Eugene Robinson Live

Aug 26, 2014

Chat with Post columnist Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hello, everybody, and bienvenidos. It's time for our weekly chat, and as usual we have lots to chew over. Today's column was about the Michael Brown killing and how young black men -- as I've said before -- are deemed guilty until proven innocent. Meanwhile, there's a constant din of chatter about the barbarous ISIS (or Islamic State, as they call themselves) but no consensus about what course of action the United States should take. And meanwhile, former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell continues to provide a lesson on why criminal defendants should think long and hard before taking the witness stand. Let's get started.

Gene, everything you said in your article is true. But there's another side to the story. I work for a Federal agency where white managers are afraid to disciplne poor performing or badly behaving blacks for fear of being accused of racial discrimination. My daughter taught 3rd grade for 3 years but quit because she was not allowed to discipline disruptive black students who made teaching almost impossible. I guess that makes us racists, but we've participated in every anniversary of the March on Washington starting in 1984, including the 50th this uear. We do have black friends but they are at our educational and financial level. I honestly don't know how tobridge the gap with those who are not.

I guess we're even, because I happen to have white friends who are at my educational and financial level! It sounds as if the managers at your agency and the administrators at your daughter's former school are bad at their jobs. Bridging the income gap is about creating genuine opportunity, and that's not easy. It requires empathy and commitment, both of which are in short supply these days.

gene, I'm concerned about so many people rushing to justice to condem the police officer and at the same time I recgonize that even if the facts showed that Brown did threaten the officer life, the underlying concerns of minorities are still very real. These protests are really more a last straw than all about Mike Brown, because no one really knows what happened in this case. The witnesses are telling two extremely different stories. We need to have a discussion about racism and inequality without basterdizing either side, and it will likely have some hard statements that both sides will be uncomfortable about. However it can't be about a single incident, because the single incidents often have too many extenuating circumstances.

You're right that no one incident can encapsulate 395 years of racial friction in this land. In this case, an unarmed teenager was shot not once, not twice, but at least six times. That has to raise questions no matter who's the shooter and who's the corpse. And this, for better or worse, is how we have the National Conversation About Race that everyone says we should have. Something happens, we react to it, we disagree, eventually we move on -- and sometimes, but not always, we look back and see that we've made progress.

Gene, did you read the column last week by the California (I think) police officer on how regular folks should respond when they are stopped on the street? His message, as far as I could tell, was that yes, citizen, you have the right to go about your business without being harassed by the cops, but don't you dare challenge the police about why you are being questioned, or else... Speaking as a middle-aged, suburban white guy, I was appalled. The writer came across as defending a sort of institutionalized bullying as the norm for police behavior.

I was floored by that piece as well. It seemed to say: If you don't want to get shot, don't even question my orders or actions. I didn't think that was the relationship between citizens and their guardians.

I am a bit dumbfounded that so many police, including a PG County organization, have given to the fund setup for the Ferguson police officer, Wilson. WIth the death of an unarmed teenager by a hail of police bullets, you would think these contributors would want to know the facts of the situation before giving. Is this a statement about police in general? Protect their own no matter what?

In fairness, I've also heard some prominent police officials question the whole approach of the Ferguson police department. Most cops don't want to shoot people, and in fact most never use their weapons on the job.

The eyewitness accounts have different accounts about whether or not there was a struggle for Officer Wilson's gun, whether the officer received a bad shiner or a broken eye socket, and whether or not Micheal Brown had his hands up or whether he was advancing on Officer Wilson. We don't know the details yet. Can everybody please stop talking as if we do know?

There are indeed two conflicting narratives. One hopes that the forensic evidence will help determine which is more accurate.

I think you presented an accurate assessment of the climate around the shooting but even as a white liberal, I'm not sure what else to do to reach these children in troubled circumstances and give them the helping hand that lifts them out as I was thanks to LBJ's war on poverty. More for Head Start? More for the schools? How many other Ferguson's are out there just waiting for a spark?

As I said earlier, the solution is to create genuine opportunity, which is hard. Children will do better if their parents have jobs, if they attend pre-kindergarten, if failing schools are dramatically improved, if their neighborhoods are safe, if they have decent housing... The list is long, but we can't use that fact as an excuse to throw up our hands and do nothing. So we must start somewhere, anywhere, and do what we can.

Gene: It was unsettling to learn that the town of Ferguson gets much of its operating income from nuisance citations, such as tickets for jaywalking or failure to signal a turn, and the preponderance of those citations are issued to African Americans. No wonder people feel harassed and targeted.

Fascinating, isn't it? And that's not just a racial issue, it's an economic issue. I wonder how many other communities make do in this cannibalistic manner.

I have a hard time understanding a belligerent attitude towards police. Everytime I have interacted with police I have purposely acted polite and sucked up to them. yes sir, no sir, yes ma'am, no ma'am. They have the power to take away my freedom or hurt me or kill me if I attack them. My goal in interacting with police is to end the encounter as fast as possible. Why on earth would anyone hit an officer whether to break a bone or give the officer a black eye?

As has ben pointed out, what happened in the encounter between Michael Brown and Officer Wilson is in dispute. But I'm willing to guess that you don't get stopped by police very often. If this were a monthly or weekly or daily routine for you, I wonder how your patience -- and your manners -- would hold up.

It's interesting- I know a bunch of police officers in a variety of jurisdictions, including the VA State Police, NYPD and Birmingham PD. There is a mindset universal to them (and they don't know each other) that it's cops versus everyone else, and that they are in mortal danger every single day. How much of the problem with police is the fact that they seem to be internally placing their backs up against the wall and not trusting the citizens in their jurisdiction but rather seeing everyone as a threat that is the problem?

I'm not unsympathetic to police officers, let me make that clear. Most of them end their careers without ever having a violent encounter, but they all know what this nation is armed to the teeth. There is a memorial here in Washington to police officers who have been killed while performing their duties. So I understand a feeling of solidarity. It's a matter of degree. We learned a lot about the Ferguson police department when it rolled out armored vehicles and high-powered assault rifles to confront demonstrators who were initially peaceful. Is this an approach that other police departments endorse? I hope not.

You and other columnists have said that the former governor has thrown his wife under the bus with his testimony. I am no McDonnell fan, but what if his testimony is true? Keeping his mouth shut seems like an old-fashioned ideal of "gentlemanliness" which is basically sexism.

I couldn't go the whole hour without addressing the McDonnell trial. You're right that gentlemanliness is something the former governor cannot be accused of. But is his story credible? Could his wife really have maneuvered him into promoting Jonnie Williams' snake oil without the governor's even being aware of it?  Could those big loans -- just in time to keep up the mortgage payments on the unwise real estate investments he made with his sister -- have come "out of the blue," as the prosecutor taunted? Doesn't pass my smell test. I don't know about yours.

This is absolutely awesome, a defense based on the idea that it is all his wife's fault. It reminds me of Marion Barry's defense when caught in the hotel which was, to bowdlerize, the woman set him up.

Thank you for sharing.

As I scrolled past the comments after your column, I note that many in the blogerati universe seem to *know* for a *fact* that Michael Brown was the actual robber of the store and that, therefore, he deserved to die in a hale of bullets, because, well, you know... I wonder if the poster has informed the police in Ferguson (and, of course, the FBI) of his prescient knowledge. It's like every black child, immediately upon emerging from his/her mother's womb, is automatically a "thug" or a "hooker" ... Words fail.

They do indeed.

Will anything happen as a result of the death of Michael Brown? Even if it's proven in court that he was unjustly murdered and the police officer is imprisoned, the larger problem won't disappear. As a white person, I'd be willing to do something about it, but I'm guessing I'm in a very small minority of white people. It's an out-of-sight -- out-of-mind problem for white America. Most of us don't see the problem, it doesn't normally affect us, so it's not a priority. We have a black President who is viciously attacked by conservatives in this country anytime he even mentions race as being a problem, so it seems unlikely anything will start with him. This would appear to be an issue that must start with local organizing through the country, similar to the civil rights movement. Would you agree?

If there's anything hopeful that has come from the Michael Brown tragedy it is that some conservatives have been critical of the Ferguson police. They may be looking at the issue of militarization rather than the issue of race, but I don't care. As long as they open their eyes.

I heard the other day that only 6% of eligible black voters voted in the last election in Ferguson. If the people of Ferguson really want a change as bad as they say they do, where are they on election day? I'm a bit tired of the large number of people in this country, black and white, male and female, old and young, who complain about government but can't find an hour every year to do something about it.

This point has been made by the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (both of whom, by the way, have also spoken out in recent days about black-on-black violence). If you want to change things, vote.

That's it for today, folks. My time is up. Thanks for a lively discussion, and I'll see you again next week!

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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