There is nothing that would justify in my mind the shooting of an unarmed man down on his knees with his hands in the air by a police officer, soldier or anyone else particularly those who we have authorized to use deadly force on our behalf. Nothing. I just wanted to get that off the table first.

I really want to talk about the great divide of opinion over the incident. Many support the police officer and cite “reports” of Michael Brown’s robbery of a convenience store a few minutes earlier, Brown’s use of marijuana, and Brown’s physical struggle with the policeman in the officer’s police car as the incidents which set events in motion. A few days ago, there was even a false report of physical injury like a broken eye socket that was inflicted on the police officer presumably by Brown. These reports come from official and unofficial sources that range from the Ferguson police department to shadowy unnamed friends of the police officer. Some use these “reports” as justification for the officer’s action in shooting Brown citing the threat that a six foot four “hopped-up-on-drugs thug” (to quote one person on Facebook which is always an impeccable source) who even when unarmed might cause an officer to to fire out of fear or anger. Those who hold this view usually have positive or sympathetic views of the police officer and negative stereotypical views of the victim.

In contrast the people in the Ferguson black community have positive or sympathetic views of the victim and negative stereotypical views of the police officer. They concentrate not on anything that may have precipitated the officer’s actions but on the act of shooting Michael Brown. They rely on the reports of eyewitnesses who say Brown was surrendering when he was shot and not threatening the police officer in any way. To be fair the testimony of eyewitnesses has been shown in court to be questionable as folks bend their memories to fit what they think is happening, forget some details while recalling others real or imaginary, and to not always be truthful. Similarly, the “reports’ of those in authority have been known to be selective, self serving and even doctored. Those reports from shadowy unauthorized sources who claimed to know the police officer are not worth the air time they are given. They are the result of an overactive media who rushes to fill its air time and will jump to any conclusion, use any source and even fabricate things to do so. My point is that whatever side you are on in these two differing views of the event the evidence is at best not unimpeachable or complete and at worst flimsy.

This has not stopped people on either side from strongly holding their views of this incident. It is a spectacular example of what psychologists call confirmation bias. Both sides are making assumptions and holding preconceptions perhaps based on past experience or perhaps not; based on stereotypes and perceived truths or not. Confirmation bias is the tendency to believe evidence that supports our preconceptions and discount evidence to the contrary. This phenomenon has been commented on for almost 500 years.  In 1620 Francis Bacon wrote:

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects: in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

Great thinkers and non-thinkers alike have to recognize and perhaps guard against confirmation bias lest the truth become another casualty. In a larger sense the truth of this incident is less important than the reality of the situation.  The purpose of the games of dueling evidence, character assassination or build up, is not to establish the truth but to confirm our biases. As long as police see themselves as the front line in a war against crime and the protectors of the white community rather than the black one, they will think of the people they police as animals to be contained rather than fellow human beings. As we have seen in every war soldiers have to dehumanize the people they kill by thinking of them as “gooks”, “rag heads” or in this case “n*ggers” in order to do the job they think they have to do. Much of the black community thinks of them as an army of occupation rather than the nice officer who is there to protect them because that is how they have been treated too often. If we are to move forward out of this cycle, we need at least to recognize how we endlessly repeat our flawed thinking, talking, and behaving about these issues. Most of all we have to change the reality of the situation to change the thinking and behavior.  In the heat of battle this may seem like a luxury. Indeed, putting the police on notice that the continued killing of unarmed black men will no longer be tolerated may be the highest priority right now. Let this small voice in the wilderness call for us not merely to use this tragedy to confirm our assumptions, prejudices, preconceptions and stereotypes. Let Michael Brown’s sacrifice not be in vain.

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