Murky facts in Ferguson

By Gene Lyons

NEA Columnist

Almost the only heartening news out of Ferguson, Missouri, came in a Washington Post report headlined "Nearly 6 in 10 African-Americans say Michael Brown shooting was 'unjustified.'"

According to the Post, while an opinion poll found that "64 percent of Americans overall said they didn't have enough information" to form a strong opinion about the 18-year-old's death, "when it comes to African-Americans, the verdict is basically in."

That is, in simple terms, that Brown was murdered by a rogue cop.

Except that's not really what the poll reported. The actual numbers are that 57 percent of African-Americans lean that way, while 43 percent do not.

A majority, yes, but very far from unanimity. And that's the good news in an otherwise appalling situation. Because at this point nobody really knows exactly what happened. Anybody who expresses certainty is far ahead of the available evidence, and is nobody's friend of any ethnicity.

Are black Americans justified in being suspicious? It would be astonishing if most were not. As seemingly every professor of African-American studies in the United States has recently reminded us, it hasn't been so long since a tragedy like Brown's death might have been shrugged off as just another random killing in the black part of town. Responding to events in Ferguson, Hillary Clinton asked a well-heeled white audience to consider the black experience:



"Imagine what we would feel and what we would do," she said, "if white drivers were three times as likely to be searched by police during a traffic stop as black drivers, instead of the other way around; if white offenders received prison sentences 10 percent longer than black offenders for the same crimes; if a third of all white men ... went to prison during their lifetime. Imagine that. That is the reality in the lives of so many of our fellow Americans and so many of the communities in which they live."

Yes, imagine.

One especially militant pundit, however, denounced Clinton's remarks as "a Teflon-coated study in playing it safe." Apparently because, like that notorious racial sellout President Obama, she had failed to pronounce upon Ferguson policeman Darren Wilson's guilt and call for his immediate arrest.

Obama himself got scolded in the Washington Post by Georgetown University professor (and MSNBC talking head) Michael Eric Dyson as "tone deaf and disappointing" for the same sin. Also for not rushing to Ferguson as he'd hurried to Newtown, Connecticut and "communities ravaged by Hurricane Sandy" -- almost as if the professor didn't recognize the inherent problem of the president's involving himself in an ongoing criminal investigation.

Elsewhere, the professoriate was well represented. The University of Connecticut's Jelani Cobb wrote feelingly in the New Yorker about the "damnable, tiresome burden of racism." Emory University's Carol Anderson informed Washington Post readers that Ferguson makes sense only as an explosion of "white rage."

In Salon, Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper announced herself "appalled" at efforts to protect Wilson and his family from reprisal.

After Time's Joe Klein pointed out that Brown's death might not turn out to be a perfect parable of racial injustice, Wake Forest professor Melissa Harris-Perry brought him up short with a brisk summary of allowable information:

"Officer Wilson was armed," she wrote. "Michael Brown was not. Officer Wilson shot Michael Brown. Michael Brown is dead. Officer Wilson has not been arrested ... Those are the facts."

The Daily Howler's ever-skeptical Bob Somerby responds:

"Those are the facts? Actually, no -- those are some of the facts! More specifically, those are the facts which help Harris-Perry keep her narration a bit of a 'perfect metaphor' -- a simplistic story with no moral ambiguity or factual uncertainty."

To campus intellectuals adept at decoding the symbolic meaning of events, Michael Brown has been transmogrified into Emmett Till -- the 14-year-old Chicago boy foully murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for flirting with a white woman, an episode that shocked the nation's conscience.

So what could that skeptical 43 percent of African-Americans unconvinced of Patrolman Darren Wilson's guilt be thinking? Maybe that there are young men very like Michael Brown walking down the middle of the street in their neighborhoods -- some definitely no angels.

Possibly that the fellow seen menacing a convenience store clerk five minutes before the fateful encounter might have imagined he could assault a cop with impunity. Maybe that he wanted the cigars to make "blunts" laced with pot and other drugs. Maybe he'd succumbed to drug-induced psychosis.

Perhaps they doubt that Wilson called the play; that a racist cop with homicidal impulses wouldn't have chosen high noon in a black apartment complex for a showdown. Maybe they wonder if an officer suddenly catapulted into life-and-death struggle with a man twice his size had a real choice.

Could be, Wilson just panicked.

Maybe too, some African-Americans have seen enough mob justice to await the results of a proper federal investigation.

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