Consent to be Governed: the test of Ferguson-inspired protests

After the day of the release of the grand jury’s decision not to indict for the case of a police killing and unarmed man in Ferguson, there continue to be various protests across the country.  Not surprisingly the more tense protests continue in the St Louis area.  Outside of St Louis, the protests have been more peaceful but still involving civil disobedience of blocking traffic or other forms of disrupting regular activities.

In my last post, I presented this protest movement as an example of a challenge of the legitimacy of a local government.  The first night of rioting built on the earlier rioting that occurred in August to send a message of a rejection of government by a small portion of the population.  I used this as a US example of a challenge to government.  Although I do not think it poses as great a threat to the legitimacy of government as examples in other countries, I think it is a good local example to illustrate my point about accountable leadership.   These protests are challenging executive leadership to make a case either to persuade the protesters that their concerns are addressed, or to persuade the super-majority that the protesters are unreasonable.  Because the protests have spread across the nation, the executives challenged to come up with these responses include local governments, state governments, and the federal government.

It just happens that the latest protests are occurring during a major holiday week.  The protests are continuing but there has been very little in the way of executive attempts to provide this accountability.   There may be a desire to allow the protests to run their course and allow time for the protesters to learn the latest details from the grand jury deliberations.  There may also be a desire to emphasize the festive atmosphere of the holiday.   Perhaps there is a hope that by this coming Monday, the protests may become substantially quieted as people have to return to work.

As I mentioned above, I don’t think this protest will escalate out of control, but I admit I am not certain of this.   Many major protests have started with very local incidents that are not extraordinarily unusual.   Any protest can escalate at it releases pent up grievances of various forms.   These grievances are hidden until there is an opportunity to express them as somehow related to a protest that appears to be gaining popularity.   I am concerned that there may be much hidden frustrations that could come out to make this protest a larger scale problem than it currently appears.

I fear my ignorance of what others may be upset about.  I can justify that fear somewhat by the fact that I can not comprehend why this case deserves as much protest as it is getting.   The verified facts of the specific case do not seem to demand this reaction.   The story of a police summarily executing a non-threatening and surrendering individual does not appears to be supported by the evidence.   This rumored story is outrageous and I agree that it would require a prosecution for murder if the story were true.   I feel that the protesters are asking everyone to join in the protest to agree with them that the story is outrageous even though it did not actually occur.

A fake story started the protests and the protests continue because this story is nonetheless an accurate portrayal of widespread injustice in their communities, especially with respect to policing.   The continued protests challenges us to accept the deeper accuracy of a fake story.

I find it difficult to accept the accuracy of a story that is shown to be fake.

However, I acknowledge my ignorance.  Though fake, the story may in fact capture a reality of present day life not only in that one community but in many communities across the nation. In a recent article, Jonah Goldberg describes this reality as:

One theme he hit repeatedly, and correctly, was that the passions of many protestors are rooted in something very real. The “frustrations that we’ve seen are not just about a particular incident,” Obama said. “They have deep roots in many communities of color who have a sense that our laws are not always being enforced uniformly or fairly.”

There’s no doubt that is true.

I am ignorant of this reality.  Most of the protesters are from a much younger generation.  They could be experiencing something I have not experienced.   I have a relatively pedestrian lifestyle that does not expose me to the diversity of experiences in the country.  Also, I recognize that my older self is not as socially connected as my younger self.  I am far less likely to encounter diversity of opinion as I was when I attended college, for example.   I admit that I could very well be out of touch.   In fact, I may be trying deliberately to be out of touch in an attempt to become more of a disinterested observer of my own society.  My ignorance puts me at a disadvantage to contest Jonah’s assertion “There’s not doubt that is true”.

I learned that the story is fake, so I doubt the underlying accuracy.   However, I admit ignorance so I am open to being convinced that the story is accurate even if it is fake.   This openness to accept the accuracy of a fake story makes me at least a little skeptical of the legitimacy of the government.   In other words, my openness to being convinced of the accuracy of a fake story means that I am not entirely convinced of its inaccuracy.  My consent to being governed could be stronger than it is today.   The protests have weakened my own consent at least to the extent of not being motivated to actively participate in counter-protests, for instance.   Even these posts on an obscure blog fall short of providing a vigorous defense of our government.   This attitude that I am describing as my own may be relatively common.

On the other hand, I’m inclined to doubt the underlying accuracy of the fake story.  This is what I discussed in my post about the veto by minority.  The history of government destabilizing protests in other countries demonstrate the importance of answering the question of what are the thoughts of the larger majority who are not protesting.   They are not actively counter-protesting.   Do they agree with the government, the protesters, or are they unsure?

In order to defend itself from protests, a government must establish a super-majority of people who consent to be governed.  To defend the government from protests, this consent must not ambiguous.  It must affirmatively support the government over the protesters.   Doubters do not contribute the needed super-majority the government needs to defend itself from protesters.

In the current protests, there is a need for the leaders in local, state, and federal governments to present their persuasive arguments to rebuild the super-majority confidence in government.  Due to the present circumstances of the fresh release of details of this story and the coincidence of a major federal holiday, the leadership may be excused for being relatively silent.  Unfortunately, this silence in not more forcefully standing behind the legitimacy of their governments has led to a more disastrous protest.   Besides, I don’t think that excuse works because the leaders have in fact made statements after the release of the grand jury decision.   Every individual leader’s message (such as the one by the US president) did little to challenge the accuracy of a fake story.

On the contrary, the leadership messages seem to acknowledge the underlying accuracy of the fake story.   In effect, the leadership is sending a message that the protesters (and the wider population as a whole) have reason to withhold or at least question their consent to government.   This message justifies the protesters’ anger that drives them to the point of violence.  The only forceful message of the the leadership is to disagree with the actual acts of violence.

The leaders agree with the reason to be angry enough to commit violence but they will not tolerate violence itself.   This is a very confusing message to hear from people who are placed in executive positions in their government.

This is an incompetent message.  If people are justified in being angry enough to be motivated to engage in violent protests, then they are justified in engaging in violent protests.   The justification is that they no longer accept the legitimacy of government.  The mythology of the original US revolution glorifies the notion of rejecting illegitimate government.  As the declaration of Independence states:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

The first part of the above quote asks us to tolerate minor disputes with government and this addresses the fake Ferguson story.  The second part of the quote demands a duty to reject a government on major abuses, and this address the supposed accuracy of the Ferguson story.   If the fake story is accurate, then we have a duty to “throw off such government”.   The accuracy of the fake story not only justifies the anger to the point of becoming violent, but it justifies the actual acts of violent protest.

The leadership is incompetent to allow continued suspicions of the accuracy underlying the Ferguson story.  This incompetence invites a revolt.   The leadership has failed to even attempt to dissuade the protesters of the accuracy of their complaints.  At the same time the leadership has failed to even attempt to persuade the super-majority non-protesters that the protester’s complaints are unreasonable.  Maintaining a super-majority consent can not survive both of these failures.

If the fake story is accurate, then the protesters are right in their attempts to shut down government and civil order.   If the story is inaccurate, then the government and civil must be preserved.   We look to leadership to persuade us of the inaccuracy of the story.   Perhaps their failure to do so is excused by the holiday season.   However, I doubt we will hear a strong persuasive argument against the accuracy behind the fake story on Monday.   Lacking a persuasive counter argument, what argument is there against continued violent protests?

Part of the reason for the weak defense of our system of government is that we are increasingly obligating our leaders to base decisions based on evidence.  The reason why the leaders accept the possibility that there really are larger problems needing to be addressed is that they have no data to disprove this accusation.   We are left weaker as a result of our declining expectation for accountability from leaders to present their best defense of the government they have sworn to defend.

The obligation to follow evidence-based (data-driven) decision making makes for what is increasing becoming a new form of government by data, or a dedodemocracy.  Under such a government, we can obtain persuasive arguments of a fair and reasonable government by obtaining data that on balance supports this claim.   Currently, the data is overwhelmingly supporting the opposite claim because we are seeing abundant and unambiguous displays of anger through protests.   We have a lot of data from the protesters.

If we are lacking any data, that would be the opinions of the non-protesters, and in particular the non-protesting population in the Ferguson communities.   If the non-protesting population is sufficiently large and generally lend support and consent to their government, then this would be strong evidence that the government is valid and is worthy of our trust.   The above single case should be considered as an unfortunate episode that qualifies for the “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes” clause in the declaration.

I do not think we are going to get from our current leaders a persuasive argument in defense of the long established government.   But we live in a time when we may find this persuasive argument ourselves in the data.  As I mentioned in the last post, journalism can have a stronger role in dedodemocracy by seeking out data that that is missing from the coverage of the action on the street.  In this case, the missing data is more complete assessment of the community’s opinions and attitudes toward their local government.   We already have abundant evidence about the portion of the community that is protesting (although that data needs more specificity to separate the local protesters from the transient ones).   We need more evidence about the non-protesting population that is likely to have stronger ties to the community.   This non-protesting population may be avoiding the protest locations entirely out of fear or at least out from a disagreement with the protester’s complaints.

Perhaps it is true that the non-participating population agrees with the protesting population.   This would be good information in itself to give even more weight to the argument that the government is not fit to continue in its current form.   If this population continues to agree with the protesters despite the grand jury’s decision and despite the damages done, then this is strong evidence that the government has lost its legitimacy in this community.

Alternatively this new data of the non-protesters’ opinions could show the opposite case that the there are sufficient numbers within the community who are are supportive and trusting in their government.  This new information could be the evidence we need to conclude that the story is both fake and inaccurate.

We need this information about the non-participating members of the community.   The journalists have the skills to obtain this data.  Unfortunately, they do not yet have the incentive to get this data.   While one or two dissenting opinions may support a publication of an article, we need an extensive survey across the entire community.   If the evidence is going to make a difference in the government-by-data approach, then we need at least as much evidence of the non-protesting population as we have of the protesting population.   The protesters have been so vocal that this sets the bar pretty high.

As I mentioned before, I’m concerned about the present narrative encouraging us to side with the protesters and cause a collapse of a working government only to find there is no super-majority to support the protester’s version of government.  I am concerned by the current events that imported voices from other communities and especially of distant populous cities of very dissimilar experiences from the local population.  These imported voices could overwhelm even a local super-majority that supports their local government.  The problem with the transients is that they will not stick around to set up a new government.  The new government will have to be run by the minority of locals that rioted.   This is a result that is worth avoiding.

Journalism can have a critical role in filling in for the leadership vacuum to defend a legitimate local government.  They can obtain the data that shows that the majority of the local community supports their government and accepts the legitimacy and the findings of the grand jury.   We need to find incentives to direct some journalist talent to complete our picture of the communities attitudes toward their government by extensively covering the non-protesting members.  We need to find disincentives for reporting that unfairly reinforces the protester’s views at the expense of the views of the non-protesters.

Update 11/28/2014: Grand jury testimony indicates intimidation of the local community from supporting their government against protests. Witness testifies “I Googled my name and I seen my picture, and it said like snitches get stitches. Been nervous and scared.”  There has been suppression of dissenting opinions against the protesters.


2 thoughts on “Consent to be Governed: the test of Ferguson-inspired protests

  1. Pingback: Workforce participation in activity tracking: addressing frustrations with micromanagement | kenneumeister

  2. Pingback: Better context information needed to understand breaking new stories and crisis management | kenneumeister

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