There was something obscene about the belated responses from Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and President Obama, most disturbingly in their omissions, five days into the unrest in Ferguson.
“This is a place where people work, go to school, raise families, and go to church,” Nixon said on Aug. 14. “A diverse community. A Missouri community. But lately it’s looked a little bit more like a war zone, and that’s unacceptable.”
What he might have said, if he were honest with himself and the people of Missouri, is that the explosion of anger in Ferguson reflects the inevitable outcome when African Americans in general, and young, black men in particular are systematically shut out of opportunities for education and employment, and then harassed and profiled by the police. Or worse.
And speaking in serene tones during a break from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Obama said, “Now is the time for peace and calm in the streets of Ferguson. Now is the time for an open and transparent process to see that justice is done.”
The only decent thing to say after the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old black man who was shot by a police officer and left lying lifeless in the street for hours afterwards, is that the killing of young, black men is unacceptable and must stop. It is painfully obvious that the majority of society, including sworn members of law enforcement, consider their lives to be less valuable, as evidenced by police departments that reflexively justify their officers’ use of deadly force and juries like one in Sanford, Fla. that excused the murder of Trayvon Martin. It must stop.
MSNBC journalist and Wake Forest University professor Melissa Harris-Perry recently read the names of unarmed young men of color who were have been killed by the police. Some are well known, others not so much, but for anyone who’s paying attention, these deaths transpire with startling frequency. Sean Bell, Queens, NY, 2006. Oscar Grant, Oakland, Calif., 2009. Jonathan Ferrell, Charlotte, 2013; Jesus Huerta, Durham, 2013; Eric Garner, New York, 2014.
Violence and destruction of property are wrong and counterproductive. But it’s understandable that the protests would take on renewed fury when elected leaders are so clearly oblivious to the source of pain that lit the match to the powder keg. Of course, shooting rubber bullets and tear gas indiscriminately at peaceful and violent protesters alike and arresting journalists doesn’t help.
Ever even-handed, the president added, “There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. There is also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully expressing their First Amendment rights.”
We don’t know all the details of the Brown shooting, and the clashing accounts of witnesses and police, along with the results of the autopsy, are too complicated to get into here. But the police’s foot-dragging in releasing critical details such as the number of times Brown was shot and the name of the officer responsible for the shooting could only fuel a familiar feeling among protesters that a cover-up and reflexive vindication of the officer were underway.
A gross imbalance of power allows police to kill citizens with a sense of impunity and allowed the police in Ferguson to brazenly violate the First Amendment rights of protesters who appropriately expressed outrage. And an almost complete lack of power led young people in the St. Louis suburbs who saw in Brown a reflection of themselves, or a brother or cousin, to resort to violence. Violence is the predictable result when normal civil discourse begins to feel futile.
It’s jarring to consider that Ferguson’s population is 67 percent black, but only one of seven members of city council are black, and only 6 percent of the police force is black. If the composition of city council were anywhere near proportionate to the city’s population, it’s reasonable to assume that black elected officials would have pressured the police department to diversify its force. It’s a safe bet that black council members would have been in a position to mediate by reining in the heavy-handed police response while also urging patience to angry citizens.
Luckily, African Americans hold proportionate representation on the city councils of Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point. But visit East Green Drive in High Point, North Liberty Street in Winston-Salem or Randleman Road in Greensboro. Observe the hopelessness of people who are idling with low education attainment and stunted economic opportunity while cycling through addiction and incarceration. Take stock of how utterly alienated from civic organizations and the political process a lot of folks are.
If a spark was lit at the right time, could a fire rage here?