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Even when they are right, they are wrong

Updated: Jun 4, 2022

Evaluate social unrest events in the context of the underlying root causes.

Jeff Hulett, August 8, 2020

Social unrest related events periodically bubble up to the national consciousness via our national media. Two particularly notable examples are:

  • In 2006, members of the Duke University Lacrosse team were accused of raping a dancer at a lacrosse team party.

  • In 2014, Michael Brown, Jr was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

In both cases, the defendants were ultimately exonerated of wrongdoing. In other words, the events themselves and in isolation, were judged to be within the law and, by extension, not legally associated with social injustice.

Regarding Duke Lacrosse: The dancer and the local District Attorney lied about the rape. In June 2007, the DA was disbarred for "dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation."

Regarding Ferguson: A Grand Jury found there was insufficient evidence to pursue the police officer for using excessive force when defending against or apprehending the suspected criminal.

Also, these examples served as a “triggering event,” as they triggered demonstrations, increased law enforcement activity, the involvement of social justice organizations, and press coverage by national media outlets.

In both cases, the members of the Duke Lacrosse team and the Ferguson police officer were cleared of charges.

However, this misses the point. The deeper questions are, why were the residents of these communities so quick to demonstrate outrage, so willing to demonstrate over an extended period of time, and so unwilling to wait for due process for an evaluation of the triggering event? All the while, the triggering event was ultimately found NOT to support the APPARENT reason for outrage in the first place.

These are just two of many similar examples. These examples can be generalized with the following social justice “tip of the iceberg” characteristics:

  • An event occurs that acts like a trigger for past social justice frustrations. This motivates local citizens to demonstrate;

  • An event is escalated by social justice political organizations, like the NAACP;

  • An event is reported by national media and exacerbates public outrage in advance of investigation and legal vetting (i.e., “Trial By Press”);

  • Upon legal investigation, vetting, and evaluation, a triggering event is ultimately judged in favor of individuals representing a social justice oppressor (like white privilege or the police in the case of the prior examples).

To be fair, there are certainly examples where the triggering event does support outrage. George Floyd comes to mind.

Moving beyond the immediate event trigger, the underlying causes generally lie in a complex web of prior social justice issues, where the triggering event relates to “a straw that broke the camel’s back.” Some of the underlying complexities may include:

  • In the case of Ferguson, a likely factor is related to strained relations between the community and the police department. Communities with strong community policing; as characterized by trusting relationships between police and community, and that create a sense of community investment in their own welfare; tend to avoid event flash points as occurred in Ferguson.

  • The availability of guns and a culture of gun usage;

  • A bail system that disproportionately disfavors the poor, including racial minorities; and

  • Past and current discrimination against black and other racial minorities creates a negative environment between the police departments and the racially diverse communities they serve.

There are certainly other underlying issues exerting influence and that may lead to a triggering event. The point is, careful evaluation and consideration of the underlying issues are necessary to uncover the underlying root causes.

Drawing Conclusions

Below are some suggestions for considering sensationalized event triggers that periodically bubble to the surface of national attention.

  1. Before drawing a conclusion, wait until the emotion subsides and the facts and circumstances have been investigated and evaluated. Drawing conclusions as isolated facts become known runs the risk of an error of omission, resulting from confirmation bias. I.e., drawing erroneous conclusions from an incomplete fact base and influenced by existing individual beliefs. When developing beliefs, we are susceptible to a double-counting of evidence. If we hear from multiple sources regarding a particular issue, it tends to reinforce the criteria leading to a belief. This is double counting when related to the same criteria. Waiting enables a fair evaluation and elimination of potential double counting.

  2. Be careful when evaluating information provided by national media or social justice political organizations. There are often agendas and motivations that may lack alignment with reporting the complete fact set related to the event. For example, the national media is financially motivated by reporting information that drives readership revenue. They may be motivated by the sensational more than the complex context underlying the local community.

  3. When local demonstrations occur, resolve to understand the historical context behind the event trigger. The issues driving the outrage are rarely limited to the event trigger. The historical issues are often complex and represent the true problem to be solved. Often, issues of trust between groups in conflict are in play. "As detailed in our report, this investigation found a community that was deeply polarized, and where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents,” said Attorney General Eric Holder regarding the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department investigation.

  4. If you are motivated to drive change, search out the true problem to be solved. It is usually complex and requires a deep understanding of the community dynamics. Make a commitment not to be fooled by simple or sensational explanations.


Social unrest and demonstration are very much a part of the American tradition. It is within our rights to demonstrate or otherwise register our collective displeasure about a particular issue. It is also our responsibility to evaluate the underlying root causes of social unrest. Event triggers are often the “tip of the iceberg.” The associated underlying issues are generally much larger, complex and harder to see. However, we should refrain from drawing conclusions until all related information has been revealed. Involvement and understanding are important to solving the root causes.

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