I am very very reluctant to comment on the current situation in Ferguson Missouri and elsewhere. I feel so astoundingly unqualified. As a middle-aged white male, I cannot bring anything like any personal history to this situation. But an event that I thought couldn’t possibly support political polarization has become politically polarized, and I will try to comment.
First of all, I’m not sure it’s possible for the Ferguson chief of police to bungle this situation more completely. Last Thursday, thanks in part to the timely intervention of Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, the situation in Ferguson had begun to calm down. Friday morning, Thomas Jackson, the Ferguson police chief, released video footage of what appeared to be a strong-arm convenience store robbery, claiming that Michael Brown was the main suspect in that event. As Ezra Klein put it, that footage was completely irrelevant to Brown’s shooting, or to the actions of Officer Wilson, the policeman who shot him. It was, in fact, a transparent attempt to co-opt the narrative regarding Brown’s character. And it meant that the already volatile atmosphere in Ferguson exploded over the weekend.
(Jackson’s handling of this case, BTW, couldn’t have been less helpful. In our household, in fact, ‘Ferguson police chief’ has become synonymous with foolishness; as in “well, she’s plenty stupid, but is she Ferguson police chief stupid?”)
There remain dueling narratives in the case. This story does a reasonably good job of sorting them out. But the subsequent actions of the Ferguson police all tend to support, at least, this conclusion; that the Ferguson police aren’t used to having their authority questioned, and react badly when it is questioned. The militarized uniforms and armaments facing unarmed protestors, the arbitrary arrests of journalists, the hostility to anyone attempting to film them, and the pathetic attempts by Chief Jackson to leak information to make Michael Brown look like a thug, they’re all classically defensive overreactions. Watching the cops react to the protests is eye-opening.
What everyone seems to agree is that Brown was jaywalking. A policeman stopped him, they had a confrontation in which Brown reached through the police car window, or was dragged in. A scuffle ensued, in the car. Brown broke away, ran off, and the officer fired at him. He turned, faced the officer, put his hands up. The police narrative is that Brown then charged the officer. Most eyewitnesses agree that Brown had surrendered, arms in the air, and that he did not charge the police vehicle. At the very least, I’d have to say that the most credible evidence points to the shooting as a homicide, requiring, at the least, the filing of criminal charges against Officer Wilson.
But what’s so disheartening about this is the hopelessness and impotent outrage and misdirected fury within the Ferguson black community. If the town of Ferguson is two thirds black, and yet all elected offices in the town are held by whites (except for one City Council member), what happens in city elections? Last election in Ferguson, voter turnout was 12%. And it all becomes clearer.
Why vote if it won’t make a difference? Why engage politically if it doesn’t matter? Why try to succeed, if the only outcome you ever see is failure?
What’s gone wrong? Why does Dr. King’s vision seem so far away? Why are so many young black men in prison, why do so many young black women have children out of wedlock, why is the African-American family in such crisis?
I don’t know. I don’t know what ideas are even out there. I do know that the Bill O’Reilly ‘black people just need to be moral, go to school, go to work, stop having kids, and stop committing crimes’ elderly white male conservative nonsense couldn’t be more misguided. Our society needs to do more, provide more opportunities, incarcerate fewer kids. And stop pointing the finger, blaming the victim, making young black people the Other against which Virtuous White American must always contend.
And for kids to be constantly, incessantly hassled by the police isn’t helping. I haven’t experienced that kind of harassment in my life, because I’m an old white guy. I have African-American friends, and they say that hassles with the cops are a routine, regular part of their existence.
And maybe there’s this: Every morning, after nights of rioting and looting and protests and violence, young black men and women go out into the streets of Ferguson with brooms and shovels and clean up the streets. It’s their city, and they don’t want it trashed. That’s a force for good, if it could be harnessed.
But for starters, train cops better. Reinstitute community policing. Make every polcie vehicle carry a camera; make police work entirely transparent. Let the police/citizen relationship return to what it should be; non-adversarial, cooperative, Officer Friendly ready, always, to help. And get out the vote. There’s a Ferguson police chief, for example, who needs to go.