Ferguson Blues: Technological solutions to moral problems

Dec 9 • FEATURE SIDEBAR, News, NEWS & VIEWS, Op-Ed, ViewsNo Comments on Ferguson Blues: Technological solutions to moral problems

The morning after the Staten Island grand jury declined to indict an officer for a technically illegal (but still very effective) chokehold, I sat at the piano feeling a little bluesy. Only about a week ago, a Ferguson grand jury declined to indict Officer Wilson for shooting Mike Brown. Eventually, I vamped a dirgy-repeating phrase in a minor key.

My mom’s hospice worker, Winona, stopped scrambling eggs and asked, “What’s the name of that song?”

“‘Ferguson Blues,’” I uttered before thinking. It sounded better than “Tune du Jour,” and I knew Winona didn’t speak French.

“It’s like a song for a TV show where they solve crimes,” Winona remarked.

My kids are right again. I’d like to write sonatas; they say I should stick to sitcom themes.

My thoughts jingled off to Ferguson. First they stopped in Brunswick County, where on January 5 of this year Officer Byron Vassey killed Keith Vidal while attempting to subdue him. A month later, a Brunswick County grand jury indicted Officer Vassey for involuntary manslaughter. D.A. Jon David termed the incident at the very least, “a bad shoot.”

No kidding.

Sure, Keith was white, but given the direction our fair state has turned, it’s actually refreshing to know that in North Carolina there still exists such a thing as “a bad shoot.”

Officer Wilson’s decisions on that Ferguson street led to at the very least, “a bad shoot.”  Forget about the ongoing race storm for a moment. Forget about the choice of the Missouri D.A. to defend the officer’s actions rather than actively pursue an indictment. My thoughts get stuck on the street—where the decision was made—same as where they got stuck in the Brunswick County home where the decision to shoot Keith Vidal was made.

What the hell was Officer Wilson thinking on Canfield Drive? Not when he pulled the trigger (a lot), but when he put himself unnecessarily in harm’s way at a tactical disadvantage? 

I’m a white guy in my mid-50s, and no self-respecting NC law enforcement person has ever stopped me for my registration being out of date (which it is every year), without maintaining tactical superiority. Makes me feel more dangerous than I am, and far more respectful of well-trained law enforcement. Well-trained officers are cautious. They don’t risk anyone’s life for the heinous crimes out-of-date registration, jaywalking or even suspected cigarillo bandits.

In Mike Brown’s case, they don’t call for back-up, and then close in and allow themselves to get slapped around. On Staten Island, they don’t use illegal restraint moves that kill misdemeanor suspects. Their bravado, impatience, and lack of training/awareness doesn’t lead to an unnecessary choice point: “bad shoots,” chokeholds “off limits” and subsequent loss of life.

But that’s only part of what’s inspiring my Ferguson blues. What’s one of our first actionable responses to this complex set of problems? Demilitarize our police? Speak honestly about racism and our rigid caste system? Address growing economic inequality? (Rudy Guiliani was right when he said putting more police on Park Avenue wouldn’t have helped. When we want to take a bite out of crime, Wall Street will be crawling with cops.)


On December 1, President Obama unveiled a $75 million feel-good initiative to fund body cameras for cops. 

That’s so American. “Technological solutions to moral problems”—that motto should replace “E pluribus unum.” We don’t teach our kids Latin anymore, anyway. We don’t need the classics. We don’t need a conscience. We need cameras!

Even Obama loves the idea. Of course, he’s always loved the camera. Between the daily death threats (most in history—but not because he’s black—just ask Fox) and his two teenage daughters, by now, he’s blind to the dangers of our security-first, freedom-fried, super-size-me surveillance state, “cop-cams” to reduce excessive use of force.

And don’t stop there. Catch the county commissioner with his hand in the till with “commissioner-cam.” Check whether your kid started that fight at school with “teacher-cam.” Not sure whether the pastor practices what he preaches? “Cleric-cam” to the rescue!

It’s discouraging that cameras are one of the first feel-good ideas put forth. Putting more body cameras on cops seems an insidious, simplistic solution to complex questions of choice and conscience that plague us all. Some Native Americans thought cameras stole your soul. Maybe they had a point.

It’s getting near Christmas, but I feel like singing the blues.

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