Friday, July 8, 2016

Outrage Concerning a Lack of Outrage?

On Tuesday (7/5/16), two major news stories hit the internet. One was that of a black man by the name of Alton Sterling who was shot and killed by two white police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; the other was that of the FBI reaching a decision concerning Hillary Clinton's improper storage of government e-mail. Both stories generated a lot of heated discussion on Facebook and other sites allowing public comment. 

Yesterday (7/6), a friend posted the following observation concerning these stories:
"There is a racial line down my friends newsfeed. Those posting about the Hillary email scandal and those about the shooting of a black man in Louisiana. White and Black, which way do you think it goes?"
Although my friend was doing little more than posting an observation, I began to notice a disturbing trend as more an more people turned their anger toward "white people" who had not spoken out concerning Mr. Sterling's death (or that of another black man, Philando Castile, who was shot at a simple traffic stop near St. Paul, Minnesota the next day). More than once I saw that my lack of comment on the matter was being taken, at least by some, as evidence of racism - or at the least, a lack of empathy - since, at the time these erroneous accusations were being made, I had in fact posted concerning the Hillary Clinton news story, but not the Alton Sterling story.

So, for the record, let me state that the deaths of these two men, and of the five Dallas police officers shortly thereafter, concern me greatly. Any death of any human being, at the hands of another human being, is a tragedy. Period. Even in cases of an individual's demise by their own reckless actions, these people are loved - by a mother, a brother, a child, a friend, a spouse. These events hurt our collective humanity as well, often turning friends and neighbors against one another over differences of opinion or reaction.

These events are nothing new. The fact that nearly everyone in America now carries a camera on them at all times, and that this camera can quickly share photographs, video, and commentary with millions of people is the new aspect. And while I believe there are some positives of us being shown a reality that we may never have to face ourselves, there is also a danger to this ease of communication.

There is an old proverb (ironically often falsely attributed to Mark Twain), that "a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can even put on its shoes." For our generation, this should perhaps be altered somewhat to say "public outrage can go viral before fact can even log on." It's very easy to get millions of people outraged these days, independent of fact - just look at the campaign of Donald Trump. I have friends now who are already convinced that the police were in the right, having absolutely no facts on the incident, already hard at work to assassinate the character of the deceased as well. Others are convinced that the police involved were racist murderers, again, without anyone having the details of the events. This is exactly why I haven't made any comment - it is not for lack of empathy, but for lack of the truth.

This is, ironically, the exact reason I was posting concerning the issue of Hillary Clinton's e-mails and not of the tragic deaths of these men. This is not a racial issue, but one of information. Although Clinton's malfeasance was uncovered some time ago - I waited for over a year for the investigation to run its course. I was then able to report, as I had suspected, that the truth of the issue was neither as innocent as many Democrats had stated nor as damning as the narrative Republicans had been repeating.

In early August of 2014, another black man was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. For weeks, reactions to the death of Michael Brown dominated news feeds and community conversations. Early reports claimed that Brown had surrendered to the police, with his hands up, before he was killed. As a result, public opinion was greatly steered against police officer Darrell Wilson, with everyone from the St. Louis Rams football team to black members of Congress making the gesture "in support" of Michael Brown. The phrase "hands up, don't shoot" quickly became a mantra against police brutality.

By March of 2015, more than one autopsy concluded that the numerous individuals who had claimed to be eyewitnesses to the shooting had in fact fabricated this part of the story. The Department of Justice reported that:
"Investigators tracked down several individuals who, via the aforementioned media, claimed to have witnessed Wilson shooting Brown as Brown held his hands up in clear surrender. All of these purported witnesses, upon being interviewed by law enforcement, acknowledged that they did not actually witness the shooting, but rather repeated what others told them in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. … Witness accounts suggesting that Brown was standing still with his hands raised in an unambiguous signal of surrender when Wilson shot Brown are inconsistent with the physical evidence, are otherwise not credible because of internal inconsistencies, or are not credible because of inconsistencies with other credible evidence. In contrast, Wilson’s account of Brown’s actions, if true, would establish that the shootings were not objectively unreasonable under the relevant Constitutional standards governing an officer’s use of deadly force."
All of this is not to say that I don't believe that racism continues to plague many aspects of our nation, including within law enforcement.  While the Department of Justice did find that the facts did "not support federal civil rights charges against Ferguson police officer Darrell Wilson", it also found that the FPD collectively "engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the First, Fourth, and 14th Amendments of the Constitution".  In other words, the truth was again found in the middle - Mr. Wilson did not murder a black man in cold blood, but at the same time, those defending the police as "heroes" were also incorrect.

Without detracting from the issue of these shootings, they are in fact complicated by another unfortunate reality: we have contracted an ugly strain of polarization, which flares up with every new tragedy. With every shooting, every court case, and every election, we continue to point fingers at one another, dividing ourselves voluntarily by lines of color, ideology, or religion. More and more people are all too comfortable with assigning guilt (almost always on a group of "those people" to which the judge does not belong), with collectively less concern with the truth.

By all means, there are problems with our society that will require more than outrage. We can't solve these issues by posting insults, accusations, or a volley of snarky Facebook memes. Bumper-sticker talking points aren't helpful, either. A fractured society will simply be unable to correct any of the issues we face; as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools." So for those of you angered by my lack of commentary on any given subject, please be patient. I know many of you are hurting, and perhaps it is simply human nature to lash out in such situations, saying things we might not otherwise say, but I am your brother, not your enemy. I will gladly stand beside the oppressed, but justice can't be built upon outrage alone. It requires the foundation of truth.


  1. Nice article. Things that more people need to think about before reacting...

    It made me recall a quote from Walter Kronkite, paraphrased "if I think I have found the real story, and both the left and the right are unhappy with me, I'm probably pretty close to the actual truth"

    1. The extreme positions of assuming one side is always in the right, and the other always in the wrong, are logically impossible - but that's the narrative a growing number of people are telling, and repeating ad nauseum. I guess truth and logic are uninvited guests to an election year.