The most important lesson I’ve learned in all my years in the news business is, “Don’t jump to conclusions.” News is about people and circumstances. Both are always complicated and often motives are obscure and circumstances unknown.
In Ferguson, Missouri, where a young black man was shot and killed by a police officer, the more we learn, the more complicated the story becomes. Even when all the investigations are complete, the circumstances and motives may not be clear. There were witnesses to the shooting, but we don’t know if they saw everything. We don’t know if they have a bias for or against police officers or young, black men. While he will have to tell us, I can’t be sure that we will be confident the police officer involved will be truthful about what was in his heart and mind when he pulled the trigger.
Here’s what we do know. The community reaction was immediate and quickly turned violent. We know that in circumstances like this, a small minority will use the opportunity to loot and burn. They are not protestors. They are criminals and anarchists. We know Ferguson police responded. It isn’t clear (at least to me) what the initial police response was, but it quickly escalated as police armed and equipped themselves for battle. We know that things quieted down when local police were taken off the front lines.
We know that Ferguson’s population has changed dramatically in the past decade, going from almost exactly 50 percent white and 50 percent African American to 34 percent white and 63 percent black. We also know that you were much more likely 10 years ago to be stopped by police and or arrested in Ferguson if you were black. Today, it’s even more likely. African Americans comprised 93 percent of arrests in Ferguson last year. (Nationwide, we know that if you are a black man, your chances of ending up in prison are one in three. If you are white, it’s one in 17.)
We know that there are people ready to take advantage of situations like Ferguson on both sides of our racial divide. They are thankfully in the shadows, but there are racists who see the reaction in Ferguson has confirmation of the righteousness of their bigotry. On the other side, there is lawyer Benjamin Crump who is representing Michael Brown’s family. He uses inflammatory phrases like, “…the officer that executed him” and “… assassinated him in broad daylight.” If his name rings a bell, it should. He’s the Florida lawyer who represented the family of Trayvon Martin.
A very well-known black leader learned a lesson about jumping to conclusions almost 30 years ago. Al Sharpton was front and center when a young African American woman came forward in 1987 with horrific allegations that she had been kidnapped, raped, covered with feces and stuffed into a plastic bag by three white men, one of them a police officer. It was all a lie.
It’s too late for many people in Ferguson because I know they have already reached their conclusions. But I hope the rest of us will wait until all the investigations are complete. Until then, we should see the story as we know it so far for what it is. Electing an African American president didn’t magically turn us into a post-racial society.