August 17, 2014
A week ago, unarmed 18 year old black man Michael Brown was shot and killed in an altercation with 28 year old white police officer Darren Wilson in this small town near St. Louis. What has transpired since then has been continuous media coverage of massive demonstrations (not only in Ferguson, but in other cities across the country). Most of these demonstrations have been peaceful, but some have involved heavy police force and there has been some looting and lawlessness.
At one extreme, some may believe or at least hope that the police officer had justified cause to kill the young man, perhaps because the officer was in fear of his own life, that there may have been a scuffle over the officer’s gun. At the other extreme, parents of the young man, friends in the community and sympathizers in our nation, feel this may have been an unprovoked killing, believing that eye witnesses are telling the truth–saying the young man was holding his hands in the air to surrender when shot.
This brings back to mind for many the still recent killing of Treyvon Martin by white neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, and the 1991 Los Angeles policy killing of Rodney King, resulting in massive riots in Los Angeles.
The Ferguson case is tainted by a video which shows the deceased young man only a few minutes earlier stealing some cigars and appearing to physically threaten a convenience store owner. The Rodney King case evolved from King taking police on a high speed chase, presumably to avoid capture. And, in the Martin/Zimmerman case, although Zimmerman was acquitted, his personal life involves troublesome misdemeanors. Yet, we know that whatever may have been the behavior of Michael Brown before the altercation with the policeman, that should not result in an unarmed man being killed, if indeed he was not wrestling for the gun or somehow threatening to kill the officer.
No one knows yet what really happened. We have to trust our justice system to try to get to the right answer, while knowing our system is not always perfect. I commend the young man’s parents for consistently only asking for an honest and fair answer, and for only peaceful protests, as has our President.
I’m not writing this Sunday afternoon to opine on the right or wrong of this case. I don’t know. I am writing to agree with commentators of both races who say we have seen too many thousands of young black men die at the hands of our justice system, whether it was lawful or not at the time. We need to acknowledge that behind the difficult and sometimes troubled lives of many of our young black men is a societal system which provides little help for the underprivileged of any color, and undoubtedly less for those who are black than for those who are white, in general.
I’m talking about inequality, and all the critical elements associated with it. There can be little doubt that the inequality and the poverty our system increasingly imposes on the underprivileged results in desperate attempts of the young to find fairness or push back in the form of petty crimes such as stealing cigars, or worse. No one condones such crimes, but to a certain significant extent our society is responsible for this behavior. We could do something about it. We could provide less inequality without destroying incentives.
In a TED talk (reference below) which TED was reluctant to release, billionaire Nick Hanauer makes a powerful plea to “fellow plutocrats” to support the minimum wage increase. He forecasts that we will have “pitchforks” or worse to fear if we do not–the threat of revolution. He also makes a strong argument that providing more support for the underprivileged is beneficial to everyone–even the rich–with more opportunity, the poor will spend more and thus grow the economy. This would also reduce crime.
Hanauer also makes a point I have made before in these posts: like me, he was born in America, white, anglo-saxon, protestant. He says that with the same natural talents that propelled him to the .01%, born elsewhere, he might well have spent his life selling fruit by the side of a dirt road in some lesser developed country in the world–because, as he says, this might have been all that could be sold in those countries. So unlike the US. I feel the same. I am not a plutocrat, but I acknowledge the benefits of circumstance such as Hanauer’s. And the obstacles and limitations our system imposes on the lowest income categories make life feel like living in a poor country with no opportunity to get out. And, it’s worse when not far away you see people driving Bentleys and living in mansions in gated communities.
Today, Martin Luther King III spoke at the Greater Grace church in Ferguson. He said we go around the world promoting our democracy, and our democracy is failing us. Jesse Jackson spoke also, and called the Ferguson situation a metaphor for abandoned urban America. I agree with both.
I address some of these issues in my previous post “Capitalism and Democracy.” I hope “democracy” is not defined for us simply by “one person, one vote.” It took us a long time to even get that, but I hope we include other definitions, such as “an organization or situation in which everyone is treated equally and has equal rights,” and “ the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges.” (Webster)
An effective tax rate of say 15% for the ultra rich can only be considered arbitrary. Likewise, sending your high school kids to private schools costing $35,000 per year, and leaving the woes of the public school system to the declining prospects of continuing tax cuts can only be considered arbitrary. And that’s not equal rights.
Inequality is a good thing, up to a point. Capitalism is a good system, up to a point. We’re well beyond the beneficial point in both. We need to acknowledge we must soften the excesses of capitalism if we want to keep the pitchforks at bay and keep the system.
Nice Hanauer video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKCvf8E7V1g