Blog 61. Making sense of mayhem in Ferguson

What happened in Ferguson, Missouri? And is this important to the nation?

First, a few facts. There had been months of sometimes-violent protests in Ferguson, MO. On August 9, 2014, a very large 18 year-old black man (Brown), with a friend, shoved a clerk while stealing a box of cigarillos at a convenience store. Minutes later, a white police officer (Wilson) stopped the pair, wrestled with Brown through the window of the police car, chased Brown on foot, shot at him repeatedly, and again fired multiple shots, killing Brown after Brown turned and moved toward the policeman. Reports of other details vary. On August 24, a grand jury did not indict Officer Wilson. The city erupted with riots and burning of cars and businesses. Protests arose in other cities. President Obama made a speech, urging calm.  And then there was the death of Eric Garner when held by police  in New York City.

Other than tragedy, why is this important?
Media have variously praised the review of evidence by the Ferguson grand jury or have accused the police and officials of racial injustice and manipulation of information. Choose your side, you’ll find evidence to support your view.

Any lack of justice, real or perceived, inflames passions. Clearly, there’s disrespect and injustice in the Ferguson case, injustice to the convenience store clerk, injustice in the style of officer’s initial approach to Brown, injustice in the fact of multiple shots fired both as Brown first ran away and then moved toward the officer. But a deeper significance is behind this story.

The riots in Ferguson and the subsequent protests around the country are not simply about the killing of a thieving and disrespectful teenager, or about a disrespectful officer. Why does an entire country take notice? Why were Brown and the officer both so disrespectful? Why are so many protesting, and what are they really protesting?

The Ferguson episode was a signal, a trigger, an event that amplified into actions that were both profound and violent. This is system behavior, amplification of a signal, a grain of sand that initiates an avalanche. Ferguson is not simply about police brutality. Ferguson is about inequality, the disparity of income, the disparity of opportunity, and the resulting division of society into lower- and upper-class people. The events resonate with people far from Brown and Wilson. The events resonate with groups interacting by electronic media, journalistic and individual. Protest, whether peaceful or violent, can be an emergent behavior of the complex system, triggered by a smaller event. Like the thunderstorm triggered by a butterfly. Or an angry swarm triggered by an accidental brush against a beehive. Complex social systems can show behavior no one intended. Does this sound familiar to long-time readers of this site? See Blog 2 and Blog 44.

The U.S. has the greatest inequality in income, and more health, social problems, obesity, mental illness, more anxiety, and more homicides than other developed countries. The symptoms correlate with the income inequality of the various countries, the greater the income disparity, the greater the social symptoms. In the American ideal, every person has opportunity. As I’ve noted before, it is not either the ideals or the reality that makes a society strong—rather, the gap between the two is a measure of its weakness. In America, opportunity and other things are very unequal. We have poor schools in poor neighborhoods.

The people sense this disparity in opportunity, and firmly believe there is a corresponding disparity in justice. Inasmuch as money buys almost anything, including elections, I suggest we are in a dangerous situation. Not from being poor or rich—the society as a whole is rich—but in danger from the social upheavals that are likely to grow and the forms of repression that may be applied in response.

If you think a social outbreak won’t affect you, if you think the repression will only be such as to control the rabble, then I suggest you remember who lost their heads during the French revolution.