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Part Two-Burning Down a Town
Friday, May 01, 2015

If you haven’t read Part One of this blog, please go back and read that first as none of this will make any sense otherwise.

 Here’s the thing. We all have emotional kinetic hills. Picture this: Your boss has been all over you since you first walked in the door this morning for reasons that make no sense. Your boss obviously hates you. When you open your lunch, instead of the potato you were going to cook in the microwave, you see a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You realize that you’ve sent your child to school with a raw potato and a stick of butter for lunch. You spend most of your lunch hour making frantic phone calls to ward off Child Protection Services. Traffic is awful on the way home. NPR is in the middle of pledge week.

 You finally make it home and drag yourself through the front door. Now, unbeknownst to you, your wife, for all kinds of different reasons, has had a similar day, and her current focus is on the fact that you haven’t mowed the grass in a timely manner. I’m sure you can see the problem.

 You have already been pushed up your emotional kinetic hill. Your wife’s tirade about the lawn is the sizzling hot Oxygen molecule that slams into you. You go over the hill, generating reaction products of loud noises and stomping feet. Your wife is at the top of her hill. She goes over with you and responds in kind. Voila, familial combustion.

 Let’s posit a different scenario. Your boss has praised you all day. Your boss loves you. Your wife has placed a note next to the cold potato promising enough future warmth to cook the potato and melt the butter. Traffic is light on the way home. “All Things Considered” has a riveting story about a child reunited with a lost puppy.

 You walk into the house and your wife jumps all over you about mowing the lawn. It’s a bit annoying, but you take it in stride and gather her in your arms, whispering in her ear, “I’m sorry you had a rough day. Would you like to go out for dinner after I mow the lawn?” Tears well up in her eyes and she sniffs a bit. “Okay,” she says.

 So here’s the next thing. Groups of people are exactly the same.

 The Department of Justice investigated the incidents at Ferguson, MO. Some news outlets emphasized the part of the report that found officer Darren Wilson innocent of any wrongdoing when he fatally shot Michael Brown. Other outlets emphasized a different section of the report. Here is a portion of the Table of Contents:


A. Ferguson’s Police Practices

1. FPD Engages in a Pattern of Unconstitutional Stops and Arrests in Violation of the Fourth Amendment

2. FPD Engages in a Pattern of First Amendment Violations

3. FPD Engages in a Pattern of Excessive Force in Violation of the Fourth Amendment

 You can read the whole thing at:

 If we are willing to accept officer Darren Wilson’s innocence, and I think we must, then we must also accept the apparently well documented, long-standing practice of harassment by the Ferguson Police of the African American community.

 And here’s the last thing. Every time someone was pulled over unnecessarily, every time someone was provoked by the police, every single incident in which a citizen was treated with less than complete respect had the effect of pushing the communal emotional ball up that hill.

 Each individual action seems like a small thing, but over the years, while no one was watching, the temperature in Ferguson was rising, and there was no way to dissipate the heat. There was no one there to take them in their arms and tell them it was okay or to let them know that it would get better. Because it wasn’t okay, and it wasn’t going to get better.

 The killing of an unarmed civilian in broad daylight by a police officer is a large match to be sure, but the tree was hot. It should come as no surprise that the community burst into flames.

 Chemical reactions have tipping points. People and communities have tipping points also. Safety can only be achieved by cooling the reactants, but heat will not dissipate from an insulated or isolated vessel, and there is no way to avoid the random spark or the accelerated Oxygen molecule.

 It’s interesting, and I hope instructive, to draw parallels between reaction kinetics and social unrest, but I don’t want to over-intellectualize the horror of urban riots. Lives are destroyed, businesses are ruined and recovery can take decades. I only hope that this view of things may have given some perspective and context to the unrest we are seeing today. It would take a great deal of energy and a long time to heat up an entire tree. It takes many years to bring a community to the point of rebellion.

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