19 August 2014

Trying to sort it all out

The past couple of weeks have been family-focused for me.  I was away and relatively (though not completely) unplugged.  I'm very grateful that I have the resources to do that, because I know most people don't.  From an extreme distance, in more ways than one, I watched the scene unfold in Ferguson.

I read the national media accounts - the ones that focus on sensationalism and conflict, and try to explain  "why it's important" or "the 5 things you need to know" or how what's happened is just a proxy for someone's real agenda or confirms someone's world view.  I read the local media - the ones that insist that "this isn't who we are" and focus on the leadership (or lack thereof) in the community.  I read the "niche" media that reflects perspectives I don't and can't truly have - conservative media, African-American media, foreign media, people who write about law enforcement.

I looked at all this and I asked myself "what if Michael Brown were my son?"

But then, none of this would ever happen to my son.

If a local cop found my son walking in the middle of the street, and by some miracle chose not to ignore it, he'd probably just threaten to tell me about it.  If he found my son hiding a box of cheap cigars under his arm, he'd probably tell him to give them back. If he smelled marijuana on him, he'd probably think fondly of the days when he'd sneak a joint. He might even crack a joke.

If my kid got into trouble with the law, people would be falling over themselves trying to figure out how a good kid could get caught up in this stuff.  They'd wonder if he has problems and they'd try to find him help.  My son would probably get a dozen second chances.  We would be telling prosecutors not to ruin this kid's future.

If a cop shot and killed my son in a situation like what happened in Ferguson - and by that I mean "jaywalking" - there would be no riots.  They wouldn't be necessary, because everyone knows accountability would be swift and sure.  I'd see suspensions, resignations, written apologies, and drafts of settlement agreements with big dollar amounts attached to them. I'd get a call from the mayor, maybe even a member of Congress. I'd probably watch the offending officer break down crying, wondering aloud how he could have possibly made such a tragic mistake, and beg my forgiveness.  Someone would set up a scholarship fund in my son's name, and the police union would make the first donation.

Less than a week after this "accident," I'd never have to worry about calculating, depraved, and cowardly character assassinations from a local police chief that demonstrates a level of incompetence and disregard for the rule of law I'd never think possible in modern America.

I'd never have to witness a surreal spectacle of police officers with more combat gear than a military special forces unit dehumanize the citizens they're sworn to serve and throw journalists in jail for trying to document it.

None of this would ever happen to my family. I cannot possibly comprehend the depths of pain the Brown family feels right now.

There is one thing, however, I can comprehend as a professional in crisis communications.  It's the level of deception, depravity, and hypocrisy coming from the Ferguson police chief in the guise of "public relations."

As his officers abuse the citizens they're supposed to protect, he also allows them to block, assault, detain, and tear gas journalists - all in obvious violation of the law. He's clearly condoned, and possibly even directed this behavior.  This prevents the documentation of abuse that would likely hold him accountable.

Just before he finally released the name of the officer who killed Michael Brown, he accused Brown of stealing a box of cheap cigars a few minutes before he was killed.  He acknowledged that this had nothing to do with the shooting, but said he had "no choice" because journalists had apparently filed "FOIA requests."   He also said he hadn't informed the Missouri Highway Patrol - the organization who had taken over for him due to his profound incompetence - of his decision because he was still "in the mode of the county being in charge."

I've done enough work with public entities and dealt with enough FOIA issues to know this is exquisite bullshit. Nothing in the law requires the police chief to do what he did.  This man has ignored the laws that would force him to act transparently, and he has deceptively invoked laws to obfuscate the facts.  We now know state and federal officials urged the local police chief to exercise appropriate restraint.  The chief effectively flipped them the bird.

He said all this at a press conference he called - one in which he asked the media to "exercise discretion" by not bringing members of the Ferguson community with them.  He wanted the media to know this and report it without the instant reaction of outrage.  He wanted the narrative of Michael Brown the robber to cut into the narrative of Darren Wilson the shooter for that first round of coverage.

And he stood there, in front of cameras, and claimed he was powerless to stop it.

That's a lie.

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