The protesters at Ferguson might have won, but choose to lose

Summary: 4GW is the dominant form of warfare in our time, allowing materially weaker peoples to defeat stronger opponents. Such victories are not free; they require a group to become morally strong: cohesive, disciplined, behaving so as to gather support from others. Mere violence accomplishes nothing, as African-Americans will learn again in Ferguson MO.

Ferguson: police car


“Our immediate goal is to make sure that the residents of Ferguson are safe, that the looting stops, that the vandalism stops, that the people who are living in the community are confident that justice will be done.”
— Valerie Jarrett (Senior Advisor to Obama) interviewed by American Urban Radio Networks, 17 August 2014

“A number of locals have told NPR that they’re increasingly frustrated that Ferguson residents are being represented by small handfuls of looters and rioters, who they suspect are from out of town.”
— “More Mayhem In Ferguson: Tear Gas, Looting, Gunshots“, NPR, 18 August 2014


Technology has given us superpowers, but not to the extent that we know what’s going on in Ferguson. There has been looting and burning. But how much? By whom: locals or outsiders? How violent have the protests been?

What we do know is that the people of Ferguson MO, especially its African-American members, had the moral high ground after the shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown by local police for still-unclear but probably insufficient reasons. The moral high ground has often provided a decisive advantage in conflicts — even in war. America proved in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, gaining vital support in both from the UK and Farnce). It’s even more important in 4GWs.

The Ferguson shooting might have been the equivalent of the 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks, which sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott , which led to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — from which still greater events came. These triumphs came through non-violent protests, requiring great discipline by large numbers of people — achieved by organizations and leadership built over generations. (I’ve been unable to find details about how they maintained such tight discipline during these protests).


Also, non-violent protest is one way to use the power of weakness against superior physical power. For details see:

  1. Why Iraq Will End as Vietnam Did“, Martin van Creveld, 2004
  2. The War Nerd discovers van Creveld’s “power of weakness”, and demography, 18 July 2008

These are the benefits gained from organization and leadership, force multipliers against mere power.

The riots and looting in Ferguson flush away any advantages gained by Brown’s execution. SWAT teams, armored vehicles, and heavy weapons — most people consider these excessive force against peaceful protesters. Opinion swings the other way when the police defend the community against looters and rioters. Most of us would want all of these advantages when standing in the street facing a large violent mob.

Then there is the wider audience of American who learn about these things by TV. Peaceful protesters earn admiration, the first step to gaining support. Rioters build support for the police. It’s the harsh logic of 4GW (the Good, True, and Beautiful are loved by God, but not always useful down here).

The tools for victory against overbearing State power are available to all, but their price is high in terms of sacrifice, discipline, and effort.

News from the front

Missouri governor imposes curfew in Ferguson, declares emergency“, CNN, 16 August 2014 — Excerpt:

The looting began at the Ferguson Market and Liquor store, which has become part of the case. … As protesters took to the streets early Saturday, more than two dozen people blocked off the convenience store with cars. Police with riot gear, tactical rifles and armored vehicles were nearby, commanding them through loudspeakers to free it up.

Instead, bottles flew, mayhem erupted, and looters ransacked the store, which the owner had boarded up. It was the first of at least three stores raided.

Burnt out QuikTrip in Ferguson, MO
Burnt out QuikTrip in Ferguson, MO. Laurie Skrivan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Other posts about the events in Ferguson, MO

  1. Our elites smile at events in Ferguson, MO. They’ll cry if it pushes Blacks to try 4GW., 14 August 2014
  2. Will the Ferguson protest force development of African-American leaders?, 15 August 2014
  3. Why America has militarized its police and crushes protests, 16 August 2014
  4. The protesters at Ferguson might have won, but choose to lose, 18 August 2014
  5. Events from Ferguson explain why we are weak, 19 August 2014

For More Information

(a)  All posts about Reforming America: steps to political change.

(b)  About protests:

  1. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009
  2. How do protests like the TP and OWS differ from effective political action?, 26 October 2011
  3. The Million Vet March, a typical peasants’ protest. Does it portend more serious protests in our future?, 13 October 2013
  4. Martin Luther King Jr’s advice to us about using violence to reform America, 20 January 2014

(c)  About the moral high ground:

  1. Civil Disobedience by the “Occupy” Movement Is a Challenge to Our Rulers, 21 November 2011
  2. Using covert operations to discredit your enemies, 27 November 2011
  3. What the conflict with Iran teaches us about modern State-to-State war, 16 January 2012
  4. Martin Luther King Jr’s advice to us about using violence to reform America, 20 January 2014
  5. The Fate of Israel, 28 July 2014



31 thoughts on “The protesters at Ferguson might have won, but choose to lose”

  1. Absolutely agree. The most important element of war, any war including 4GW … the moral high ground. Sinking to the tactics “of the enemy” (violence and looting in this case, torture and industrial scale killing in the US’s case) gives up the moral high ground and forfeits the righteousness of the cause. Yes, the means can delegitimize the ends. We’ve just witnessed it in Ferguson.

    From a common sense POV consider this. The man has a monopoly on violence and is looking for an excuse to use it, therefore never give him a “reason” or let others provide him with an opportunity to inflict it. The man too often enjoys using violence. Frustrate him by not providing an excuse to indulge himself. Let him strike out first for no reason (as the Ferguson protests began). Admittedly nothing new here, van Creveld, Boyd, Sun Tzu, King, etc. Appears as though someone in the movement needs to do some reading.

  2. This thing wasn’t a planned event, it was spontaneous anger. I’ve seen this here, there are opportunists, and they take advantage of these situations, and when the chaos comes they just start stealing stuff. So basically, police shoot this guy, people get rightfully upset and start protesting, police overreact and bring in the tanks and tear gas, and then there’s looting.

    So the media blames the looting on innocent blacks protesting? This is because we assume blacks are collectively guilty — whites are treated as individuals. When some blacks commit crimes, all blacks get punished. When a white policeman shoots a guy, well, that’s just one rogue cop. This is the logic of racism, and got it. We got it bad.

    1. Cathryn,

      I agree on all points. But so what? Debate about good and bad keeps priests and philosophers employed, but I don’t see any other benefit.

      This post has a different subject: the police shooting in Ferguson and the police over-reaction were a political opportunity. It has been wasted. Nothing will change until leadership and organizations are built to use them. Those are the cold equations of politics, who care not about right and wrong.

    2. I don’t know if there’s such an opportunity here, really. If there wasn’t looting, there would have been some other ‘scary black thing’ for the media to scare all the ‘TV watchers’ with. I’m sure the NSA has the technology to identify ex cons or child molesters in the crowd. With the burden of race-based collective guilt, there’s no hope of a ‘clean march’ — since groups of humans are big messy things. Any group that’s judged by its worst members will always be worthy of repression. The state is going to find a way to justify itself.

      Black people can try disciplining their actions better, that might help a little. But really, this doesn’t end until we stop judging races this way, and this is not something blacks can fix by themselves.

      1. Cathryn,

        IMO one reason the Republic dies a little each day is that we devote so much effort to preemptive surrender. The civil rights movement account accomplished much. Let us not presume failure until we have tried what has worked in the past.

    3. I just want to point out that even calling it “rioting” is a misnomer and generalization. Because it is not possible to fully organize a large group of dissociative humans, they come to the streets with different agendas. Many are there for solidarity on the top issue “injustice.” In reality, once in the street, most are subjected to the whims of the other individuals or groups which run the spectrum mentioned above. Just like any cross section of any populace, some are inclined to take advantage. Think about 100 people being confronted with riot gear police, most retreat, some stand firm, others advance. To throw back a tear gas canister is what? Brave? Insane? Tough? I don’t know because it would probably never me be.

      What does this all mean? The generalizations and what is lost in translation, despite TV and twitter pics is vast. We really cannot know what is going on in Ferguson, except by the actions of the police. That is the polarizing common denominator. I strongly believe we cannot, as media participants know for sure what happened in any part of the events in Ferguson. All we can know is how we feel seeing the armored vehicles and heavily armed cops advancing down the street. This is the indelible image, the message is that our country is violent and our police departments are duly armed and ready for it.

    4. For a better planned event, there was the “#stoptheboat” protest against an Israeli ship in Oakland. Really, some bloggers in Gaza and here in the USA both picked up on the parallels between their bombing and the tear gas attacks in Ferguson. And actually I think people did take this to heart, and there was common ground between the blacks and the Muslim community here — who mostly support Gaza, and the ILWU. They were able to raise quite a crowd, and they had, like an operational objective.

      “Shehk said that activists could still stop the unloading of the ship by gathering enough protesters at each port to create a “health and safety risk” that would prevent union workers from crossing the picket line and doing their jobs.

      “It’s on us to ensure that the action is successful enough that they don’t have to make a choice,” Shehk said.”

      This is more clever. Clear objectives, get people to show up, achieve something and then go home. Not sure how much US media covered this, but the bloggers in Gaza who could post in English were all talking about it.

  3. Organization must precede any protest for it to have a positive political impact.

    The Montgomery bus boycott of 1954-55 was planned and initiated by a cadre well trained in civil disobedience. Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, and John Lewis, key members of what was probably a conspiracy, were sent by the NAACP to The Highlander Folk School in Tennessee in the summer of 1954 and trained in organizing protests. Martin Luther King was brought on board early in the process. They were inspired by the partial success of the Baton Rouge bus boycott of 1953. All of those involved said they were acting independently to avoid being charged with a conspiracy to organize a boycott. Southern states had draconian laws against boycotts because of earlier labor unrest. King was arrested for organizing the boycott but the charge became moot when the Supreme Court ruled against segregation on buses.
    A timeline from the Alabama Bar Association

    The Highlander Folk School reference

  4. Apparently U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did not get the memo that the protestors in Ferguson have lost the moral high ground:

    U.N. chief calls for protection of rights in Missouri protests

    August 18, 2014 12:53 PM ET

    “UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on U.S. authorities on Monday to ensure the protection of the rights of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, where there have been demonstrations and rioting over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teen.

    “The Secretary-General calls on the authorities to ensure that the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are protected,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

    “He calls on all to exercise restraint, for law enforcement officials to abide by U.S. and international standards in dealing with demonstrators,” Dujarric said. ”

    With all due respects to the great Martin Luther King, whom I discussed while commenting on a previous post, these are the 2010’s, not the 1950’s. This has several implications, but the one I emphasize now is that any effort to analyze the success or failure of various movements within the four corners of the American polity are faulty because the nation state, including the American polity, is growing increasingly obsolete.

    1. Duncan,

      I have no idea what you are attempting to say.

      (1) People retain human rights even as convicted criminals. Possession of the moral high ground is a tactical consideration — realpolitik.

      (2) You can say the nation-state is growing obsolete, but the evidence for that is quite speculative. Hence you are a minority in that analysis. Stating that as a fact, rather than theory, is IMO exaggerated confidence.

      (3) Yes, this is 2014, not 1955. Life changes. Do you really believe anybody fails to understand that? Historical comparisons are useful to illustrate dynamics based on similarities, not that conditions are identical between to points of time even in the same society.

    2. Further info on the international impact:

      “Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson becomes an international incident”

      FM: We’ll just have to see whether or not the nation state is in decline. The proof is in the pudding. Suffice it to say, however, that one and the same Martin van Creveld, whom you cite above, thinks it is in decline.

      1. Duncan,

        Martin van Creveld wrote in 1999 that the State “was in decline” — as a theory, about which I’ve often written. I’ve chatted with him off and on over the years, and last I checked he was uncertain if the process has yet begun. But he believes it highly likely to happen in the future.

        As for “international incident” — nice that we’re providing entertainment. Much like a whale stuck in the arctic ice. I suggest not holding you breath for that international interest to have domestic political effect.

    3. ” I suggest not holding you breath for that international interest to have domestic political effect.”

      That depends upon whether “domestic political effect” is a fixed or variable term.

    4. I posted that on my Facebook page.

      If the United States – or, more specifically, the elements within it that support the Ferguson police and, more generally, the police militarization for which it stats – is so isolated that it fails to grasp how its conduct appears, then it is in an advanced state of entropy and its OODA loops are out of whack.

      That cannot be good for those elements.

      1. Duncan,

        This use of force is as unusual as the sun rising. Modern tech makes more visible, much as TV did to the Vietnam War.

        National Guard troops in the streets were a routine summertime event in American cities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Massive riots rocked a France in 1968 and 2005. So far events in Ferguson are trivia by comparison.

        Perhaps they’ll grow (my guess is that will not). Perhaps there will be substantial political effects (my guess is no). Either way, the opinion of the ruler of Egypt is of less than zero significance.

        Setting him up as a relevant judge is daft, IMO. The opinion of the UN Secretary is more significant on paper, but de facto still zero.

    5. German journalists arrested in Ferguson

      Then a young police officer says: “Okay, but only if you keep moving. The moment you stay standing, you’ll be arrested. That’s the last warning.”

      Graw took the pictures walking around in small circles in an attempt to assuage the officer, but was then cuffed in zip ties anyway. The officer gave his name as Donald Duck.

      The journalists were processed, relieved of their personal belongings and transported to a jail in St. Louis. Requests for water were ignored. Requests for a phone call were always answered with “later”.

      After three hours, the journalists were released without explanation.

      1. Duncan,

        You are quoting Iran’s news media saying the US is a “failed state”? In fact the quote is “a human rights failed state”. Coming from Iran that’s dark humor. You must be kidding us. That is quite daft, must like your quote of Egypt’s leader — fresh from his coupe and mass arrests.

        Your choice of citations is, imo, quite weird.

  5. Obviously people taking advantage of the chaos by looting is a negative, I don’t know how widespread it is.

    As for anyone winning or losing — the goals here aren’t as ambitious as the civil rights movement, which wanted a major rebalancing of power in society.

    Here the basic goal, I think, is to ensure honest review of lethal force by police, and have less of it altogether. (I.e., prevent police from shooting non-threatening or mildly-threatening people. Recognize, condemn and punish racial double standards in such situations). I think most people would support that if they were aware it was a problem.

    Require non-lethal weapons? Require a camera attached to officer’s side-arm, starts recording when removed from holster? Review policies/training/tactics? Legalize filming of law enforcement on duty? Now you can make a case for these things and there is an audience for it.

    The ambitious goal might be to reverse militarization of police in general. Not sure how that is going to go.

    1. “A camera for every cop” – Actually I think it would satisfy most of the police critics if Congress enacted a nationwide police camera law that required officers to film their interactions with the public, as is already required by some police departments. I think this would be especially well received by the protesting public if it could be adequately enforced, maybe by making retention of the film records an ongoing condition of employment.
      I don’t think it would happen though. If I were to judge by the couple message boards I’ve seen on the Ferguson case, then more than half of the US population believes police are utterly infallible and should be praised for executing “thugs” who they deem unfit for society.
      Gotta love those message boards….

  6. I was encouraged by this Fabius Maximus post to read up a bit on the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
    One thing that really stuck out to me was that, during the March on Washington in 1963 for example, enormous efforts were taken to focus both the group and the message, and impressive security preparations helped to ensure there would be no violent disruptions.

    It’s hard for me to imagine any protest group going to these lengths today. I can hardly even conceive of a single cause today that would bring so many people together without the inevitable bickering that our modern political discourses so often devolve to.

    So what has changed since then? Do we now have insufficient causes, or inadequate leaders?

  7. Don’t you think this social justice warrioring in favor of rioting black people is a little insane? You seem to be celebrating and encouraging to destruction of the monopoly of power of the state, how is this beneficial to the nation? The civil rights movement of the 60s was a utter disaster based on a absolutely false premise of racial equality. How is this achievable when average IQ, time preference and general temperament differ between different groups? Shouldn’t military strategist theorist be aware of these variables? Average afro american IQ = 85 (similar to average Iraqi IQ), average USA Caucasian IQ = 100 – this is genetic. I can supply sources.

  8. If there was a mass nationwide PEACEFUL protest that threatened the power of the elite, the elite would use agent provocateurs to turn these peaceful protests violent and thereby discredit them. If the violence is limited to black ghettos, the agent provocateurs will bring the violence to white suburban areas so as to mobilize public opinion against the protesters.

    4GW against the power structure of the United States would requires both (a) the ability to create such widespread havoc that the whole system is threatened; (b) a large group of people who see dying for a cause as the better option than living under the current system. Neither of these conditions is likely to occur in the future.

    First, robotics and dispersion of critical production facilities will mean it is impossible to really threaten the power structure. Sure, terrorists could shut down hospitals, supermarkets, etc using biological agents. All that means is a bunch of useless eaters in hospitals die and the citizens would have to be fed on bulk foods distributed by truck somehow. Shutting down the power grid, railroads, interstate trucking, etc, is much more difficult. Shutting down the farms, mines, power plants, refineries, factories, etc is next to impossible, but these are isolated and easy to defend using robotic snipers.

    Second, there is no great willingness by these black and liberal protesters to die for a cause. The rural white militiamen are a different story, but those guys are fairly well-treated by the current system, and will continue to be well-treated as part of the divide-and-conquer scheme.

    Because the elite controls the propaganda machinery in the United States and other developed countries, the only way for 4GW to work would be for the rebels to be irrationally violent. In other words, the rebels must not have goals, not even the goal of overthrowing the existing power structure. Rather, they must desire destruction for its own sake. They must not have leaders. Any attempts to reason with the rebels must be met by further senseless violence. The reason for this is that any time the rebels to state their goals in a coherent and rational form, the propaganda machinery will distort things so as to discredit, demoralize and divide the rebels. Thus the rebels must assume, from day one, that they are already discredit, demoralize and divided, and act accordingly. Destroy for the pure love of destruction, not because the destroying a bad system is the first step towards creating a better system.

    4GW like this might someday occur in the United States, but I wouldn’t want to be around when it happens. I’d vote in a heartbeat for an oppressive police state rather than anarchy and senseless violence, and so would most other sane Americans who aren’t suffering too badly under the current system.

    1. Dissenter,

      I disagree on all points. We could regain control of the system without recourse to such extreme measures, IMO. But we face the greatest possible enemy: ourselves. Our passivity and disinterest in taking the burden of self-government.

      How to awaken the love of liberty in a people is a puzzle to which we lack a solution. The Founders were quite clear that such a love was a precondition for success of the democratic machinery they left us.

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