As civil unrest continues in Ferguson, MO, there are plenty of stories being told. First hand accounts from citizens and the press, official news conferences from the police, politicians posturing, and on and on. If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, there are many more stories being told through pictures and videos. There are many voices speaking into the confusion, anger, violence and racism of the moment. I can’t add more to that from my position. What I would like to talk about is the power of narrative by pointing out 7 narratives present in what I’ve read and listened to.
The narrative of “Response”
The myth of redemptive violence is the idea that good can come from violence – namely safety and security. In American culture, violence is embraced through this lens. As long as the right people are in control of the violence, violence is considered good. As long as violence is not preemptive, but falls under the umbrella of self-defense, protection of innocent people, necessary to stop aggressors, and so on, violence is OK. The initial narrative of the Ferguson story was white police officer kills unarmed black teen, Michael Brown. That falls clearly outside of the boundaries of what most people would consider justified violence. If you listen carefully, you will hear – almost from the beginning – the narrative of response. The police officer was “responding” to a threat. The police are “responding” to the actions of rioters and looters. The narrative of “response” seeks to place police violence within the framework of justified acts of protecting themselves and others. It also seeks to place any violence on behalf of citizens within the context of unreasonable and unjustified violence. Consider these two phrases and how they change the way you think about justice. Police respond to violent mob with tear gas and rubber bullets vs. Peaceful protestors respond to police violence after tear gas and rubber bullets are fired into the crowd. It makes a difference in our perception of what is justifiable.
The narrative of “proportion”
One of the hallmarks of just war theory is that violence used in defense of one’s self or others must be proportional. If someone spits on you and shoves you, shooting them is not proportional. It is WAY over the top. Again, the initial narrative out of Ferguson, MO was one of disproportionate violence. An armed police officer shooting an unarmed teen is not proportional. Armored police vehicles with officers with military grade weapons, snipers, and so on is not a proportional response to peaceful protestors. This means that the more violent the police are in their tactics, the more necessary it becomes to paint the citizens as very violent. The narrative that accompanies the show of force and tactics used by the Ferguson police must restore proportionality. The story goes that they are only doing what is necessary to meet the kind of violence that is directed at them.
The narrative of “measured”
Another important narrative is the narrative of a measured response. In America, we expect our police officers to be stable, reasonable and fair in the discharge of their duties to serve and protect. For the most part, that is the experience of white Americans. It is decidedly not the experience of black and brown Americans. The idea of police officers flying off the handle, making rash judgments, and responding fearfully, violently and, perhaps, out of control is not acceptable. Therefore, it is necessary to place police actions within the context of a measured response. This brings us back to the narrative of proportion. In order for an action to be measured - controlled – it must be a proportional response to the aggression of others.
The narrative of “bad apples”
In every profession, we accept and expect there to be a few bad apples. This is a narrative that I’ve not heard yet. However, a common response to situations like this is that the police officer was a “bad apple”. This narrative gets more difficult when the particular officer is not, in reality, a bad apple and when the actions of a whole department are called into question. The “bad apple” narrative is normally used to deflect us away from systemic issues of racism within departments.
The narrative of “outside violators”
This is a narrative that I started to hear yesterday (August 19). This is a narrative the fulfills three important functions. First, it fulfills the need to paint police actions as a proportional and measured response. These are bad people who are coming here to cause trouble. Second, it paints ALL people who are not from Ferguson, MO with the broad brush of agitators (including journalists). Third, it is a veiled invitation for the people of Ferguson, MO – who are upset by the shooting of Michael Brown – to return to the status quo. The only problem is, the people of Ferguson, MO may not want to return to the status quo.
The narrative of “thugs”
The narrative of thugs may be the most heinous of them all. This narrative seeks to paint police actions as proportionate and measured responses by painting the victims of police violence as “thugs”. The power of this narrative reveals both the latent and overt racism that continues to exist in America. It plays upon, reinforces and sustains a view that black men are, by default, dangerous. An overt attempt was made to flip the narrative in Ferguson, MO. The initial narrative was white officers shoots unarmed black teen. Then it was released that Michael Brown was involved in what I heard called “strong armed robbery.” Turns out to be petty shoplifting, which is wrong, but hardly strong armed robbery. It was later revealed that his participation in this robbery wasn’t even known by law enforcement at the time of the shooting. This knowledge came after the fact. This was a deliberate, and despicable, attempt to paint Michael Brown as a thug. The real narrative, underneath the thug narrative, is that is that it is OK to shoot thugs. It is the same narrative that got George Zimmerman off of a murder charge.
The narrative of “power”
The narrative of power is harder to discern. In my opinion, the narrative of power has been most clearly displayed by the police department’s lack of transparency and good information. The truth is, we still don’t know what happened. We don’t know the officer’s side of the story. We don’t know what the investigation has turned up. We don’t know the forensics. We don’t know. Why don’t we know? Because the police have the power and the very strong message delivered when people hold back information is – I’m in control. You’re not. In spite of all the armored cars, and snipers and what look like stormtroopers with assault weapons – the most violent thing the police have done to the people of Ferguson, MO is to refuse to be transparent. Any search for justice has to involve transparency. When it looks like a cover-up out of the gate, you are already heading in a dangerous direction. When silence is what comes from the police department, that silence is deafening.
And many more…
As you take in the news and reporting and press conferences surrounding the unrest in Ferguson, MO and the shooting of Michael Brown, pay attention to these narratives. See if you can find some more. Rhetoric is powerful. How situations are framed is powerful. Our understanding of who is right and who is wrong and what is justified and what is not is related to how we understand the bigger picture.