What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson

It doesn’t matter how many details you know. If you start the story in the wrong place, you won’t understand it.


Part of my regular news-watching cycle is to check in on Fox News from time to time. It keeps me honest and helps me anticipate the kinds of arguments I’m likely to start hearing from conservatives.

Watching Fox was particularly interesting in the early part of this week, because in the evenings they (like MSNBC and CNN) gave a lot of air time to their reporters on the streets in Ferguson, Missouri. So it was a rare opportunity to see all three cable news networks cover the same controversial events at the same time. Most days, the difference between the networks lies mainly in what they choose to cover — a new report on climate change might lead the news on MSNBC, while Fox focuses on Benghazi hearings in Congress. But for a few days the what of the news was obvious and inescapable, so Fox’s unique perspective on the world could only express itself in the how.

Some of the difference in coverage has been on the detail level and is easy to filter out if you’re aware of the various networks’ points of view. When police would start moving in on demonstrators, for example, Fox would report as fact whatever they were hearing from police — that, say, shots had been fired from the crowd — while MSNBC would stick closer to what they could see (police moving in), express ignorance as to why it was happening, and then later report what police were saying (shots were fired from the crowd) as a claim they couldn’t verify. Whether you were pro-demonstrator or pro-police, you could watch either network and make a good guess about what the other was reporting.

But there has been a much more subtle, harder-to-compensate-for difference in the way each network answers the fundamental question: What are the demonstrations in Ferguson all about?

On Fox, the answer to that question is very simple. Demonstrators in Ferguson are reacting angrily to a single, one-of-a-kind event: White police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown. That restricted context drives the rest of their narrative.

The apparent mystery. Like any good narrative hook, Fox’s omission of context creates a mystery: Why do so many people in Ferguson care so much about that particular event? Of course, Michael Brown’s family would be upset, and even Fox’s audience can cut them some slack if they want Officer Wilson nailed to the wall. But what about all those other people on the street night after night? It’s safe to say that most of them never even met Michael Brown. Why were they giving up their evenings and risking arrest or worse?

Once you have that question in your head, several answers suggest themselves: Maybe they’re all just crazy. Fox’s resident psychologist, Dr. Keith Ablow, says “the psyche of the community” deserves as much investigation as the actions of police.

Or maybe most of the protesters really don’t care about Brown, and the demonstrations are just an exciting thing to do in a boring town. At night on the streets, you’re where it’s all happening. You might even get on national TV. That’s the interpretation Fox correspondent Steve Harrigan was promoting when he described the demonstrations late Monday night as a “media event” and “child’s play”. (In response, he got cussed out on camera by one of the black “children” he was demeaning: “We go through this shit every day,” the young man reported. Harrigan did not follow up on that observation.)

An even more sinister solution to the mystery evokes racial stereotypes that Fox doesn’t need to spell out. A hint is enough: Maybe these young black men are just wired for anarchy and violence. The Brown shooting was nothing more than an excuse for doing what they’d do all the time if police weren’t stopping them. And once you raise the stereotype of the lawless black savage, the incidents of looting take on a significance far beyond their number or the number of people responsible: This isn’t about Brown or the police at all, it’s about grabbing some free liquor or a new pair of Air Jordans.

In addition, the why-do-they-care mystery leads right into a question Fox raises at every opportunity: Why do blacks only go to the streets about white-on-black cases like Brown and Trayvon Martin, when black-on-black violence [see endnote 1] kills far more people? How street demonstrations could prevent black-on-black violence is a question they never address. (Demonstrations speak to governments and the national electorate, and have little effect on criminals or hot-headed youth.) But Fox presents the Brown and Martin demonstrations as pointless anyway, so why shouldn’t there be equally pointless demonstrations against black-on-black violence instead?

Second, restricting your attention to that one context-free event makes the crowd look like a lynch mob. Why are they so sure Officer Wilson wasn’t justified in shooting Brown? Why can’t they wait for the investigative process to play out? And why can’t they cooperate with police now to keep the peace?

And finally, the mystery-framing makes the politics of the situation look purely venal. How outrageous it seems that liberals — they must be liberals — are exploiting the Brown shooting to register Ferguson’s black population to vote!

What makes Fox’s frame so convincing to its audience is that you can feel well-informed inside it. You can know how many people were arrested each night and which stores they looted. You can learn details of the shooting (though anonymous leaks from police will be reported more authoritatively than eye-witness testimony from black citizens). You can learn statistics about black crime in America. You can know just how rare police killings are compared to drug killings or other black-on-black murders. You’re not ignorant; you’re a walking storehouse of the kinds of information MSNBC would never tell you.

But in spite of that well-informed feeling, you don’t understand what’s really going on, because Fox is leaving out key background information and then beginning the story in the wrong place. The right story begins not with Officer Wilson’s bullets, or even with Michael Brown in the convenience store, but with a community where lesser forms of police abuse are an everyday occurrence.

Start by asking. Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie did what Fox reporters (or most individual whites) hardly ever do: ask the black community what they’re concerned about and listen to their answers.

Talk to anyone in Ferguson and you’ll hear a story about the police. … Everyone—or at least, every black person—can recall an incident. Everyone can attest to friends and relatives who have been harassed, assaulted, or worse by the police.

The right story begins here: A majority-black community feels abused by its almost entirely white police force. [2] And complaining to the white-dominated local government does no good. (As a report from Arch City Defenders spells out, the town of Ferguson gets significant revenue from assessing fines against poor people.)

If you start there, the narrative takes a completely different path. When a policeman shot Michael Brown six times on a city street in broad daylight in front of witnesses, the Ferguson community was not shocked (the way I would be if one of my white friends were gunned down by police in my majority-white town). Quite the opposite, this was the kind of incident they found all too believable, given the police behavior they see all the time.

So the reaction we’ve been seeing on the streets isn’t “OMG! How can something like this happen?”, it’s “This shit has to stop.”

No mystery. So it’s no mystery at all why people who never met Michael Brown have been out on the streets. Brown’s death is part of a bigger issue that they all have a stake in: How can the police be gotten under community control, and disciplined to treat the community with respect?

Their tactics are also no mystery: When the political process is unresponsive, the streets are the only communication channel left. Trayvon Martin’s mother is supposed to have said, “If they won’t hear us, make them feel us.” And Ja’han Jones put it more aggressively on Salon: “What if being peaceful won’t change a thing?”

As far as Officer Wilson is concerned, the crowds are not rushing to judgment, they are speaking from experience. Yes, police act this way, and the result is always the same: If the incident isn’t ignored completely, it is shunted into a opaque “process” in which eyewitnesses are ignored and no quantity of physical evidence is sufficient to bring charges. Ferguson police have showed every indication of wanting to go that way: keeping back relevant information as long as possible, smearing Michael Brown, responding to protests with even more excessive force, leaking bogus “facts” that support Wilson, and arresting reporters.

What’s rare about the Brown shooting isn’t the shooting itself, but how visible everything is: The body was lying in the street for hours. The eyewitnesses have been on TV. Nothing in the autopsy or other available evidence contradicts their testimony. If the police don’t have to answer for this, then what are the limits? Is there anything they can’t sweep under the rug?

Once you understand where the story really starts and what it’s really about, then the whole detour into black-on-black crime is revealed to be “the politics of changing the subject“. Other than corpses, the two issues have nothing in common. It’s like asking Sean Hannity, “Why have you spent so much time on the four Americans who died at Benghazi when tens of thousands of Americans die in car accidents?”

My reality and theirs. Demographically, I look more like a Fox viewer than a Ferguson protester. I’m white, over 50, and have an above-median household income. I barely notice when a police car goes by, and when I have had occasion to deal with my local police — usually because I approached them with a question — they have been unfailingly polite. When I arrange to meet people socially or promise to be somewhere, I don’t allow extra time for the possibility that I might be stopped and frisked, or taken down to the police station and questioned about some crime I never heard of. That kind of stuff never happens to guys like me.

If I did find myself in an unexpected and unpleasant run-in with police, it would feel like snow in July. My instinct would be to wait it out until polite normality re-asserted itself. So I could easily follow the advice of LAPD’s Sunil Dutta:

if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long? … Save your anger for later, and channel it appropriately. Do what the officer tells you to and it will end safely for both of you. We have a justice system in which you are presumed innocent; if a cop can do his or her job unmolested, that system can run its course. Later, you can ask for a supervisor, lodge a complaint or contact civil rights organizations if you believe your rights were violated. Feel free to sue the police! Just don’t challenge a cop during a stop. [3]

Great advice for me, but I don’t believe it has much to do with the reality of places like Ferguson, or even parts of Dutta’s own Los Angeles.

What if I weren’t a middle-aged middle-class white guy? What if police abuse is normal in my experience? What if I’ve cooperated before, and before, and before that … and the stop wasn’t “complete in minutes” and I got tased, pepper-sprayed or worse anyway? What if I “saved my anger for later” and the appropriate channels laughed at me? What if I have dead or injured friends whose attempts to cooperate didn’t “end safely”, and other friends who weren’t “presumed innocent” in court, and are now in prison on sketchy or manufactured evidence?

What’s your advice for me then, Officer Dutta?

What your Fox-watching uncle doesn’t get. The frustrated citizens of Ferguson are pursuing a plan that makes sense: Wait for an incident so egregious that it can’t be swept under the rug, and then get out on the streets in large numbers. Tell your story to the country, put your political leaders on the spot, and show the world how “justice” works in your town. Shine a spotlight on the usual shadowy self-investigation process, and dare the powers-that-be to work their usual trickery in front of a national audience.

That plan might not work — it didn’t work in Florida — but what more likely plan have you got for them? They can’t just be quiet and wait for justice to be served. They’ve got to do something.

Because “we go through this shit every day”, and that shit has to stop.


[1] Reason‘s Steve Chapman asks:

Most crimes are committed by males, but we don’t refer to “male-on-male crime.” Whites in the South are substantially more prone to homicide than those in New England, but no one laments “Southerner-on-Southerner crime.” Why does crime involving people of African descent deserve its own special category?

[2] Unlike Bill O’Reilly, Ferguson residents aren’t giving police credit for all the people they stop and don’t kill. What’s up with that? And what about the 3/4ths of the people police across the nation kill who aren’t black?

[3] This advice was funnier when Chris Rock was giving it.

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Comments

  • Chris  On August 25, 2014 at 10:58 am

    Thought you might like this article

    http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/in-defense-of-looting/

  • Michael Wells  On August 25, 2014 at 11:08 am

    I recently found your site and appreciate your thoughtful and well-reasoned posts. However, I have to take issue with one part of this post. Officer Dutta’s “advice” is nothing more that a justification for police to be bullies under the threat of assaulting, injuring or killing the person they stop. Police are not authorized to compel those whom they stop to do anything the police want. We should reject anything beyond the common sense notion that one should be cautious and polite when confronted by those who have weapons. By the way, I am an old white guy but I don’t believe that I should be subservient to police merely because they are police. To do otherwise is to encourage police bullying and is antithetical to our system of justice.

    • Birdel Jackson  On September 3, 2014 at 11:38 pm

      Mr. Wells, first, a black man cannot react to the police the police the way you would. Second, if he did we know there’d be a different response from the officer. He’d immediately think the black man was “getting smart” with him. There’d be a threat of resisting arrest and things would escalate from there. Most black people have witnessed white people saying things to police that we know by experience that would be cause for the arrest of a black person or physical response from the officer. Black people know the police react differently to blacks than to whites. These experiences are too frequent to be anecdotal

  • James Donald Bishop  On August 25, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    I was amazed to see a claim that only 12 percent of the population in Ferguson voted in the last election. (I think that’s the statistic: I mainly remember the number). The best answer for the black community, I think, would be to do a major registration drive, find some good candidates and vote them in, and clean house. Use the energy generated in the protests.

  • Katie S  On August 25, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    “Demonstrators in Ferguson are reacting angrily to a single, one-of-a-kind event:”
    This is the framing that an abuser uses all the time. “why are you upset about what I did? it’s just an isolated incident, I’m not usually that way”

  • David Lance  On August 25, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    For those not disposed to read the whole 38-page http://www.archcitydefenders.org report, the pertinent Ferguson bits start on page 30. Synopsis: Population 21,000 / Warrants 24,532 / Fines and Court Fees $2,635,400. Those unable to pay the extortion went to jail.

  • Dan Bergh Johnsson (@danbjson)  On August 27, 2014 at 4:04 am

    Excellent analysis, well put. Interesting enough the “plan of the frustrated citizens” you mentioned in one of your closing sections – that plan might actually work. Evidence? I am sitting in Sweden, reading your post, and you make an impression.

  • Jack Rayher  On August 28, 2014 at 7:09 am

    If they want change, the people of Ferguson need to turn out to vote in every election!

  • Jen OBrien  On August 31, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    I teach about the OJ Simpson in my forensic science class. And give my students the context to understand why the community cheered for his not guilty verdict. More thoughts on tumblr http://msobsclassroom.tumblr.com/post/96279089029/ferguson-oj-simpson-and-marching-for-sister-shenaynay

Trackbacks

  • By Unwarranted | The Weekly Sift on August 25, 2014 at 11:30 am

    […] week’s featured post is “What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson“. The featured post from two weeks ago “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” […]

  • By Normal Behavior | The Weekly Sift on September 1, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    […] Lessons to Remember as Ferguson Fades into History“. Last week’s featured post “What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson” was popular, getting over 7,500 page views. August as a whole was the highest-traffic month […]

  • […] 3. The Ferguson revenue structure. As I’ve discussed before, Ferguson didn’t erupt simply because Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown. That was just the […]

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