"Offense-bullying" Part II: The Origins of the Ferguson Riots

In my last post I introduced the term “offense-bullying”, which is when someone invents or exaggerates a grievance, and then bullies other people into apologizing or changing their behavior.

The person taking offense frequently claims that they cannot control their emotion. Their anger is raw, natural. The offended person and their own emotions get to be arbiter of what is offensive. Let us look at two clear statements of this idea:

The first statement comes from a comment thread about microagressions at work. One woman writes that she resents being told to “lighten up” when she gets angry at an offensive joke:

Lighten up? Infuriating comment. It’s the same as telling someone not to feel hurt or objectified. Women subjected to this can’t change the way they feel. Men can change the way they act and what they say. So do it.

The second statement comes from a New York Times editorial titled, “The Meaning of the Ferguson Riots”:

For the black community of Ferguson, the killing of Michael Brown was the last straw in a long train of abuses that they have suffered daily at the hands of the local police. News accounts have strongly suggested, for example, that the police in St. Louis County’s many municipalities systematically target poor and minority citizens for street and traffic stops — partly to generate fines — which has the effect of both bankrupting and criminalizing whole communities.

The rioting that scarred the streets of St. Louis County — and the outrage that continues to reverberate across the country — underlines this inescapable point. It shows once again that distrust of law enforcement presents a grave danger to the civic fabric of the United States

Both quotes have the same argument: A woman angry at a sexist joke cannot control her anger. The black people angry at the police cannot control their anger. The grievance creates the uncontrollable rage. The only way to prevent the anger is for other people to change their behavior.

Let us put aside the question of whether the anger was justified in either case. Let us just address the narrow question: Is anger is automatic by nature or is it a result of conditioning? Is the anger uncontrollable or can it be suppressed?

My observation from thirty plus years of living and observing, is that anger arises when you have two elements: First, you need to be conditioned to feel that a certain action is an affront against you. Second, you need to believe that you have the power to fight back.

One time at work, a peer publicly mocked some computer code that I had written many years ago. I flared up in anger and counter attacked. I knew my peer had threatened my status, and I needed to make him pay a cost in order to prevent further attacks.1 But when a boss calls me out, the anger response is often not there. Often, there is the sheepish chuckle, “Yeah, that was long ago, I messed that up. I’m definitely not still making those kind of mistakes.”

Teenagers will get angry at their parents for small slights. But they will not get angry with friends for the same slights. Teenagers know they can get angry at their parents, and suffer no consequence. If they unleashed the same obnoxious outrage upon friends, they would soon be friendless. The different responses are not conscious – knowledge of the power relationship is internalized, and the anger arises from subconscious calculations.

In the Mad Man days, if the office big man makes a sexualized joke to the secretary, she giggles or blushes. She had been conditioned to accept it, and getting angry would only get her fired. In the modern world, if the office schlub makes some sexualized joke, the woman will get outraged. She has been conditioned that such language is offensive, and she has the legal and social power to make the schlub pay for his impudence.2

This anger dynamic applies to larger groups and to rioting. At the height of the Jim crow era, at the height of overt white-on-black racism, a race riot meant white people attacking black people. When Jews were oppressed, the pogroms were against the Jews. The most oppressed people do not riot. It was only when policing got liberalized in the 1960’s, when overt oppression of black people was greatly reduced, that young black men started instigating riots.

The suppression of the Nazis after World War II, and the suppression of racism in America starting in the 1950’s, are two prime examples of changing behavior via the iron fist. In Germany, the American occupiers did not try to reason with Nazis. They outlawed making any sign or salute of the Nazi past. They rewrote the textbooks. The ostracized members of the old parties. In the American south, liberals did not try to address the grievances of southern whites who were concerned with crime, bad schools, and general vulgarity of black culture. They changed the laws so that black people could sue any business that allowed racial slurs at the workplace. The textbooks were rewritten, new cultural narratives imposed. In both cases, raw force was used to enact the changes. In both cases, suppression worked to an amazing degree. 3

Similarly, outbreaks of rioting are orthogonal to any justified grievances. Riots can arise from innumerable trigger points: real grievance, fake grievance, losing a sports championship, winning a sports championship, an exciting rock concert, a canceled rock concert. People riot if they percieve a greveience, or they can riot to keep another group down.

In general, young men riot because it is fun. Rioting gives an adrenaline rush, it arouses the senses, it is a thrill. Rioting merely requires a gathering of young men who are in a heightened emotional state. Once a few people get away with some destructive act, others join in. A herd immunity, a sense of safety in numbers takes over, and the riots spiral out of control.

I was in downtown Boston in 2007 when the hometown Celtics won the basketball title. Crowds of young men took over the streets, yelling and chanting. It was mostly all in fun, but a few got destructive, tearing down signs, jumping on cars, all while the crowd cheered them on.

When the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, the police had wised up. Riot cops were out in full force. Lines of body armored cops blocked off roads and prevented rowdy fans from passing through to the main meeting points. It was like a scene out of dystopian movie. You were not allowed to stop and loiter; you were not allowed to gather in groups; you were told sternly by scary looking people to move along. And sure enough, no riots.

In Atlanta in 1906, whites were angry about black-on-white crime. They rioted, burned buildings and killed dozens of blacks. In the past few years in Philadelphia there have been a spate of savage black-on-white crimes: A gang of thugs smashed the face of a 64-year-old Vietnam vet. A trio of teens kidnapped and raped a young white woman. Three teenagers attacked a cabbie and his passenger while yelling racial slurs. In March a 51 year old white man was killed while walking his dog, as he pleaded for the attackers not to shoot him.

Yet despite these heinous crimes, there have been no white riots in Philadelphia. Why? First, urban whites in 2015 are a domesticated, white-collar people, who are much less violent than the roughnecks of the South a century ago. Second, newspapers go out of their way to not mention race. Papers report these murders as isolated incidencents and do not create a narrative; papers keep emotions low. Thus no emotional heightening, no coordination, no riots. This contrasts sharply to how Atlanta newspapers in 1906 handled these crimes: “Certain newspapers in Atlanta, taking advantage of popular feeling, kept the race issue constantly agitated, emphasing Negro crimes with startling headlines. One newspaper even recommended the formation of organisations of citizens in imitation of the Ku Klux movement of rescontruction days.” When newspapers fan the flames, and the authorities back down, you get riots. When newspapers stay silent, no riots.

Let us return to the Ferguson question. Was there a real grievance? Why did the riots really happen? What was the real way to prevent them?

We now know that “‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ was built on a lie”. A preponderance of the evidence shows that Michael Brown robbed a store, was stopped for breaking the law, tried to take the cops gun, and was shot while charging the officer. Michael Brown did not die because he was black, he did not die because of police brutality, he died because of his criminal and aggressive behavior. The primary blame lies with the social and institutional forces that allowed Michael Brown to reach adulthood while thinking that he could rob a store and assault a cop without suffering consequences.

Now there is a real problem with policing in black communities. Police forces are not well managed. Police officers are too often bullies. Unlike service employees in the private sector, who all get measured on ability to help, officers rarely suffer career consequences for bullying. Jerk cops exist everywhere, they were certainly prevalent in my suburban town growing up. Second, underclass black communities have a crime problem, which means the sheer number of police encounters is quite high. Bringing in outsiders to settle disputes is always going to be hazardous and full of friction. Growing up, we never called the police in my neighborhood, that would be the nuclear option, because we all knew police were scary people. We rarely had any crime or conflict, and we settled disputes ourselves.

The problem of high black crime rates, and the problem of friction between young black men and the police, is a problem everywhere. The Ferguson police did not arrest black citizens at a higher rate than any other city in America – it is firmly middle of the pack. So if black youths are justified in burning down Ferguson, then every city in America should be burnt.4

There are problems, but rioting has absolutely nothing to do with fixing it. The riots did not target anyone who was plausible at fault for the condition of black people. The riots made everyone in Ferguson much worse off. Home prices in Ferguson have halved since the riots.

The riots happened because social media, national news, and activist groups all fanned the flames for weeks and weeks. Democrat aligned parties spread agitprop, hoping that it would increase black voter turnout for the midterms. George Soros bank-rolled activist groups to the tune of $33 million . The New York Times ran 106 articles on this small Missouri city.

After the first round of riots, the protesters and the media denounced “police militarization”, and blamed it for causing the protests to escalate into violent riots. Before the grand jury results were released, the police agreed to many rules of engagement. The police were told to limit their intervention in order to prevent any further incidents and escalation. The National Guard was called up – but then placed far outside the city while the rioters went unmolested. A private militia came in to defend the stores - the Oath Keepers - but they were told to get out or face arrest.

The claim that the riots happened because of police over-reaction was a pernicious myth. The truth is the opposite - the riots happened because they were allowed to happen. Editorials, like the one quoted at the start of this article, absolved the violent actors of blame, and created a condition of radioactive critical mass. Then the withdrawal of the police made the riots possible, just as withdrawing the control rods from nuclear reactor makes a meltdown happen.

Large public gatherings on the fateful night should not have been allowed at all, since it was obvious there was no way to stop rioting without violent force. The First Amendment is a limitation on the U.S. Congress banning assembly on private property. It does not mean that city governments must allow mob gatherings on city streets at any time of the night. The police should have cordoned off the main meeting places, prevented gatherings of groups of people, and violently dispersed those who refused to obey orders.

The broader story is one of how truth gets shaped by political alliances. The writers of the New York Times generally see themselves as allied with the oppressed black community. They view déclassé whites as being the problem, as a dangerous political adversary. So when a person on the blue team tweets a clip from John Oliver castigating the militarized police, or tweets a heartfelt article about some guy getting his camera broken by the police during the protests, those tweets gets retweeted. But when someone on the blue team tweets something counter to the blue narrative, that does not get retweeted or spread around. People will say, “You may be right, but we should only talk about this privately, lest the other team use this against us.” The result is that most people, including New York Times writers, live in an echo chamber where their team does no wrong, the other team is always at fault.

When political enemies of the blue team behave badly, the New York Times does not write editorials about how the grievances must be understood and how the true causes of the unrest must be found. Rather, it says the enemies must be crushed, and it summons the full force of law and social pressure. And this actually works. But when allies behave badly, excuses are made, and editorials like the one at the top of this essay are written.

My view is that this dynamic is poisonous, deadly, and needs to stop. I don’t care about the red team winning or the blue team winning. What I care about is sanity. The burning of Ferguson was due to political polarization and insanity. The sooner we can wake up to this, the sooner we can figure out how to fix it. If more people can react to events according the guidelines I laid out in my first post, (in which you neither make excuses for nor tolerate anyone who behaves badly while citing a grievance), such tragedies can be avoided in the future.


Since I wrote the original post riots again broke out in Baltimore. The reader has no doubt seen the videos of rioters attacking people, looting buildings, setting fires, and cutting firehoses.

As fits the theory of rioting, the riots happened because it is fun to riot, and the police stood idle while the mob got out of control.

One journalist on the scene later recounted the events:

This reminded of London in 2011. It was not so much a mass outpouring of anger, but a day when all of the normal rules [didn’t apply]. You saw people carrying shopping carts of booze, and drinking and smoking the streets. There is something kind of festive in the classical sense, a carnival, where everything was out upside down.

Another witness describes the outbreak and how the police allowed it to happen:

All of a sudden, beer bottles and cans, and other projectiles were lobbed by the protesters into the crowds of fans. To get those projectiles, the protesters stole them forcibly from the bartenders and vendors set up outside each of those three bars. One beer can whizzed by my brother’s face, missing him by about six inches, and more flew all over the crowded area.

The crowd of protesters then stopped a blue station wagon carrying a white family as they tried to drive past Pickles, Bullpen and Sliders along a narrow one-way stretch between the bars and the main road. As a horde of them smashed their open and closed fists on the hood of the car—while impeding them by standing in front of them—the driver backed up on the one way pass in a desperate attempt to get out of dodge. Then, stopped on the other side with nowhere to go, protesters ripped open the passenger door of the car and began reaching around inside the vehicle. As hundreds of people looked on, including several police officers who didn’t engage the violent protesters, the white woman in the front seat—middle-aged and a little heavyset with dark hair—was visibly terrified.

My brother, at this point, was screaming at the group of five or so police officers. “Why aren’t you doing anything? They’re hurting people! They’re hurting people! They’re violent!” he yelled at them as they continued ignoring him and not engaging or attempting to stop the violence.

The police had their hands tied by the political leadership, and the city was allowed to burn.


I was recently reading about the riots in Detroit in 1967, and we see the same dynamic at work. The police were prevented from stopping the riots. The following is an excerpt from a memoir by a police officer who was on the ground at the time:

The Kercheval mini-riot of the year before had been quickly and successfully handled by the police and on that basis a unit of men in riot gear was sent down 12th to disperse the crowd. But the Kercheval riot was less organized, less attended and there was a strong community presence as preachers walked the streets and encouraged people to retreat to their homes.

Their plan was to come from both ends of 12th one side with the motor division and one side mounted on horses to squeeze the rioters but before they got started they were told to stand down. Rioters, meanwhile, were able to elude the law by cutting through yards and hiding in foliage and by noon the riot included West Grand Boulevard, the Lodge Freeway, Davidson and Livernois Streets. Fearing that force would escalate the riot the police were ordered by the mayor and his advisors not to shoot the looters and so without retribution, rioting and the burning of buildings increased and things got worse. Firefighters refused to make runs in the rioting areas fearing attacks by the troublemakers. The police were not in control.

The police were never in control. From the beginning the police had been bypassed of their authority and expertise by the politicians. Governor Romney had brought the state National Guard down on Sunday but did not deploy them worried over insurance coverage for the victims of the rioters. Apparently some home owner policies do not pay for damage incurred because of war or riot. This also contributed to the growth of the riot. On Sunday evening though, convinced by the suburban mayors to do something to prevent the rioters from moving out to the suburbs and long AFTER the riot had escalated, the Michigan National Guard were released into to the rioting areas. These men used firepower to such an extent that many deaths ensued. Making that worse was the fact that these men were all white and poorly trained and scared of being thrown into a riot of this magnitude. Early on Monday President Johnson became involved by ordering paratroopers who had served in Vietnam to be on hold at the State Fairgrounds at 8 mile and Woodward. LBJ then ordered General Throckmorton to drive the rioting streets of Detroit and report back. Cyrus Vance was there in his position as Deputy Secretary of Defense and together they ordered the lights turned off downtown. Complaints changed their minds and they were turned back on. Then both cops and looters shot them out.

Sending the National Guardsmen into the city proper was later criticized as escalating the violence. But as was said earlier, the National Guard was not seen until AFTER the riot had escalated. Tanks and machine guns were also brought in and 48 hours later the rioting was under control. There are many conflicting reports of the chronology of events during the riot and many fingers pointing blame in different places. The last major fire of the riot was on Friday, July 28 and the troops were withdrawn by Saturday the 29th.

The raid was unplanned and opportunistic but the riot was definitely a plan. Two weeks earlier, Judge George Edwards of the federal 6th circuit court had called Mayor Cavanaugh and told him succinctly “you will have a riot in your city either this weekend or next.” This information came from intelligence via the Justice Department. Other cities across our nation had been dealing with riots, but Cavanaugh apparently replied that Detroit was the most integrated of cities and doing well, thank you very much.


After serving twelve hour shifts, men were allowed to return home during the riots. On one of these trips home, I was driving through Highland Park and after exiting the freeway, I was on Hamilton Avenue. Suddenly, without any warning, the back window of my station wagon was blown out by gunfire. I bailed out and got underneath the car again and stayed put until I was rescued by the Highland Park Police. The suburb of Highand Park had a black mayor by the name of Robert Blackwell. At the beginning of the riots, Mayor Blackwell announced that Highland Park would brook no rioting or damage to property and anyone caught doing those things would be shot. He armed his men and led them down Hamilton. He did meet rioters, but no one took him on. As far as I know, I was the only one who had property damaged in Highland Park. A tough stance early on seemed to be the ticket for Highland Park.

Later on during the riot, I took a patrol unit to drive the streets under the command of the Youth Bureau. This was an opportunity to see what was happening on the streets. Many of the places, looted and burned, were Jewish owned businesses in the ghetto. I don’t know why the Jewish owned businesses were targeted and I will never know why. The streets were full of trash, broken glass, clothing, small fires and people wandering like zombies. It was surreal.

I know that there were more people killed during the riots than reported. I had a reason to go to the Wayne County Morgue myself and I counted more bodies than what was announced via the news media. The damage in lives and dollars was apparent immediately, but the aftermath is still visible today, almost fifty years later. Another casualty of the riot was the retirement of Paul Donnelly who had been in charge of the motor division and had waited in the early morning hours for the order to move on 12th street. He felt strongly that the riot could have ended then and there had they been allowed to squeeze the rioters. He was sick that his men had not been allowed to save the city from all that ensued. Detroit has never recovered. People left their homes in Detroit and moved to the suburbs, further segregating the city. Businesses closed, buildings were abandoned and never repaired.

  1. My response was something to effect of: "This piece of code was transferred to your team years ago. Why don't you fix the f**ing thing instead of whining about it?" The peer never mocked my code again.

  2. Wait, am I arguing that we should go back to the Mad Man days? That is not my argument. Rather, my point is that a company or a society should choose its set of norms, and then condition people to fit them. Once those norms are chosen, it should not let them be changed by those who are easily outraged or offended. An organization should not accept the argument that the offended cannot control their anger or response, because they absolutely can.

  3. Note this is not to say that any sort of suppression always works (half-hearted suppression is often worse then no suppression at all). Nor is to say that real grievances must always be ignored. But the general point remains - if someone is acting out because of a trumped up grievance, or is unleashing fury disprortionate to the grievance, or is taking out anger against innocent bystanders, then the proper reaction is suppressing with an iron fist, not appeasment, not trying to understand their anger, not trying to make excuses.

  4. Blacks are arrested at much higher rates in Ferguson and in all U.S. cities. But the arrest rates generally match reports of race in crime victimization reports. There is not convincing evidence that the high arrest rate is due to bias on the part of the police.