Against Protester Brutality

Posted: Nov 30, 2014 12:01 AM

Most people agree about the wrongness of police brutality, if not about whether a particular police action is an example of it.

But what about protester brutality? Again, most oppose it.

Still, skeptics on this point have been particularly loud and insistent lately. Some even suggest (or scream) that violence against the innocent is fully justified if that’s what it takes to protest injustice.

But the existence of police brutality does not justify protester brutality, protester vandalism, protester looting or setting fires, protester indifference-to-evidence, or any other dangerous violence or irrationality.

The grand jurors in Ferguson were not dealing with injustice in the abstract, but with a particular incident and the relevant evidence. They were not asked to determine whether police ever wrongly shoot or kill, but whether there was evidence that a particular officer had done so in a specific case, enough to justify a trial. Even assuming legitimate grounds to disagree with their conclusion, too many commenters declaim as if the evidence is irrelevant and the jurors’ motives not possibly honest. The police officer had to be indicted regardless.

Of course, had Officer Wilson been indicted and tried, on this assumed-guilty approach only one outcome would have then been deemed acceptable, regardless of evidence: conviction. Absent that conviction, violence against the innocent would still have been rationalized.

No injustice is properly fought by either sweeping aside facts or by attacking the innocent in the name of protecting the innocent. Looting a tire store simply isn’t a just response to a police officer not being indicted in the shooting of a young man. Or to much of anything else, for that matter.

If we ignore the requirements of justice in order to advance a Cause, how can that Cause be justice?

So, as we watch and re-watch footage of St. Louis-area arson, looting, and random shootings, we can take heart. There were protestors who did not put down the placard to take up the Molotov cocktail. Indeed, some few Ferguson citizens protested the looters by standing guard at a few local stores, preventing destruction and plunder.

This country has a host of serious problems in the criminal justice system: Far too many cases of outrageous police violence go unpunished. A prison-industrial complex has been built by locking up more of our fellow countrymen than any other nation on the planet. More and more cities engage in policing-for-profit schemes, from more traditional speed traps and thoroughly modern civil fines that crush the poor to the highway robbery of civil asset forfeiture programs that allow police to flat-out steal money and cars and boats and other valuables from people never even charged with a crime.

The system cries out loudly for reform; the last thing we need is for thugs and charlatans to change the subject, to separate our common interest in justice by race or politics … or pain.

Instead, let’s keep our eye on what can be done. Michael Brown’s parents and supporters in Ferguson have called for passage of the “Michael Brown Law,” which would require on duty police officers to wear lapel cameras — something this column recently called “justice vision.”

Tragedy cannot be outlawed. Unfortunately. But we can respond to it with clear focus on preventing future wrongs, rather than retaliating for past wrongs, real or perceived.