I’ve been following the protests in Ferguson closely since the shooting of Michael Brown was first reported. I have multiple stakes in this case, not the least of which is that I’ve lived and worked in St. Louis for quite a while. In fact, at this point I’ve lived longer in St. Louis than in any other place. No one is more surprised by that than I am, since I will never feel like anything but a non-native there. But I have a strong attachment to it now, and I realized how strong over this past week.
I’ve spent the summer writing about political violence, riots in particular, so what’s going on now hits home for me professionally as well as personally. When the protest began, it followed a pattern that I’ve seen and catalogued across dozens of such events, in the US, India, and elsewhere, in this century and past centuries. It was clear almost immediately that the “riot” elements were almost non-existent. There was a spontaneous collective response, and on the first night violence and looting by disparate groups of citizens comprised part of that response. But the overwhelming police action transformed the situation within 24 hours, from a popular event to a police-driven one. I can say with great confidence that the overreaction by the local and county police made a bad situation much, much worse. And they have reaped what they sowed. After ten days and counting, what we have now is a classic protest situation, a protest which could turn into something bigger and less politically controllable than the sporadic violence would ever have created.
I could write thousands of words on what is going on in Ferguson, and maybe at some point I will. But thanks to the news and response cycle of such events, we are now at the stage where people who actually understand what is happening are writing insightful commentaries. In this post I want to talk about something else, something that I think people are partially seeing but not entirely understanding, and that is the way the events are being reported and discussed online.
There is a very good article in the New York Times today by David Carr. He points out the way #Ferguson took off as a hashtag and the way mainstream media reporters and sites played catchup: