Race, Ferguson, and the Rashomon Effect

The past week has been overwhelming. I’ve spent as much of my free time as possible reading essays about the events of Ferguson, watching livestreams, scrolling through Twitter, sharing and reading others’ thoughts on the latest developing news. I’ve fought back tears on more than one occasion, gotten so angry and frustrated that I was shaking. I’ve momentarily lost my faith in humanity and conversely had moments of gratitude for little kindnesses I’ve witnessed on the ground. I know I’m not alone. This is turning into a full-fledged saga, multivalent, able to be seen from many angles. Many of us have probably read a novel’s worth of information at this point, searching for the elusive nuggets of truth that may shed new light on the confusing, upsetting situation. Even as I’m writing this new details keep emerging that need to be factored in.

So yeah, we’ve all read plenty, and it’s not like I have a special insight to share that hasn’t already been pointed out. But here’s what I thought I’d emphasize — an understanding of the events unfolding on a macro level, the larger forces at work here as we’re intuiting them. This is about a lot of things, but largely it’s a saga about race, perception and the deliberate, forceful shaping of narratives — subnarratives, national narratives, the Black American Narrative. And framing it that way might shed light on something else, obvious to some but maybe not to others — limited perception and divergent understandings of deliberately obfuscated facts may be the central issue not only over the past week, but with understanding race in America. I think we understand this, if only subconsciously. There’s a reason this story has so greatly sparked outrage and interest that has only been growing as the days go on — because it’s one that is exposing so nakedly the machinations behind the curtain, the gears that have been churning for decades. If there have been moments this week that feel lifted straight from the ugly racial struggles of the 50s and 60s, it’s no accident. The same forces are at work, have always been at work, systematically ironing out the messy facts.

An essay from Fumitaka Matsuoka, “Creating Community Amidst the Memories of Historic Injuries,” lays out “the Rashomon effect” as a concept, and touches upon how it applies to racial relations in America:

The essay goes on to name the OJ Simpson trial as the great exemplar of the Rashomon Effect as it applies to race. I don’t know (Rodney King?), but I’d say we have a new contender now. As an appetizer, check out this Buzzfeed article — “Is Race An Issue In Ferguson? Depends On Whom You Ask” — with these divergent viewpoints from white and black residents:

“It’s something I never even think about” is a very telling statement. White residents don’t ever think about this stuff, of course. Because they have no reason to; because they’re working on a limited set of facts and experiences, the ones they have as white people in a town that is nothing but friendly and protective of them. They’re not aware of how police routinely treat black people. And it’s also because they don’t spend time in “the black part of town”, don’t get their hair cut at Prime Time and hear stories of the same crap happening over & over again, don’t see it first hand walking down the street. Of course there are divergent viewpoints. It’s like there’s literally two towns folded inside of a single town. Moreover, it’s like there are two separate realities in every single city and town in America. And this leads to two populations and communities — white, black — having drastically different understandings of the world. Red pill / blue pill metaphors are very played out, but it’s not inappropriate here. Many white people are living in some sort of hazy dream state of limited perception, encouraged at every step by media and authorities, and deliberately need to seek out reality as black America experiences if they want to be aware. Of course, even suggesting this leads to angry denials.

The developing, twisting official story of the Ferguson Police Department and the developing, twisting framing of news/media outlets are interesting for many reasons, but especially because it makes apparent that this polarity of experiences isn’t just a side-effect of America’s racial history. It is actively, deliberately being forced into our perceptions on a daily basis. There are multiple branching instances of the Rashomon Effect at play here, all focusing on polarizing perceptions of the Black Male and the African-American experience, and I can count at least three main ones: perception of the shooting incident itself, perceptions of looting/rioting vs. peaceful protesting, and the shoplifting/robbery information. I want to focus on the latter, because it’s really illustrative of what we’re dealing with.

The Shoplifting, or “Strong-Arm Robbery”

Ruminating on the shoplifting incident was the inspiration for this Medium piece, the one that got the lightbulb working in my brain. The Ferguson Police Department hasn’t released any details about the shooting (a preliminary autopsy just came out, but it was a private one at the family’s request.) But they threw out a smoke bomb two days ago to distract and confuse us — surveillance footage of Mike Brown and his friend in a convenience store, along with an incident report based on a viewing of said footage. The coloring of the facts by the FPD came along with the information presented, shaping our views right from the beginning. This was a “strong-arm robbery”, this was video of Mike Brown forcefully intimidating and robbing the store’s clerk openly and in front of customers, “towering” over him like a monstrous thug, stealing a case of Swisher Sweets cigarillos. The FPD official incident report is, by its own admission, based on the same limited information we have — the surveillance video of the incident.

Most everyone, even those on the side of the protestors, absorbed all this as factually accurate without question. At best our response was, rightfully, to minimize it. This has nothing to do with the shooting of an unarmed black male in broad daylight on the street by an officer. The police chief admitted that there is no connection, and that the officer in question was not aware of the robbery. Thus he had no reason to suspect Brown of anything other than harmless jaywalking.

That’s all true. But the damage was done. We could all see it happening, people suddenly not willing to defend Mike Brown as a harmless innocent kid. Now they were having to defend a thug who committed actions they found appalling. Now all the stereotypes that led to the shooting — the perceptions of a 6 foot 4 black male being dangerous and intimidating — were apparently coming true.

But again, we’re minimizing it but we’re also not questioning it. Notice that the video has no sound, and there’s no way to discern the conversation between Brown and the store clerk. Notice that even the FPD are relying on this soundless video, having forced the store clerk to hand over the footage. Notice we still don’t have the story of the clerk, days later. We think we know the facts of the situation, that what happened was a premeditated robbery or shoplifting. But we really have no idea. Did Brown attempt to pay? Was he denied purchase of the cigarillos because he didn’t have an ID (his driver’s license had expired) and that’s what started it? Did the clerk say something upsetting or racist to set him off?

I’m not saying the events didn’t occur the way we’re told they did. I don’t know. But that’s the point. We think we know, but we don’t. Our brains are operating with limited, biased information, and we’ve been primed by the FPD’s description to have that confirmed. And many of us are predisposed to see surveillance footage of a black male in a convenience store and jump to the only obvious conclusion — that he’s a wanton thug. In fact, the FPD is specifically relying on all of this. I mean, that’s exactly what they’re doing here.

Over on Metafilter there’s an excellent long thread with many good insights from commenters. Note this one, specifically on how our brains are psychologically primed to receive the FPD’s suggestions of events as gospel truth:

The amount and quality of the data is irrelevant. A machine for jumping to conclusions. There is no waiting and no subjective discomfort. This is what the Ferguson Police Department has deliberately done to prime your thoughts, change your mind, completely orthogonal to the question of why this officer shot an unarmed black male who had his hands up. The narrative has changed, and that’s a victory for them, because the real battle being waged here is mental and cognitive. It’s priming the jury pool, it’s preemptively introducing character evidence which may be found inadmissible in court. But it’s working on public consciousness as well. It’s working on the Facebook and twitter conversations, it’s sowing doubt, it’s fogging up injustice. It’s causing millions of white Americans to say things like “well, the charitable way to read this is…” (charitable to the white officer, not the black “thug”, that is.) Now it seems plausible to many that Brown could’ve reached for the officer’s gun while he was sitting in the car, that this is a perfectly reasonable reading of the situation now that we perceive Brown as some kind of insane criminal who would follow up a petty theft with a move you wouldn’t even see in a bad superhero comic book.

And that’s also the real battle being waged, every day, in minimizing the injustices done to black Americans. The mental battles are exactly the same, the forceful shaping of narratives on micro and macro levels — and it’s why that white resident of Ferguson could be 100% serious when he said that race has never been an issue there, it’s something he never even thinks about. This is the difficulty in presenting your side in situations like this, generally, as a black person in this country. You have to overcome the moral barrier just to pass the initial bar of someone listening to your side of the story. Are you a decent, unimpeachable person with no record, who presents as a clean (read: assimilated) well-dressed young man, not brash at all, not stupid as teenagers always are, doesn’t listen to hip hop, doesn’t smoke weed. If not, sorry. The “charitable” reading is not the one that ever favors you, person who hasn’t followed the politics of respectability to the letter. And no one will really meet the standards, everyone will be found wanting. Or as another Metafilter commenter put it:

I think I’m sounding like a broken record, but I want to really stress: from the President and CNN on down to local news stations and police departments, the way these narratives are shaped is not accidental. We trust in them because they’ve been consistently forcefed to us from birth. We’ve been taught that black consciousness ideas are to be dismissed as extremist. We’ve been taught that black people need to prove that they’re “decent” (white-seeming) to be given a pass, and even then, there are reasons not to. We’ve been primed by media to accept stories about looting instead of stories about protestors from within the community preventing outside looters. We’ve been primed to believe that Brown was a villanous strong-arm robber rather than an ordinary 18-year-old who got into an unexpected altercation over his ID and did something dumb. And we’re primed to believe all this because the power structures and neoliberal policies of the dominant elite depend on us believing in these narratives and cheerleading for them. Because the capital and class hierarchy of this country are facilitated, necessitated by blacks staying on the lowest rung of the ladder.

The people shaping our consciousness are relying on the Rashomon Effect to accomplish this. It’s the only reason the war on drugs is still being justified, it’s the only reason African Americans are incarcerated six times the rate of whites, why one in six black men has seen time in jail.

Ferguson sheds light on the way the official stories twist around facts to how our brains want to and are trained to perceive them. This is the metadiscussion — not whether Brown was of decent moral character enough to justify being killed, but whether it’s right to talk about whether Brown was of decent moral character, and then at the next level, why and how the discussion comes back to that each and every time, and who’s perpetuating it, and how to call attention to and disrupt those forces.

We need to find a way to convey this to our friends, to our family, every time the typical polarizing lines are drawn, and every time people are accused of inciting “mass race card hysteria.” We need to do this without the discussion being too academic or navel-gazing. We need to make it clear that while we’re arguing about interpretations of facts, there’s a manipulative PR spin campaign being waged for decades, every day, that changes how we perceive those facts at a base brainstem level. Even those of us defending Mike Brown, those of us with first-hand knowledge of being black in this country, those of us who consider ourselves race-conscious and progressive. And that’s what’s really worth paying attention to, and counteracting at every step. The spin campaign is relentless and all-encompassing. There are times when it almost seems hopeless. But if we can get people to understand that narrative-shaping is the real issue from which thousands of problems spread out like wildfire, then I think there’s a glimmer of hope. So many are pushing back against the media, against the police this week. Against the stories and the way we use language, all of which now more than ever are exposed as fraudulent, forced, manipulative. We’re sick of it, have been sick of it and it’s reached a boiling point. Let’s reflect on the ways that Ferguson is a microcosm of America, and convince others to question the framing at all times. It’s a long battle and it certainly won’t be solved now, but we have everything we need to acknowledge the poisonous discourse and redirect it.