The mob logic of Ferguson

Now, that sentiment is an impeccably liberal one — almost an ur-liberal belief. One can hear John Stuart applauding it as vigorously as his temperament allowed. What made it intolerable apparently was that this liberalism leaves open the possibility that Wilson might be acquitted. And the crowd’s belief in his being guilty (of murder) is so all encompassing that the thought of his acquittal has to be denied or at least its legitimacy questioned. And though it is a breach of etiquette to say so, that kind of crowd certainty is the beginning of lynch logic.

That is so even if Wilson is shown to be guilty of Brown’s murder. Many of the films and dramas about lynching — usually Westerns — depict heroic characters who prevent the lynching of someone known by the whole town to be guilty. The argument that quells the crowd’s violence is that his guilt will be demonstrated in court. And that argument is the basis of legal justice.

Of course, in real life some guilty accused are acquitted by a jury – sometimes corruptly, more often through error – and they go free. O. J. Simpson’s acquittal seemed to be a case in point. We all at that juncture have a duty to accept the verdict (though there are non-criminal civil actions that relatives can pursue in perverse verdicts). But false acquittals and false convictions are both more likely to occur if we decide to short-circuit the laborious processes of collecting and evaluating the evidence of specific acts and simply decide the guilt or innocence of the accused on the basis of whose ox is gored — in the Ferguson case on the basis of stereotypes about either cops or young black men. I make this case in the current London Spectator here.