Ferguson, Race, and Prison Experiments

I’ve been following the story surrounding Ferguson.  To sum it up, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.  The young man was shot 6 times, many of the wounds defensive, and two of those shots were to the head.  The one that killed him was through the top of the head.

Since the shooting, there have been outcries.  The police released a video of the young man robbing a convenience store just before the shooting took place.  There have been protests, both peaceful and violent.  The Missouri governor executed an emergency curfew.  Then the national guard was summoned and the curfew was lifted.  But there is still turmoil in the area, and President Obama seems reluctant to talk about the situation.

That’s a brief summary.  I know that I’ve left out a lot of the nuance, but my purpose with this post isn’t to rehash the news.  I want to talk about the actual cause, how this could have been avoided, and what can be done to unravel this situation.

First of all, I don’t think race is the primary cause.  I’m not saying that race isn’t an issue, or that Ferguson enjoys racial equality.  I’m saying that the primary cause was not racism.

The primary cause was power.

John Oliver sums it up very well.  He lays out all of the details of local police getting armed as the military are, but without the training.  What was it Einstein said?  “You cannot simultaneously prepare for and prevent war.”

But maybe the military arms weren’t the problem in the shooting.  The camo fatigues and assault rifles didn’t really seem to show up in Ferguson until after the shooting.  The escalation of force was a response to the people’s reaction to the shooting.

And that’s the problem.  Instead of offering sympathy to the family that lost a child, or looking for a way to keep this kind of thing from happening again, an effort was made to suppress the reaction.  Instead of taking responsibility for killing an unarmed kid, a video was released in attempt to villainize him.

The reaction of the police, and then the governor, was not one of reaching out to support and comfort the people that they are sworn to protect and serve.  It was more like the reaction of a parent scolding an unruly child.  That’s power, and the root of the problem.

Maybe race was a secondary issue in the shooting.  I don’t know.  It has certainly blown up to be a bigger issue after the fact.  I just finished reading a story that paints this whole situation as a race issue that President Obama, endowed with his darker skin, should be able to defuse.

I think this is just another reflection of the Stanford Prison Experiment.  When a group of people think they are in power over another group of people, the first group begins to dehumanize the second, both in speech and in action.  It doesn’t matter what their background is or what they look like.  It becomes about objectification and exercising power.

If the unrest in Ferguson is going to be unraveled, the power disparity is going to have to be dissolved.  To do this, the following will need to happen:

  1. Call off the National Guard
  2. Put away the military gear
  3. Lift all curfews
  4. Quit punishing the innocent
  5. Publicly offer sympathy for the deceased

Maybe I’m naive, but I believe that if you treat a person as an adult, they will reciprocate by acting like one.

The ones “in power” have to make the first step.  It cannot and should not be to bring more weapons to bear.