Of all the reasons the Michael Brown case exploded, perhaps the biggest one was the attention it gained on social media and news outlets by “social justice warriors” battling against perceived injustice. They were like modern day Rosa Parks, if rather than acting out Rosa Parks had just tweeted about how buses are racist and NOT OKAY.
But why did the internet choose the Michael Brown case as its battleground, instead of say a case like the recent shooting of a Brooklyn man by an Asian NYPD rookie officer? The Brooklyn man’s death is no less tragic, and the cop is much more culpable. Yet there is no outcry, no protests, and no coverage.
The difference between the incidents is that the Brooklyn police shooting lacked an opposition – an enemy for the internet to fight. The fact that many believed Wilson was telling the truth was the mechanism that allowed for bloggers to fight a mythical evil racist machine (that in their minds probably looked like the Staypuff Marshmallow Man).
The irony is that the more evidence that emerged supporting Wilson’s account, the louder the cries for his head from the internet became. The internet warriors screamed for transparency, and then screamed in anger when security footage of Brown committing a violent felony was released. They screamed for accountability, then screamed in anger when the forensics report showed a shootout and altercation had taken place inside the police car. They screamed for justice, and then screamed in anger when the prosecutor explained in detail how and why the grand jury arrived at their decision. They were a child asking, “why? why? why?” and then covering their ears and stomping the ground when people tried to politely answer their questions.
The media fancied themselves heroes sticking up for repressed black Americans in the face of a institutionalized racism. The actual facts did not matter, because they were fighting against the system – and if the facts were on the side of the system, then the facts needed to be fought too. Much of the Ferguson protesters fancied themselves as Atticus Finch because their tertiary reading of To Kill a Mockingbird taught them that heroes defend black people against everything because the world is racist. So if the evidence suggests that Wilson’s shooting was justified, then that evidence is corrupt and misleading, and anyone who even wishes to examine it is a bigot that they need to educate.
But the Ferguson protesters are by no means heroes. A hero is not someone who tries to shut down Walmarts trying to sell customer’s low priced flatscreens and Keurig Machines, as Ferguson protesters tried to do this past Black Friday. Nor is it someone who screws up traffic because a grand jury came to a different conclusion. These protesters are not heroes because their actions have no chance of changing anything, and more importantly because the participants face no risk in carrying out these demonstrations.
No Ferguson protesters will lose their jobs because of their actions. None face any real danger (except from each other). Few if any will face any repercussions from the justice system so long as they didn’t result to violence or arson. Protesting the Ferguson decision is about as controversial as siding with your Grandma in a competition for the world’s best cookie recipe. People face more backlash for tweeting they like a Taylor Swift song.
But make no mistake, there were real heroes in Ferguson – and that’s the roughly two dozen witnesses who came forward to testify. Many witnesses came forth (including some black witnesses) to testify that Michael Brown was charging Officer Wilson when he was shot. Other insisted the “hands up” surrender account was more accurate. But assuming both groups were honest with what they believe they saw, they all risked great scrutiny, criticism, and even violence to testify despite not receiving any benefit for themselves. They chose to advance what they saw as the truth instead of protecting themselves.
That is the lesson of Atticus Finch – to do what is right for justice even if it is unpopular and even if it comes with personal risk. If you’re counting the number of “likes” your social justice status is getting on facebook, then you’re not Atticus Finch – you’re the mob. And if that’s the case, you better hope you really do know what happened more than the people who listened to all of those witnesses who testified despite facing tremendous scrutiny.