A friend asked me why I hadn’t written anything about the clusterfuck taking place in Ferguson, Missouri. I’m a criminologist, after all — or used to be. I’ve taught undergrad courses in policing, in deviance, in criminological theory, and all that other criminal justice and sociological stuff. Surely, my friend said, I had to have thoughts and opinions about what’s going on in Ferguson.
And he’s right, I do have opinions and thoughts. But here’s the reason I haven’t written about them: it’s complicated. I don’t mean the reason is complicated; I mean the clusterfuck itself is complicated. In fact, it’s not one clusterfuck. It’s an entire cascade of clusterfucks, each of which is also complicated. Not complex, complicated.
Complexity is intrinsic; a system is complex if it involves a lot of moving parts, even at its most basic level. There’s nothing wrong with complexity. Complication, though, is extrinsic; a system is made complicated by external factors, by stuff that’s non-essential to the system. Complication is always fucked up. And what we have in Ferguson is a collision of several different complicated social systems.
If you want to understand what’s happened in Ferguson — and I mean actually understand it, not just be outraged by it — then there’s a whole buttload of other related stuff you need to understand first. You need to understand police culture, and the notion of the operative assumption of guilt (which isn’t, in itself, a bad thing). You need to understand how three or four hundred years of legitimized violence by white folks against black folks has shaped the perspectives of both groups. You need to understand how gender shapes the police response to confrontation. You need to understand how four decades of federal grants to local law enforcement agencies militarized policing — accidentally at first, and then more deliberately. You need to understand how ‘fair housing’ laws essentially forced black families into working class ghetto neighborhoods, then routinely undermined actual attempts at home ownership — which perpetuated a semi-rootless culture more attached to a community than to home and family. You need to understand how television helped turn policing from an occupation grounded in community service and job security into one grounded in car chases and kicking ass. And you need to understand the terrible pleasure that comes from releasing fear through an act of violence.
And after you begin to understand all that, you need to understand that each of these issues is related to all the other issues. All of them. This is a densely-packed clusterfuck. We’d like to believe it can be fixed. It can’t.
It can’t be fixed because it’s not a problem that’s reducible to its component parts. You can’t ‘fix’ any of these issues without fixing them all. It’s not a problem that can be solved; it can only be unraveled.
We may have seen the beginning of that unraveling last night. Missouri State Police took control of security in Ferguson. They got rid of the riot gear, got rid of the gas masks, got rid of the helmets, got rid of the fucking military vehicles. They wore their regular uniforms, they met the angry but peaceful demonstrators in the streets, and they stepped aside.
Will it last? Maybe. In Ferguson, probably. For a while. For a while. But don’t expect much. Because it’s complicated. It’s complicated and, obviously, not localized. The conditions that created the densely-packed clusterfuck of Ferguson exist all over this nation. It’s complicated. Complicated and self-perpetuating.