In The Responsible Self by H. R. Niebuhr, the author develops a moral philosophy based not upon rigid rules or prescriptions but instead a flexible algorithm developed by answering two sequential questions: (1) “What is happening?” and (2) “What should I do?” Resultantly, proper ethical conduct, says Niebuhr, is described in terms of responsibility not only to our own values and self but also to others that we subsequently engage with. In practice, this responsibility is accountable to others, considers divergent interpretations of the event a hand, and is molded by the society that one identifies with. Niebuhr’s philosophy liberates the user from rigid moral prescriptions (the deontological approach) or a strict consequentialist model that seeks an appropriate end (the teleological approach).
A deontological approach, for example, would state that homicide is absolutely wrong, always, regardless of the circumstances. A teleological approach would praise homicide in some cases and shun it in others, depending on the end result—the same act can thus have different ethical interpretations.
I reflect on Niebuhr’s formulations because many issues in contemporary society, I think, ought to be thought of in terms of responsibility and not unyielding moral and/or ethical parameters.
On a national level, several unfortunate cases of unarmed citizens met with aggressive or lethal force from police departments provide fitting examples of law enforcement overreach: the forceful arrest (caught on video) of Chris Lollie, a man who was simply waiting in a public place to pick up his children; the wrongful shooting of Dillon Delbert Taylor, an unarmed Utah man shot outside a 7-Eleven; and finally, the unfortunate case of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. All of these circumstances provide answers to the question “What is happening?” with a threefold response: (1) in situations that garner significant media attention, there appears in some cases to be reckless behavior on the part of some members of law enforcement against unarmed, non-life-threatening citizens; (2) the militarization of local police forces has transformed law enforcement (in fact, 1033 Program is a federal plan—so you and I pay for it—where the Department of Defense provides surplus military-grade equipment to local police forces, often for free); and (3) there remain areas of the country where race still plays a significant and detrimental role in the lives of minority populations.*
The militarization of local police forces is an issue that affects everyone because no matter who you are or what you look like, the police have an increasingly powerful presence in your community, which means they have the potential to respond to even minor threats with excessive force and exaggerated equipment. Accordingly, to answer the question “What should I do?” the first answer is simple: do not provoke or instigate an argument with a police force that has assault rifles and tanks—it’s a battle that you simply can’t win. Any minor, seemingly innocuous gesture (as in the case of Mr. Taylor, who was reaching into his pants) can be interpreted as a “threat” and responded to with lethal force. Another answer to the question is to make sure your voice is heard and to petition your congressional representative and senators to take action—an example is to voice your support for the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, which aims to prohibit the donation of certain military-grade equipment to local law enforcement agencies. To be apathetic or to do nothing is exactly the thing to do for things to get out of hand.
Race also plays a role in instances such as these, but it would be a mistake to take either extreme position—that race plays no role whatsoever, and everyone is making a big deal out of nothing, or that race is the only thing that matters in the case of unwarranted police aggression. The former position purposefully ignores reality and invites the status quo to shift toward more violence, and the latter position actually waters down the threat that out-of-control law enforcement poses against everyone.
Yet to rationally consider the issue of race in Michael Brown’s case, one ought to also consider that what happened in Missouri is not an isolated incident but a sad case of a culture that has existed for a prolonged period of time. Nationally, blacks comprise 13% of the national population but, according to the Department of Justice, from 2003 to 2009, accounted for more than 30% of arrest-related deaths. Specifically, in Ferguson, Missouri, the Census Bureau reports that in 2010, the population was 69% black and 29% white, and of the city’s 53 police officers, 3 are black. In light of these numbers, blacks constitute 86% of the traffic stops in Ferguson. Of those stops, blacks comprise 93% of the arrests. In fact, for the fiscal year 2014, the City of Ferguson has generated more than $2.6 million in fines due to traffic stops. This figure represents just over 20% of the city’s total revenue ($12.5 million), meaning Ferguson’s black residents pay local taxes to fund their police force, who then disproportionately use their law enforcement power to stop and fine African Americans at their expense.
“What is happening?” A system problem that has been going on for years, and because the powers that be have allowed it to happen, it represents a tacit approval of the system.
So what should a resident of Ferguson, Missouri, do? Step 1 is to remove those people responsible for the implementation and oversight of such perverse programs. Examples would be the city’s prosecutor and the members of the city council—both of whom have major influence over the local policing—positions that are all elected. This is particularly important when one considers that a minority of the residents of color in Ferguson are voting. In April of this year, for example, Ferguson’s mayor, Mr. James Knowles, ran unopposed and won with just over 10% of the city’s more than 20,000 eligible voters.
Certainly, this scenario represents a multifactorial, complicated dilemma that one election will not solve, and it requires institutional reform on many levels, with persistent, diligent force to be applied over time. The death of Michael Brown is a tragedy because an 18-year-old lost his life, a fact that no one should politicize or belittle, which devalues life itself. Yet this tragedy has highlighted a troubling series of facts that the nation would otherwise have been ignorant of had this unfortunate event not happened. It not only draws more attention to Ferguson but to the many other instances around the country where regular people do what regular people tend to do only to be confronted by overly aggressive and overly zealous law enforcement who have strength in numbers, the law, and military-grade equipment. The tragedy will always be a tragedy, but what matters now is how we respond to this tragedy—with responsibility, which requires an earnest reflection on the what, how, and why, or with dismissal, which purposefully shuns the facts as an isolated instance to an isolated person, a reality that could never harm you. The latter is exactly what an overreaching authority would want you to think, so “don’t worry about it and get back to being an honest citizen”—the end result is no responsibility whatsoever.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal
* In fact, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has written a very interesting editorial within the past week that paints the race issue in America in a very troubling light. Of note, according to a 2011 study, some whites tended to think “anti-white racism was a bigger problem than anti-black racism,” and also in 2011, “the net worth of the average black household in the United States is $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household … The gap has worsened in the last decade, and the United States now has a greater wealth gap by race than South Africa did during the apartheid. (Whites in America on average own almost 18 times as much as blacks; in South Africa in 1970, the ratio was about 15 times.)”