The Washington Post

The conflicting online fundraisers for Ferguson make a perfect illustration of America’s identity debate

Demonstrators stand near the Buzz Westfall Justice Center where a grand jury will begin looking at the circumstances surrounding the fatal police shooting of teenager Michael Brown. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

When Ferguson police released the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown last week, thousands of protesters, activists and pundits called for his prosecution. But first on Facebook, and then on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe, a group of contrarians set upon another, opposite cause: To support Officer Darren Wilson, a man who, in the words of one $150 donor, was “just doing [his] job!”

In the four days since the fundraiser has been online, it’s raised nearly $142,000 from 3,500 people. Organizers have had to raise their funding goal three times to accommodate all the donations. And in the comments section, where donors can leave a message for Wilson along with their contribution, an entirely different take on Ferguson is unfolding.

“Stand proud brother, you did nothing wrong,” wrote one man who claimed to be a retired New York City detective. Another retired officer donated $500 from his pension.

“With all media backing Michael Brown, I donate to Wilson to ensure this becomes a fair and just trial,” wrote a second donor — this one from Norway.

“The times we live in,” bemoaned a third. “Good is evil and evil is good.”

This is not, of course, the first time that crowdfunding has been deployed in a highly charged situation — in fact, platforms like GoFundMe were arguably invented for that purpose. While Kickstarter, the godfather of the crowdfunding sites, has never allowed fundraisers for individuals or causes, GoFundMe was founded with an anything-goes attitude. If you need money for it, and “it” doesn’t “break any local laws” or “promote inappropriate content,” it’s probably okay by GoFundMe.

The site has seen fundraisers for Raffaele Sollecito, the other player in the Amanda Knox saga, at least two aspiring Mrs. Idahos, and a New York performance artist saving up for some “white privilege.” For what it’s worth, none of those causes met their goals.

In Ferguson, on the other hand, people are itching to donate. A memorial fund for Michael Brown has raised $129,000. A bus to take protesters from D.C. to Missouri has raised $2,500. But no cause has been more popular than that of Darren Wilson, which has been shared a whopping total of 16,000 times.

Why has Wilson’s page proved so wildly popular? That’s hard to say exactly. But donor after donor evokes the same justifications: support for law enforcement, religious conviction, or a belief that everyone should be “innocent until proven guilty.” Again and again, the big-money donors drop references to God, the “real America,” the meddling of the media, and the alleged cowardice or poor leadership of the president.

Of course, donors on either side represent only a small, self-selected minority: a group of people who (a) really, passionately care about the issues, and (b) care enough not only to donate, but to affix a comment to it. We don’t know how representative these opinions are or how keenly they’re felt in the population at large.

But we do know that, in a recent national survey, 80 percent of black respondents said Ferguson raised issues about race — while only 37 percent of white respondents agreed. And we certainly know that, far from a simple investigation into a police shooting, Ferguson has come to represent much greater existential issues.

Perhaps, just as all the dribbles of $5 or $10 or $20 donations add up to a sizeable fund for Wilson, all these tiny dialogues — in the comments sections, or over dining room tables — amount to a much larger illustration of the opposing narratives on justice and identity and race with which we, collectively, continue to struggle.

Caitlin Dewey is The Post’s digital culture critic. Follow her on Twitter @caitlindewey or subscribe to her daily newsletter on all things Internet. (



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Caitlin Dewey · August 21, 2014

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