If you can extrapolate anything from the fog of an unfolding, emotionally charged news story, it is this: Never underestimate the human desire to jump to conclusions.
Consider the aftermath of what happened at noon Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. A black 18-year-old man was shot by a white police officer.
In the 22 days following, bits of information dribbled out, but the full story is still unknown. It will probably be weeks before authorities sift through the facts enough to reach a judgment. Even then, the case is bound for an extended stay in the court of public opinion.
Yet the St. Louis suburb immediately became the site of a protest reminiscent of the racial struggles of the 1960s.
For those who take what little we know about the Ferguson shooting and drop it into a template of continuing American racial injustice, Ferguson is Selma, Ala., redux — people caught in a system of submerged, but active, bias by police and white society at large.
And then there are those who take the same set of incomplete facts and drop it into another template that has black communities in a perpetual state of victimhood largely of their own doing. It’s a pathology that condones looting, celebrates disrespect and justifies treating the police and store owners as an occupying force, not a community asset.
Here’s the good news: Life isn’t a template. And we can move forward if we will discard those paint-by-numbers visions of “reality” and clearly see Ferguson, Mo., for whatever it turns out to be.
Already, the “facts” crack both templates.
On the one side, the Ferguson victim —18-year-old Michael Brown — was not the “gentle giant” people wanted him to be. He stood 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 292 pounds. He smoked dope, and just before his fatal encounter with police, a video shows him bullying a store clerk and stealing cigars. He was “not an angel,” The New York Times reported.
Eyewitness reports of the shooting itself vary widely. We do know that the autopsy conducted for the family shows Brown was shot six times, all from the front. This conflicts with the template that police executed Brown as he ran away.
Nevertheless, the Black Panther Party chanted that they wanted the Ferguson police officer handed over to them “dead.”
The mantra for those who subscribe to the template that Brown was completely innocent is to protest using the slogan: “Hands up. Don’t shoot.”
And counterprotesters gathered to shout back: “Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.”
That’s a bad scene no matter how you cut it.
And for those who think I might lean toward discounting the black protesters’ point of view, may I point out the incredibly ugly things that happened in the aftermath of the shooting.
Some Ferguson police officers initially taped over their badge numbers and wore bandannas to cover their faces as they tried to control protesters. Reporters were arrested.
That’s Third World stuff. Any kind of police force that even for a second thinks it’s OK is a police force that needs scrutiny.
Those out-of-town professional race hustlers who locked arms for the television cameras to tell us how “every black life counts,” and then don’t have a word to say about the horrible, daily black-on-black crime in America only added to the spectacle.
It’s going to take a while to sort out what happened in Ferguson. And I trust good people will get to the bottom of it fairly. In the meanwhile, a mother who shouted this immediately after the shooting struck me: “Teach your children about Ferguson!” she tweeted.
Teach what, exactly?
Shall we jump to conclusions based on template thinking to perpetuate suspicions in the next generation?
Look, America isn’t perfect. But it is founded on the idea that it can be. If we can agree on that, we can use that as a basis to teach the next generation to resist filling in the blanks of the old templates that reinforce biases rooted in sins of the past.
So, by all means, teach your children about Ferguson. But, please, include lessons about righteousness, good judgment, kindness, patience, respect, dignity and justice for all.
Sherman Frederick, former publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and member of the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame, writes a column for Stephens Media. Read his blog at www.reviewjournal.com/columns-blogs/sherman-frederick.