Ferguson and the Thomas Theorem

On Predefining the Ferguson Protests


In 1928, sociologist W. I. Thomas (left) wrote, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” This has come to be known as The Thomas Theorem. It is an invaluable maxim for understanding social forces and interactions.

I fear that the Thomas Theorem may prove prophetic with regard to the Ferguson response to the coming grand jury verdict.

In this case, the planned protests are presumed to become a replay of the LA riots after the Rodney King trial. Police are planning on planning on meeting this challenge with their usual strategy, threatening overwhelming force. The National Guard is on stand-by. What happens when people are surrounded by paramilitary forces equipped with shields and batons? Lessons from the last time this tactic was used in Ferguson suggests that the consequent stress and uncertainty actually increases the possibility of violence. If the Ferguson police define the situation as meriting a paramilitary response going in, then it is very likely that a paramilitary response will be necessary.

One statement that I read caught my attention (the source is not linked as I never had an opportunity to save it). It was a bartender who had heard many people talk about expectations of the coming protest. He said that everyone was predicting that there will be violence; however, nobody was claiming that they would participate in violence. However, many people who are anticipating violence without having an interest in participating may choose to avoid the scene. This will increase the ratio of protestors who are willing to participate in violence. Again, the probability for violence increases by pre-defining the situation as violent.

Of course, there is hope. The relevant groups can prepare their active participants to avoid violence. Police can be trained to de-escalate potentially volatile situations. Activists can pre-empt potential hazards, train their core in peaceful resistance, and police themselves. One helpful possibility is for the police and activists to liaison and keep then networks of communication open. Activists can alert the police to those who may try to escalate the protest strategy, while the police can let the activists know when a segment is crossing the line. Of course, the communication between activists and police has not been the best, to say the least. Also, civil disobedience is intended to be inconvenient to the power structure.

Let’s hope that the stakeholders have planned for the worst and can pre-empt any potential violence. Either way, by defining the protests as almost inherently violent, we are setting the stage for the very violence we are trying to avoid.


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