Things I learned from Ferguson

These are reflection I had after a week or so of absorbing the Ferguson coverage onslaught, which is right in my backyard yet so far, far away.

The modern media is still learning how to do this thing.

At one point it was kind of cool that media were on the scene trying to show the real story. At some point, not long after the looting (which didn’t last long) began, the media became part of the story. And that’s a bad thing.

Fire and tear gas and looting sell. Appearances of police brutality and violations of civil rights (including the right to assembly, right to a free press) make tantalizing copy and visuals.

But this was ultimately a very condensed area where the protests and confrontations with police were. It’s too small for local, national and international media to pack the scene and demand that they be given unfettered free reign. I’m sorry that you and your 200 peers are squared off like animals in a pen, but if there were few of you chasing a juicy story then you wouldn’t be in the way.

The media exacerbated the situation, unfortunately. This is probably in part a product of how the many different tiers of modern media are trying to sort out how to cover breaking situations when there are literally hundreds of competitors for the same story.

The 24/7 cable news setup is abhorrent; this has been true nearly since its inception, and we see examples from Ferguson to Ebola.  (I suppose the reason is simple: Americans are quicker to cynically monetize everything, even the delivery of information, and race to the bottom sells.) They have to constantly fill time, so in times like these they fill it with repetitive tripe while they wait for something real to happen.

But the others — the writers, the investigative journalists, the people not just gawking at violence — they are doing a lot of good work and they can be forgiven for getting a little too social media-happy with the coverage. These days journalism barely pays, and it’s as important to get your work “viral” as it is to get it placement above the fold or in the first section of the nearly expired newspaper.

PR is evil. PR is necessary.

At its core, PR is about showing people your best side, that part of yourself or your organization which you believe in most, that part of an organization that examines itself and determines “this, this is what we aspire to be.” Yes, this can lead to manipulation, “spin,” and (by bad PR flacks) outright lying. Still, done right, it leads to clarity and strength for your cause.

Ferguson PD is in desperate need of proper PR, because whatever the facts of this incident, virtually every communication step Ferguson took only fueled deeper mistrust.

Sadly, while Ferguson PD proved itself incompetent and blindsided in the realm of PR, warring factions with other issues to grind quickly filled the PR void. We had advocates for every kind of side issue swooping into town to take control of the story and make it their own. We had cynical attention-seekers giving principled protesters a bad name. We had the lowest common denominator on both “sides.”

To be clear, “PR” is not exactly the police’s job, particularly in volatile situations. But the police as an entity must understand how PR plays a real role in how its “just doing our job” comes across and can exacerbate the situation. Images fuel PR. Police need to know what images they’re helping to create.

The police are frighteningly militarized, a far cry from the concept of “community” policing.

Maybe it’s because Ferguson is underfunded and in over its head and inexperienced with this side of policing, but they botched it. So did St. Louis County. Facing agitated but non-violent protest and vigil with a visual army of over-equipped men with dogs and pointed weapons is not how you calm down what you, by your own admission, knew was a tense situation.

Worse, police departments are underfunded and cops generally don’t make much money. The Washington Post summed up an endemic problem:

The structure of policing in these small St. Louis communities, as in many places in the United States, is innately combustible.

Officers rarely stay in the same police force for a long time, much less for an entire career. This means police and residents are typically strangers to one another — and not simply from different social, ethnic or racial backgrounds.

Ferguson is an example of a police department staffed predominantly with white officers, many of whom live far away from, and often fail to establish trust with, the predominantly black communities they serve. Policing can become a tense, racially charged, fearful and potentially violent series of interactions. Distrust becomes institutionalized.

And why wouldn’t it? If you are police in Ferguson — not a desirable job, generally speaking — what is your incentive to stick around, to live close, to build bridges within the community rather than shop for your next job elsewhere?

And given the above, are these the organizations we need playing with military toys? How come veteran cops from St. Louis and other cities that have dealt with racial tensions were shocked by the aggressive stance taken toward protesters?

People will believe anything.

(Okay, that’s not a new lesson.)

First the cop had “a swollen face.” Then his apparent army of ally leakers put it in the media that he had a broken orbital bone or fracture eye socket. (We’ll get to this further below, but if he had broken bones, why not report that immediately?) Then the whole broken bone thing was debunked. Back to “swollen face.” Didn’t keep sympathizers from repeating it. Which brings me too…

People will fight via social media without facts or full info, leaving them wide open to look like idiots later.

(Okay, this lesson isn’t new either.)

Why is there a rush to judgment? Why the speedy pursuit of fitting an on-going situation into our own preconceived blueprint? Why not, oh I don’t know, exercise critical thinking?

Your values don’t have to change just because this particular incident doesn’t support them. But this particular incident might just help you re-evaluate them, which will either 1) strengthen them, or 2) change them (or both).

Related: People will miss the issue, overcome or distracted by their outrage at something else entirely.

Yes, looting sucks. But that’s not the point here.

Yes, it’s too bad some people — jumping on the PR void — made Brown out to be a saint when in reality he’s a not too atypical 18-year-old in his area, and he may have inadvertently fed the situation that brought about his own demise. That’s not the issue here.

Yes, it’s too bad many — including friends and family, who of course would — jumped to Wilson’s defense without knowing the full story. But their pro-police and hero-worship isn’t the issue here.

The issue is lingering racial tensions, generational poverty, and the still very damned relevant residue of a country that enslaved a major portion of its population and only gave that population full rights less than 50 years ago.

That’s the issue. If you don’t see how the legacy of these generational horrors puts blacks at a disadvantage, then you need to read more. If you don’t why “they” won’t just “get a job in the police” and in government, then you don’t really understand how networking and institutionalized nepotism have a systemic influence, and you don’t understand how it feels to be a minority in a culture that has historically enslaved, disenfranchised, and (at best) marginalized that minority.

So, no, the protests didn’t happen because a cop shot an unarmed teenager and alleged thief. The violence didn’t happen because “they” just wanted to loot free shit. No, the whole thing happened because there are persistent issues around race, access and privilege that extend to how these communities are policed.

And it takes violence, looting, and TV drama for people in power to sincerely give these issues a second thought.


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