The fires are out in Ferguson, but anger still smolders around the nation.
It is not just the anger of many blacks who feel black youth and men are treated unfairly by police and sometimes unjustly killed by them. It is also the anger of many whites who have no sympathy or patience for those who blame their circumstances on racism and feel justified in rioting.
This anger flared and then exploded in Ferguson, Mo., but it lives everywhere. The grand jury’s decision to not indict Darren Wilson, the white Ferguson police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown Jr., an unarmed black 18-year-old, spurred more than 170 protests around the country, including in the Triangle. But unlike the arson, window breaking and stone throwing in Ferguson on Monday night, the protests elsewhere were mostly peaceful.
Along with those who took to the streets, many more debated in homes as they gathered for Thanksgiving and the subject turned to who should bear the guilt for Brown’s death. Was it the fault of Brown, the officer or the system?
No doubt the answers broke largely along racial lines, but there are whites who understand the anger of African-Americans and blacks who share the irritation of many whites over what they see as the broad and unfair citation of racism as universal explanation and excuse.
‘An American problem’
President Barack Obama, son of a white mother and a black father, took a place in the middle, a place of unity. He criticized those who destroyed property and exploited the unrest, but he stressed that Ferguson’s lesson should not be only about race. It should be about country.
“If any part of the American community doesn’t feel welcomed or treated fairly, that’s something that puts all of us at risk, and we all have to be concerned about,” he said. “The problem is not just a Ferguson problem, it is an American problem.”
The president’s words were in accord with what the Rev. Martin Luther King said in March of 1968, just weeks before an assassin’s bullet would ignite violent protests. “It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots,” King said. “It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Desire to be heard
That is the message that comes out of Ferguson, a desire to be heard, to have grievances acknowledged and, where possible, rectified. Reporting on Ferguson after the shooting illustrated the city’s stark divide between a population of low-income blacks and an overwhelmingly white police force. And it showed how police and municipal courts joined in ticketing and fining residents over minor offenses, burdening people with debts they couldn’t pay, which led to further legal trouble.
Ferguson was a tinderbox. A white officer firing 12 bullets at an unarmed black man was the match.
What’s needed now is to examine that fire with a goal of preventing others. That should begin with a federal civil rights review of how Ferguson’s police and St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch handled the case, especially having grand jurors basically try the case in secret. A charge and a trial would have better served the truth and the public.
Beyond a review of the case, broader steps are needed. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has made the right move in forming a commission to study the underlying racial, legal and economic conditions that led to the eruption in Ferguson but are hardly unique to that place.
Finally, the U.S. Justice Department should conduct a review of police tactics. The review would look for ways to step back from the military trend in urban policing and find more ways to make police welcome rather than resented in low-income neighborhoods.