When I think about Ferguson, I can’t help but think about the story of the Boston Massacre and how often history repeats itself. That incident, which was no massacre, led to the trial of the British soldiers who fired into the crowd and who faced hanging if found guilty. Of course, it wasn’t the soldiers themselves who were really on trial, but the larger crime of British occupation and policy itself. John Adams recognized the difference and, because he believed in the rule of law, successfully defended the individual soldiers who had not themselves committed a criminal act. Then, of course, Adams went on to argue the cause of rebellion and a war for independence from the tyranny that put those soldiers in Boston in the first place.
In a similar way, I think it’s fair to say that the Ferguson story and our reaction to it is not ultimately about Michael Brown and Officer Wilson. The evidence we have available may or may not have supported an indictment of Wilson himself, though investigation continues that may yet reveal new evidence regarding events of that day. In the meantime, isn’t the most important issue that, like Adams, we need to make a distinction between the rule of law regarding any one case and the larger indictment we seek against a greater, institutionalized injustice? By far too many accounts, predominantly black neighborhoods in the U.S. resemble Boston in 1775 with a uniformed, occupying force on patrol, making second-class citizens out of residents just trying to live their lives. And with the correspondent militarization of civilian police forces, this can only aggravate already dangerous circumstances.
I am continually dismayed by the state of race relations in the U.S. nearly fifty years after the death of Martin Luther King; and this regressive trend is a force that indeed begs for revolution, though preferably one without bloodshed. It is interesting, though, how often we Americans need to decide whether to follow the path of John Adams or that of his second cousin Samuel. Because Sam Adams was frankly a bit of a nut, so hell-bent on revolution that he didn’t care much about nuance like truth or fairness or the rule of law. He was a shameless propagandist, responsible for commissioning the famous but inaccurate sketch of the “Boston Massacre,” reprinted ever since in American school textbooks — the one depicting soldiers firing down upon cowering colonial citizens. He was a member of the real Tea Party, a mob that tortured a relatively minor British official — a customs officer — with a tar-and-feather “Yankee Jacket” before they dumped all that tea into Boston Harbor. Sam was a patriot, but he was also one of the goons who might break the window of some shopkeeper, who bore little or no responsibility for the injustice of The Crown.
Today, we have social media, which can be a great way to rely on friends we respect to curate and share worthwhile information and editorials on subjects as emotionally raw as the Ferguson story. But forums like Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr also challenge us to choose between our John Adams side and our Sam Adams side. The photographic meme or provocative update allows our inner Sam to reduce general outrage or sorrow into a fragment of ephemeral propaganda; and maybe this is a healthy outlet, but I do wonder if on some level it does not also stifle the more contemplative and more valuable capacity of our inner John. After all, sustainable change has never been authored or led by the Sams of the world. We may drink Sam Adams’s eponymous beer this holiday, but the toast should go to John.
It is certainly clear that social media produces a lot of armchair experts in all fields from tort law to ballistics, leading to kitchen-table theories about what Officer Wilson could have done differently or what Mike Brown did or did not do that day. But to what extent all this speculative noise gets us even one step closer to Dr. King’s dream is a very tough question to answer. So, as we head into the long, holiday weekend and millions of American televisions switch from Ferguson to football, and families stoke arguments with their relatives over this case, it is pretty hard to see the progress being made. It simply isn’t enough to change our profile pictures and share a few editorials, including this one. I don’t presume to know exactly what is necessary, but if all we do is click, share, and move on, then the only people left taking tangible action are the goons setting things on fire.
Wishing everyone a peaceful and hopeful Thanksgiving.