residents. Another sad part is that the thriving economy of the future in America threatens to be slavery, organ harvesting, prostitution and drug dealing as the only remaining source of income for people. Law and taxes will not prevent this from happening. At best, law and taxes will encourage and profit by corruption it as it has so often in history. Ferguson is merely a side effect and a political football for these problems.

  10. In my experience, the treatment of young black males by police officers is often dictated by the environment. Suburban cops are less likely to treat them with extreme prejudice, as they are not confronted with the dangerous realities of black culture within urban areas. Black American children are taught to fear, and fight back with police. Music conditions minds of more than just black people in the present day, to hate, and think violently towards law enforcement. So those cops who work in urban areas (which take note of where most of these unarmed shootings occur), typically, are not paid as well, while at the same time working a much more dangerous, and demanding area. These factors add an extra level of tension that can cause them to act out in ways that may display personal prejudice. That doesn’t necessarily mean it to be true. Look at George Zimmerman’s background; I find it hard to believe he is a racist. We have a battle of racism in our country that I personally believe the media has exasperated relentlessly. While, I do believe racism and prejudice exists, I believe the issue is rarely looked at from a valid view point.

    Now on the issue of law enforcement and what their role in the community should, or shouldn’t be. I think it just a classic example of why man is not fit to rule man. Especially, through forceful means. When one man believes he holds a higher power over another, no matter the intent, this position can lead to the abuse of power. There are too many forces at work in certain situations, where that sense of power can be enacted before a clear-minded judgment can be made. We are emotional beings.

  11. Kevin Henderson

    Great post. Police should learn to anticipate problems rather than confront them. And clearly they could all do with some social classes that emphasize courtesy.

  12. Dennis Sceviour

    Mike wrote “Obviously enough, if the officer used force legitimately (that is, in defense against an unprovoked attack), then he acted in a morally acceptable (though regrettable) manner.”

    The officer was not defending, the officer was enforcing. Pruning this down, the statement means if one acts legitimately then one acts morally. To accept thus, it must be assumed that if one acts legitimately then one accepts that forcing another is the definition of morality.

    Mike wrote, “To be fair to the police, their profession often puts them at odds with people and they do have to face considerably stress and hostility. That can really wear on a person.”

    The fairness argument makes some people angry. Michael Brown also faced considerable stress and hostility. You have already rejected the forceful argument in the essay “Ad Baculum, Racism & Sexism”. Besides fairness, is there a reason to discuss the forceful actions of police in philosophy?

  13. Mike LaBossiere,

    “There are concerns about police training in the US, especially in terms of how the police interact with other citizens.”

    What seems to be happening, is a reoccurrence of what happened in Los Angelus in the 70s – which there is a very good account of in Mike Davis’ City of Quartz. In the 1970s, soldiers were returning from Vietnam. The LAPD believed these young men would be a good fit for policing. They of course had been trained in counterinsurgency, and spent tours fighting, and it must be said; losing, to the man in the black pyjamas of south east Asia. Which training and experience will trump which. Will a few weeks in police academy untrain them of a mentality and palette of tactics inappropriate to civilian policing (or even inappropriate to counterinsurgency, as the historical results would indicate). Or will it work the other way – and they transmit their values and world perspectives into the academy and throughout the police force. Well…by the late 70s, the LAPD had more helicopters than the British army; who were engaged in a real counterinsurgency. The citizenry of LA had become the new enemy. The malign influence of the recruitment of Vietnam veterans took decades to wane.

    It looks to my eyes, that it’s all happening again. That recruiting Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is leading to the same corruption of policing as happened in LA. The civilian police are requesting and being granted military surplus. Is there any adult supervision going on at all – the situation appears to be a case of children running with scissors.

    “The situation in Ferguson has illustrated some of the differences: the local police met the protesters wearing combat gear, but when the highway patrol was brought in, they wore their normal uniforms and the captain talked to people. ”

    Yes, it demonstrates the level of thinking at Ferguson local police HQ, is somewhere firmly around idiotic. You may have noticed, that when UN peace keepers are touring, they wear berets instead of helmets. The vulnerability makes them less prone to attack. It makes them appear less hostile, which is conducive to keeping the peace.

    The people who won the war, but lost the peace, in Iraq. If they’re in Ferguson, or elsewhere, they will just repeat the same failure.

  14. Dennis Sceviour,

    “For example the city of Detroit, once the manufacturing heartbeat of North American, has bankrupt and is now called “Zombieland” by the residents.”

    Apocalyptic thinking has many problems. One being that you can always find omens of the impending apocalypse; the municipality of Detroit being one such ominous sign. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that there is still plenty of industry in the region, it’s just that most of it has moved beyond the tax catchment of the city. There isn’t really anything new about ghost towns in America. Detroit just happens to be the most spectacular.

    The other problems with apocalyptic thinking is that it leads to a depressing stasis at best, and at worst, to actions that appear rational at the time, in terms of the vein of thinking, but in retrospect appear clearly insane. At the core of what drove the Germans and Japanese to what they did, in the early half of the 20th century, was the belief that if they didn’t do what they did, it would mean the end of the world.

    How bad could the apocalypse be? In 1945, both Germany and Japan were smouldering ruins. By 1956, the German economy had over taken Britain. And by the 60s, the Japanese were experiencing a level of unprecedented prosperity.

    If you look at a country like Holland, where drugs and prostitution are virtually legal, they’ve been shutting down their prisons, because they have less and less criminals. Meanwhile, in the US, the war on drugs, is as rational a pursuit as Captain Ahab chasing his whale.

  15. Dennis Sceviour,

    You nicely show part of the causal context of the situation. In the US, cops are often under stress and face hostility, plus it is often claimed that white cops are afraid of young black men. Young black men are often under stress and face hostility and they tend to be afraid of cops. So, it is not surprising that when the two meet, things often end up going very badly.

    It is certainly worth discussing the forceful actions of police-they often raise important ethical issues about violence, order and such.

  16. JMRC,

    Good points-we did not win the peace in Viet Nam or Iraq and using the same tactics against American citizens is not going to win the peace here.

  17. The war on drugs is helping to wreck the United States. But, at least the prison-industrial complex was doing well and the righteous could say that they did not compromise.

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