Events from Ferguson explain why we are weak

Summary: Events in Ferguson display some of the problems plaguing the Republic — our unresolved racial conflicts, sclerotic governing institutions, and most importantly our weakness as citizens. Decades of propaganda have erased from our minds our history of successful collective action, and replaced it with a mostly false belief in markets and individuals. It’s left us as atomized consumers, incapable of effectively becoming leaders and followers and so governing ourselves. It makes us sheep. We can do better.

“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
— Edmund Burke (English statesman and philosopher), Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770)


Ferguson: molotov cocktail.
Citizenship in Ferguson. Scott Olson/Getty Images


  1. Tinderbox: a racially charged community
  2. Poor leadership
  3. Why we’re weak
  4. Other posts about events in Ferguson
  5. For More Information


(1)  Tinderbox: a racially charged community

Slowly we gather information so as to piece together some of the puzzle that is Ferguson MO.

(a)  Racial mistrust

Note the common mention of “outside agitators”, although there’s no evidence of this as yet (update: the police have given evidence if at least a small number of outsiders arrested).

“The protesters like seeing themselves on TV,” her friend added.  “It’s just a small group of people making trouble,” said another.

“The kid wasn’t really innocent,” chimed in a woman at the other end of the table (they all declined to give their names). “He was struggling with the cop, and he’s got a rap sheet already, so he’s not that innocent.” (While the first point is in dispute, the second isn’t: The police have said that Michael Brown had no criminal record.)

If anything, the people here were disdainful and, mostly, scared — of the protesters, and, implicitly, of black people. “I don’t think it’s about justice for Michael Brown’s family,” said the teenage boy. “It’s just an excuse for people to do whatever they want to do.”

One man I talked to, a stay-at-home dad who is a landlord to three black tenants and one white one in Ferguson (“my black tenants would never do that,” he clarified) was more sympathetic to Brown and also had the sense that the police had overdone it a bit. But he was scared of the protests. I told him that the protest that day was entirely peaceful, festive almost. “You know,” he said. “I have a wife and three children, and if something were to happen to me, that would be very bad.”

As for the protests, well, they weren’t about justice; they were just an excuse. “People are just taking the opportunity to satisfy their desire for junk,” said one woman, knowingly. As if black people, the lust for theft encoded in their DNA, are just barely kept in line by authority.

“When they kill each other, we never hear about it,” one of the Starbucks women said. This, she meant, was a good thing. “When it’s black-on-black violence, we never hear about it.” I asked why she thought that was. “Because, basically, they hate whites!” her friend chimed in. “Prejudice, reverse prejudice. Prejudice goes both ways.”

The others signalled their agreement. “It’s not Ferguson people. It’s a lot of outside people coming in.” {The New Republic}

(b)  White leaders for a Black town


Sen McCaskill hugs unidentified Back guy
Senator Claire McCaskill hugs an unidentified protester in Ferguson on Thursday. Washington Post, Courtesy of Christine Ingrassia

Ferguson’s police chief and mayor are white. Of the six City Council members, one is black. The local school board has six white members and one Latino. Of the 53 commissioned officers on the police force, three are black … {LA Times}

Ferguson’s elected officials did not look much different than they had years earlier, when it was a largely white community. Ferguson had, instead, recently seen two highly visible African-American public officials lose their jobs.

Two weeks before Brown was shot, Charles Dooley, an African-American who has served as St. Louis County Executive for a decade, lost a bitter primary election to Steve Stenger, a white county councilman, in a race that, whatever the merits of the candidates, was seen as racially divisive.

… In December, the largely white Ferguson-Florissant school board fired Art McCoy, the superintendent, who is African-American. Those who were gathered at the QuikTrip parking lot on Saturday were as inclined to talk about the underlying political issues as they were about the hail of bullets that ended Brown’s life. {The New Yorker}

Also see “In Ferguson, Black Town, White Power“, New York Times, 17 August 2014.

(2)  Poor leadership

(a)  Crisis management requires appointing a local manager, anointing him as Czar. Governor Nixon appointed a leader, but then failed to support him.

{On} Thursday Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, a black Ferguson native, took charge of operations …

But as early as Friday morning people began to wonder if Johnson really was in charge, in any meaningful way. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson began the day by releasing Officer Wilson’s name, which had been kept from the public until then. He undercut that gesture by simultaneously releasing a video that appeared to show Brown menacing a local store owner soon before his encounter with Wilson — thus suggesting that Wilson had been pursuing Brown as a suspect. It took a few hours, and a second press conference, for Jackson to acknowledge that Wilson hadn’t stopped Brown because he thought he was a robber but because Brown was walking in the street and not, as Wilson believed he should, on the sidewalk.

Ron Johnson had to concede that he had not even known that the video would be released; he saw it on television just as everyone else had. (“I would like to have been consulted,” he said at his own press conference.) After sporadic looting on Saturday night — halted largely by other protestors who rushed to protect the establishments being vandalized — Governor Jay Nixon declared a curfew, further undercutting Johnson’s authority. In the span of twenty-four hours, Johnson had gone, in the community’s eyes, from empowered native son to black token. One of the local activists I’d met in Feguson sent me a text message after the curfew announcement saying, “Johnson has good intentions but no power. This is beyond him.”

… Johnson had promised not to use tear gas in the streets of Ferguson but, during a skirmish with looters on Saturday night, police tear-gassed the crowd. {The New Yorker}

(b)  Community leaders lose control

Desperate efforts by black leaders, clergy, the Black Panthers, and Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson to get protesters in Ferguson, Mo., to heed a midnight curfew and go home Saturday failed. The result was that riot-geared police once again clashed with protesters in the wake of the Mike Brown shooting … {CS Monitor}

Tinkerbell asks if you believe in fairies
Do you believe in fairies?

(3)  Why we’re weak

“abstract lofty aims that have great resonance but are almost empty of practical meaning”
— Raja Shehadeh (Palestinian attorney) in the London Review of Books

(a)  Reform will remain impossible so long as we see ourselves as consumers of government services (rating them like waiters), not citizens. As seen in “Video Killed Trust in Police Officers“, Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, 18 August 2014 — “Recordings of police brutality have undermined the public’s perceptions of law enforcement—and changed how Americans see ‘good cops’ and ‘bad cops’.”

(b)  Fantasy (the article provides not the slightest evidence to support the title): “A Movement Grows in Ferguson“, Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker, 17 August 12014

(c)  Wishing won’t make it so: “The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race“, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Time, 17 August 2014 — He has no idea how this might happen, or what might make it happen.

(d)  Without political organizations we’ll rely on magic: “Stop Night Protests in Ferguson and Start Recalling City Leaders“, Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, 19 August 2014 — “Energy spent squaring off against an incompetent police force is better directed at the city’s power structure. Protest by day, collect signatures by night.”

(4)  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)  For More Information

(a)  See all posts about:

  1. The quiet coup now in progress in America
  2. Inequality & social mobility: once our strength, now a weaknesses
  3. Reforming America: steps to political change

(b)  Using anger as a tool to revitalize America

  1. Now is the time for America to get angry, 24 March 2009
  2. Re-envisioning the FM website, becoming soldiers in the war for American’s future, 21 December 2009
  3. Vital reading for America: two stories that might help arouse us to action, 17 January 2013
  4. The Idiocies of “Oversight” and “Accountability”, 9 February 2013
  5. In “Network”, Howard Beale asks us to get mad and do something. He’s still waiting., 19 October 2013
  6. A simple thing you can do to start the reform of America: get angry, 11 December 2013
  7. How can we arouse a passion to reform America in the hearts of our neighbors?, 20 December 2013
  8. Should we risk using anger to arouse America?, 16 January 2014



13 thoughts on “Events from Ferguson explain why we are weak”

  1. “Reform will remain impossible so long as we see ourselves as consumers of government services (rating them like waiters), not citizens.”

    The above cherry-picked statement from this article is. to me, the most importance sentence of the entire Internet for 2014.

    1. Joseph,

      Thanks for the feedback. I’ve said it for years, the most unpopular thing ever said in the contentious 7years here.

      The Left hates much said here, such as pointing out their increasing contempt for the IPCC and climate science agencies. The Right hated the forecasts that our wars would lead to defeat, that inequality was rising (said before it was trendy), that torture was bad, that in 2008 we were entering a recession, and much more.

      But both Left and Right hate pointing to ourselves, not the bad other guys, as the Republic’s weakness. Correctly so, as self-responsibility by citizens is a threat to them both.

  2. IOW much as people love to whine about the èlite fear of the horde from the ghetto will ensure that sufficiently large fraction of the population will support the security apparatus and the existing order.

  3. I see the first step is to listen to people in the zone of conflict. Find them, and listen to what they’re going through, and pay attention to what they have to say. The point is to not try to turn this into a bunch of people on the outside giving them advice on how they should manage things better. Maybe they could be, maybe they can’t, but the problem is that some black guy gets shot, and then the ‘talking head class’ — in the news and on TV debate these things with no real feel or empathy for what’s going on. This amplifies the isolation and paranoia and just makes things worse and worse.

    One other unrelated point. I’ve seen this in Berkeley — that there’s a class of older politicians who grew up with the protests in the 60’s, And every time there’s some kind of spontaneous political uprising like this, these guys, they sympathize, but they can’t really support. They’re longing for some neat and tidy movement, run by saints, free of corruption and violence. What always comes is just too icky for them. These movements often involves the oppressed subclasses of humans, Muslims or homeless or prostitutes, or there’s violence or drug use involved. The problem is that these things are never so neat. And any real movement that gets close to real power — like the trade union movement in the 50’s or the dock strikes in the 30’s, or the 60’s protests. These were all big messy scary things. Back in the old days, the National Guard came to Oakland, and buildings burned and all sorts of bad happened. It takes a charismatic genius to ride this tiger, I think, like Caesar Chavez or someone like that — and when they show up, the media will do everything to demonize them.

  4. FM is exactly right here once again, I think. The central problem in America remains citizens who think of themselves as passive agents, “consumers,” food surfers of the governmental buffet. Democracy doesn’t work when the population thinks of themselves as passive bystanders. The population must engage as active citizens for democracy to work effectively.

    1. Thomas, I agree with you and FM about the need for citizens to take control of their political parties. But, as FM has said before, the leaders of the political parties (who serve the various factions of the 1%) are VERY competent at what they do (alternately deflecting and manipulating the political base in the desired direction).

      Have you guys been to a grassroots meeting of either party? I haven’t been in a long time because I found it so discouraging. A single person cannot change anything. Getting a group together gets you punished and your group gets pulled apart by semantic arguments and truthiness (lies that sound like facts). Proving that the party leaders are lying might get you lynched but will not accomplish anything else.

      Wars are usually won before they start though frequently neither side realizes that one side has a critical advantage before the war starts. The war to save the second republic cannot be won from within the system, the second republic is dead because we woke to the challenge too late. Let us give the second republic a moment of silence because it served us well and move on.

      The struggle to influence the form of the third republic is just starting and I think the elites are in for a horrible surprise. Fourth generation warfare is very likely to spread to America and I do not think the one percent is at all prepared for it. After all, they keep telling themselves that we won in Iraq (twice, counting the recent intervention), Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, etc.

      I do not welcome fourth generation warfare to America because it means the system that currently provides me with goods and services is likely to start breaking down, but I think it is necessary to prevent this country from becoming the world’s largest banana republic (surpassing even Russia).

      1. Pluto,

        I have extensive experience working with the local GOP. One person has as much chance as influencing a local party as he or she does influencing the local climate. Organization, groups working together, are the only path forward. Find people who share your views, link up with them, work together. From small beginnings large organizations can be influenced, or built. It can be done.

    2. Few years back, I went to a meeting for a ‘University Avenue Plan’ here in Berkeley. Really, the government guys came in with a plan. They had their slides and they talked about how this was going to help with homelessness, and traffic and the usual stuff. Mostly this was about development, building big buildings and deals with construction companies — but part of this is the claim that it’s best for the community. Basically it was all pretty dull and boring, and they showed us all their ideas for building projects and rezoning and things like this.

      At the end though some woman says something like. “I have a neighbor and she has health problems and lost her job and may become homeless. Even your ‘low income apartments’ are going to be over $1000/month — I don’t see how this is going to help her.”

      And then, like a light went on and everyone in the room realizes, yeah, she’s exactly right. This is about development, not about homelessness. And we all start building on this, and pointing out that really there’s nothing here to deal with real problems of homelessness. The guys from the city are just dumbfounded. They lost control of the meeting. They just stutter and repeat the same bullet points over and over. They wanted input, but really they wanted input so they could adjust the pitch for ‘their plan.’ I don’t think they had any idea of changing the plan. It ends — the plan goes through as expected.

      That’s democracy for you.

  5. I’ve been to grassroots meetings of the local democratic party. I worked hard going door-to-door to help elect Obama and a relatively progressive senator in the last two election cycles. These people may not be ideal, but Obama was certainly vastly better than the alternatives in either election (McCain/Palin or Romney/Ryan). At present I’m working to convince people to draft and back someone like Elizabeth Warren or Russ Feingold or Alan Grayson. Contra FM’s claim that “the conservatives just win and win and win,” there’s a great deal of pushback against conservative agendas today which got no mass opposition in the early 1980s — endless unlimited military spending, endless unwinnable foreign wars, constant miltiarization of domestic activities (something that started under Reagan in 1981 with his authorization of the program that resells at very low cost loads of military surplus weaponry to civilian police), trickle down economics, and so on. One person cannot make an immediate overwhelming difference unless that person is at the head of a junta. But one person can definitely bend events over time. Many people, acting together, can have a large influence. The key is persistence.

  6. I’m glad that Thomas and FM have had positive experiences with the political grassroots, it gives me hope that I am mistaken in declaring the second republic to be dead. My experiences with both parties are like Cathryn’s only more so.

    I organize groups of people, get them motivated around a single goal, make sure that they attend the meeting and watch my group’s agenda be stalled until the group starts dissolving. If I successfully get the agenda before the larger group, I watch my local party leaders offer bald-faced lies to explain why what I proposed is undesirable or impossible. If I successfully prove that they lied, they use the Kool-Aid drinking majority to isolate me and any of my group that remain as “trouble makers” and move on to the next topic, usually something related to a pet peeve of the local one percent.

    Too many such experiences undermines your trust in other people. Fortunately, my local government actually works pretty well most of the time. This baffles and delights me and increases my overall faith in humanity. It also highlights the difference between the sausage-making of local politics and implementation of good policy.

  7. Cathryn’s example focuses on a problem far outside the range of reasonable issues government can address. San Francisco currently has some of the most expensive housing in the world, so if you’re poor, there isn’t really a solution to the problem of how to live in San Francisco. If you’re poor or middle-class, you basically can’t live in San Francisco. Moreover, it’s not clear how any government policy could fix that.

    Permit me to suggest that if we focus on more reasonable problems that do fall within the scope of a governmental solution, we’re likely to be more successful.

    Examples include: reducing income inequality (government can definitely fix this by tweaking the tax system); stopping the endless unwinnable foreign wars (once again, easy to fix); fixing health care (every other advanced nation has had no problem doing this – it’s not rocket science); eliminating the massive militarization of police and the encroaching garrison-state undeclared martial law situation in America (we simply don’t need this kind of ridiculous security); increasing employment opportunities (most other countries including all in Europe and many in Asia have extensive apprenticeship programs that work well. Only in America do we lock people out of skilled highly-paid professions unless they’re related to a plumber or a machinist or an electrician); lowering the ruinous cost of going to college (college in many European countries is free — if they can do it, why can’t we?); getting corrupting campaign donations out of politics (paid TV ads are verboten in Britain — if they can do it, why can’t we?); gun control (see Canada, Japan, et al. The entire German police force fired 88 bullets last year. If they can do it, why can’t we?)…and so on.

    These are important problems and they’re solvable. By contrast, “wicked problems” like racism and unaffordable cities a la San Francisco are intractable, and any solutions are likely to produce worse dilemmas than the original problems. I suggest we avoid the wicked problems and concentrate on those problems which are readily susceptible of solution. There are plenty of those in America.

    “Wicked problem” is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The term “wicked” is used to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

    Source: Wikipedia entry for “Wicked problem.”

    1. Thank you, Pluto.

      While well-meaning, Cathryn’s example is in reality another example of “magical thinking”

      Let’s face it, University Avenue was a decaying single story highway strip. It NEEDED “evil evil development”. No new apartment built to California building codes, complying with the onerous approval process in a city like Berkeley (where upper middle class NIMBY obstructionism of any change is defined as “progressive”) and using union labor rates is going to be affordable to a homeless person. Getting more people and (too slowly) businesses along University Avenue WILL improve the city’s economy, enabling it to better meet other needs through the vast array of programs which it provides, including homeless programs. Allowing the street to stagnate further does nothing to solve the problems, unless your solution is empty buildings where “the homeless” can camp in the vestibules?

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