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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, March 7, 2015


If there was any current event that better described my statement that ""the wrong choice always has the potential to be the right choice in another set of circumstances," it would be the events surrounding the 8-9-14 shooting of petty thief Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

Note that I describe Brown as a "petty thief." On an ultra-conservative blog, this would be a patent attempt to slant the discourse by characterizing Brown as a "thief" and Wilson as an "officer." On *this* blog, the term "officer" doesn't immediately connote greater respect, though only attentive readers will be able to follow my reasoning on this matter.

Within the past few days, the Department of Justice has released its findings with regard to the shooting of Brown by Wilson, in which Wilson was essentially exculpated. But, as if to cushion the blow, the DOJ also released a damning investigation of repeated racist practices by the Ferguson Police Department, which included a tendency to flagrantly cite black Ferguson residents for minor offenses.  Economic motives for this practice have been cited, given that black residents generally enjoy a lower income and would thus be less likely to fight citations in court. Of particular relevance to the Brown shooting is the practice of issuing a disproportionate number of citations for the petty offense of jaywalking. 

Prior to their encounter with Wilson, Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson had visited a local convenience store. Brown had openly pilfered a carton of cigarillos and had pushed the store clerk out of his way; Johnson admitted this in his testimony while noting that he played no part in the petty theft. Later the two of them were walking in the middle of the street when Officer Wilson noticed them from his patrol car. The testimonies of Wilson and Johnson differ in particulars, but they agree that Wilson drove up to the two men, told them to get out of the street and walk on the sidewalk, after which Wilson started to drive on. The testimonies agree that he then backed up and blocked them. Wilson said that he did so because he had earlier been informed of the convenience-store theft and that he belatedly suspected Brown as the possible culprit. There followed the altercation between Brown and Wilson, which ended in Brown's death.

Dorian Johnson did not participate in the altercation, but his testimony was a key factor in creating the Ferguson protests. Johnson's testimony, however, is riddled with inconsistencies, as has been amply covered in Paul Cassell's 12-2-14 report for the Washington Post.  The Department of Justice did not validate any of Johnson's testimony, in particular finding fault with his claim that Wilson had shot Brown while the latter was trying to surrender. This image, of a black man trying to surrender and being mercilessly shot down by a white cop, may well be the defining image of domestic American news in 2014-- and it will remain so, even though it appears to be a complete and utter lie.

However, to say that Johnson lied also does not slant the discourse. It also matters to ask, "Why did he lie," and "What were the effects of the lie?"

Plato is famous for asserting that the ideal society could only be protected via the Noble Lie. Kant, on the other hand, famously claimed that to be a moral person no one should ever tell a lie for any reason, even to keep a murderer from his victim-- though I've seen at least one defense  asserting that Kant did not mean this as a general prescription for living.

If indeed Johnson lied, I don't care about his immediate personal reasons for so doing. I only care that he could have done so as a reaction to being a black man who saw his people being terrorized and/or exploited on a regular basis. It's unlikely that Johnson could have foreseen the country-wide firestorm that erupted as a result of his testimony, so he wasn't precisely telling a "noble revolutionary's lie," like the claim that Marie Antoinette responded to the wails of starving French citizens by saying, "Let them eat cake." Still, the result of the Johnson lie has been to throw a spotlight upon the malfeasance of the Ferguson Police Department. Many have claimed that the Ferguson corruption is systemic throughout the United States, but as yet this claim remains in the realm of rhetoric.

One interesting side-effect on the DOJ's report on Ferguson's corruption is that it may be seen as further exculpating Darren Wilson. If as the report suggests it was common practice for Ferguson officers to issue citations to black citizens for petty offenses like jaywalking-- a practice rooted both in racism and in economics-- then it's interesting that the testimonies of both Wilson and Johnson agree that the officer did not do anything more than verbally tell the two black men to get back on the sidewalk, as opposed to using the incident as an excuse to cite them.

Does that mean that during Wilson's career, he never wrote a gratuitous citation, whether to a black citizen or any other citizen? It does not. However, it does mean, at the very least, that he gave those two black men a break on the offense of jaywalking, thus going against the SOP of the Ferguson cops, and that he only stopped them when he suspected them of a more serious crime. Wilson may not have intended to be especially liberal; maybe he had other things on his mind, such as the news of the convenience-store robbery. But his actions on that particular date tend to contradict the imputations of a deeply ingrained racism that have dogged the officer's tracks since that day in August. I'll also note that if Wilson had a history of racist behavior, this would have come out in the investigations of the Grand Jury and the DOJ, which did take place with the investigation of the officer involved in Eric Garner's death.

If a probable lie that succeeds in exposing widespread corruption is not an example of a wrong choice being a right choice from a wider perspective, I don't know what would be-- though I could well understand it if Darren Wilson found that particular choice a measured one.

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