What is the point in viewing and attempting to understand the events in Ferguson, Missouri, over the past few weeks? Is it about: 1) another unjustified killing of a black youth by a police officer; 2) an unruly teenager whose behavior escalated a situation that led to his death; 3) a history of bad relations between police and people of Ferguson; 4) rights of peaceful protestors violated by being treated as an enemy by militarized police; 5) some vandals and looters taking advantage of a “civil disturbance” to do damage and steal; or 6) the unsustainable failure of American cities to operate highly trained and disciplined police forces to “protect and serve” all the citizens in response to a diversity of threats?
A case could be made for each point as a valid concern for either police or citizens or both. Of course, what appears to be the evidence so far would suggest ranking some issues over others.
Everyone has a point of view. Our attention is usually directed by the perspective we bring to a situation. Point of view can be more powerful than evidence in directing our attention; it can shape the meaning of evidence. And our attention is drawn more to what angers us most than to what doesn’t. And then there’s the problem of what evidence we become aware of and how it is presented.
So it’s not surprising that some who see images and hear talking heads on television differentially focus on 1) whether Michael Brown’s killing by police was justified; 2) the broad public outrage expressed in peaceful protests; 3) the massively militaristic police over-reaction to the citizens of Ferguson peacefully exercising their first amendment rights to protest; or 4) the occasional bottle-throwing, window breaking or looting of a few stores by the “criminal element” or by “outside agitators.” But, all things considered, where should the public’s attention be focused and which of these phenomena should have been “presented” by the media as representing the essence of the situation?
The civil unrest in Ferguson Missouri was not simply about the unjustified police shooting and death of the young black man, Michael Brown. That was not the first instance of public perception of discriminatory or overly aggressive police behavior in the Saint Louis County municipalities. The shooting precipitated popular outrage in that context. The protests were clearly a response of outrage to “the last straw” of indignity felt by the black population of Ferguson. This killing and the insensitive institutional bungling and absurdly excessive show of force that followed eradicated any vestige of the public’s tolerance for police abuse, incompetence, and corruption. The black citizens of Ferguson had experienced decades of an ongoing pattern of a variety of abusive practices by law enforcement. My perspective: A police shooting of an unarmed person is never justified; but you have to look at the history and pattern of practices to understand the situation.
The Big Picture
The national media coverage reflects a modest recognition that the problem is more widespread than one small town. That small suburb of Saint Louis quickly became the symbol of that recognition. Subsequent reflections as to the wisdom of inundating local police departments with military equipment were the first I’d heard in the national media. Later analyses revealed similar patterns of mostly white police departments in mostly black towns and cities across the nation. Stories of similarly questionable police violence proliferate.
We hear a lot about bullying these days, in school, the work place, and on the streets of our cities. Aggression and violence seem to be increasingly dominant forms of self-expression. While they decry such behavior among children and adults, politicians usually support it among police. Police are trained, usually inadequately, to assert control and act with authority. That’s fine up to a point. But if no element of compassion is found, then trouble is more likely – female officers usually elicit more cooperation. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Police, who is black, was appointed commander of the multi-jurisdictional force that descended upon Ferguson. Born and raised there, his sense of empathic authority was immediately accepted by residents as a legitimate. But the massive military occupation stimulated a “criminal element” thought to be mostly from out of town, to begin breaking store windows and throwing bottles at police.
Getting the Point
It was not until after the massive military incursion that any word of vandalism or looting was heard. The initial citizen protests were pointedly peaceful. The fact that the military armed response from multiple jurisdictions was so incredibly extravagant, smacked of buffoonery, but nobody was laughing. The anger over the killing was matched by outrage over the militarized response by “authorities” to a peaceful protest exercising the right to speech. It is when tensions are highest that vandals and looters arrive on the scene.
And so it was in Ferguson. From the point of view of peaceful protestors, vandals and looters are spoilers who were distracting attention from their protest and their town. Some even stood guard at storefronts to protect them from the rowdies. Too many police were hyper vigilant, which is a problem in itself, especially considering their generally weak training. They conflated vandals with the legitimate protestors and lumped all together as a “criminal element.” Many police and most racists do not believe that people of color have the right to protest authority – it disturbs their sense of “law and order” – mostly order.
I was not surprised when a cop pointed an assault rifle at protesters and threatened to kill them if they didn’t move back. No, we do not live in a “post-racial” society. The obsession of many cops with whether a ‘subject’ of their interest is “failing to obey” reflects a sense that “law and order” override any concern for social justice. They see citizens as subordinates – except the rich and famous.
Should we be angry at looters? Sure, but they are a always a factor when a chaotic situation arises, whether hurricane, earthquake, or political crisis involving street protests; they are simply not the essential element of the “Ferguson syndrome.” Then what is? The complete breakdown of trust between citizens and police in communities of color in the U.S. is the essence of the societal crisis that Ferguson represents. Neither arrest and conviction of vandals and looters, nor the achievement of justice in the case of Michael Ferguson, will resolve the deeper issue or solve the underlying problem of police in America. To think otherwise is to miss the point.