The recent Revolution of a people which is rich in spirit, may well either fail or succeed, accumulate misery and atrocity, it nevertheless arouses in the heart of all spectators (who are not themselves caught up in it) a taking of sides according to desires which borders on enthusiasm and which, since its very expression was not without danger, can only have been caused by a moral disposition within the human race. ~Immanuel Kant, 1795
Writing in the late 1700’s, Kant was speaking from the heart of the French Revolution – a revolt against the aristocracy that resulted in, among other things, progress towards the abolition of slavery in French colonies, the abolition of French feudalism, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man; however, the revolution itself was also plagued by acts of overt violence, including the execution of King Louis XVI, the eventual execution of Robespierre, and the infamous “reign of terror.” The question for those of us who did not actively participate in the revolution in any way is “what did the revolution really mean?” Was the revolution merely the bloody orgy of violence and antagonism that took place on the ground, or should it be judged by the political fallout afterwards?
Kant would have us believe that the truth of the revolution exists in the psychological and emotional affect the revolution has on those outside of it. While the material acts of the revolution were no doubt brutally violent, they nevertheless inspired democratic progress and egalitarian ideals, embodied in the mantra “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” (Liberty, egalitarianism, and brotherhood). Kant’s words were not merely relevant to the people of France directly affected by the revolution. Kant’s words are directly relevant to all of us who choose to remain aware of political and social upheaval that takes place all around us. Kant’s words are directly relevant to those of us keeping up with the events in Ferguson, Missouri, today.
As a synopsis, Ferguson, Missouri has recently experienced a great deal of turmoil. On Saturday, August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, following a confrontation, the details of which are contested. According to a witness, Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson, Darren approached Dorian and Brown on the street, yelled at them to “get the f*** on the sidewalk,” and physically grabbed Brown. While Brown was a suspect in the theft of some cigars from a convenience store, Police Chief Thomas Jackson indicated that Darren was unaware of that fact. In the ensuing struggle, Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown. Police claim Brown reached for Darren’s gun, but Dorian vehemently denied that, claiming that Brown never reached for the officer’s gun. Dorian stated that Officer Wilson “shot again, and once my friend felt that shot, he put his hands in the air, and he started to get down,” but then Officer Wilson fired several more shots into Brown. There is no video of the event, and we will never know for certain what happened that day. The only things we know for certain are that Brown was an unarmed black teenager; he was approached by officer Wilson without a warrant or any factual basis to assume Brown had committed a crime and Michael Brown was shot dead in the ensuing struggle. According to police chief Joe Belmar, one shot was fired inside of the police car, and multiple gunshots were fired outside of the police car –a fact many have indicated supports the idea that Officer Wilson was not acting in self-defense.
Following the reports of this incident, there has been a great deal of debate over the nuances of the facts. Fox News has claimed that Brown has been depicted in the media as an innocent teenager, but that he was in fact a “thug,” though they clarified that that doesn’t justify the shooting. Many have suggested that the shooting was racially motivated, especially as it came to light that Officer Wilson was white. A number of people have also drawn analogies between the death of Brown and the death of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed black teen shot by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012. As an interested party, I, the author, would like to make clear that I am of the opinion that the evidence is very strong in favor of Mr. Johnson’s explanation of events (Brown’s friend), but this article is not addressed only to those that agree with me on that point.
On the ground in Ferguson, there have been mass protests demanding that Officer Wilson be arrested and charged with murder. These protests have included violent rioting and looting, and this fact specifically evokes Kant’s discussion of the French Revolution. What do the protests in Ferguson really “mean” to those of us around the US? Is the violent clash between the people of Ferguson and the police officers merely naked violence? Or is it a necessary part of a larger political struggle to demilitarize police forces around the country and rectify racist crimes against our black youth?
We will never know with scientific certainty what took place in Ferguson that day. But we have a great deal of control over the meaning that we personally take away from these events, as well as the things that we do with that meaning. In discussing Kant’s quote, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has a quote that, by replacing “Paris” with “Ferguson,” elucidates how, as outside spectators, we should approach our inherently limited knowledge regarding the shooting of Michael Brown:
The reality of what went on in [Ferguson] belongs to the temporal dimension of empirical history; the… image that generated enthusiasm belongs to Eternity.
The shooting should not be an opportunity for us to retreat back into our comfortable worldviews (e.g. that the police are always correct and are uninfluenced by fear, prejudice, and anger; or that all police officers are racists that assault young black men) and pass judgment from afar.
The shooting should “arouse in the heart of all spectators (who are not themselves caught up in it)” empathy and motivation to ensure that atrocities like this do not happen. Those who feel entirely removed from the events in Ferguson should be moved to understand that just because these events feel far away does not mean that your home is immune from these types of shootings and this type of protest.
Importantly, those who genuinely believe that Darren Wilson, in this instance, did not do anything wrong, should keep in mind that the outburst in Ferguson is not due to the isolated incidence of Brown’s death, horrible as it was. The outburst is the result of poor, predominantly black communities, being targeted over, and over, and over, and over again by the police. The outburst is the result of the media treating Brown as if he was guilty until proven innocent. The outburst is the result of a growing perception by those on both the left and the right that the militarization of the police is terrifying, and it transforms the police into soldiers who view all of us, especially those of us they may stereotype as being criminal, as potential enemies. The outburst is a result of those police officers who do engage in racial profiling and excessive force, and the way that they damage the credibility and effectiveness of good police officers and prosecutors, writ large. The outburst is the result of historical events that do not remain confined to the day that they occur, but instead echo throughout time “generat[ing] enthusiasm [that] belongs to Eternity.”
At a rally in Ferguson, Reverend Al Sharpton remarked to those gathered that “You all got to start voting and showing up—12% turnout is an insult to your children.” Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson had the following to say:
“[Brown’s family] brought tears to my eyes and shame to my heart… When this is over, I’m going to go in my son’s room, my black son, who wears his pants sagging, wears his hat cocked to the side, got tattoos on his arms, ‘cause that’s my baby… Michael’s going to make it better for our sons.”
Sharpton and Johnson are taking away political and individual meaning, respectively, elucidating how the events in Ferguson must be inspirational catalysts for change in our own lives. Perhaps it’s time for American police officers to wear body cameras, an act which, for those who believe Officer Wilson is innocent, would have already vindicated him. Or perhaps the event is merely an opportunity for us to personally reflect on how easily we can quickly lose our loved ones, taking Johnson’s words to heart and using Michael’s death as an opportunity to make things better for ourselves and our kids. Whatever meaning we choose to take away from Ferguson, it is an untenable position to simply close our eyes and ears, proclaim that we don’t know what happened in Ferguson, we don’t know what it means, and, thus, we’ll allow what happened there to remain confined to that time and place.
The events of Ferguson speak directly to us, those “who are not themselves caught up in it,” and as members of the human race these events evoke our very moral dispositions to act. As an interested party, I believe that Ferguson means it is unacceptable that black people in America feel like the police treat them as if they are guilty until proven innocent. I believe that the police are still an important and necessary element of our society, and that many police officers genuinely attempt to help people. But accountability for the police is not about witch-hunting—it’s about making it easier for us to figure out precisely what happened, and what that means for how we deal with it. The protests in Ferguson “may well either fail or succeed,” but the positions that we take must be driven “by a moral disposition within the human race.”