|Police in riot gear. (Photo from Google images)|
“What does this have to do with events in Ferguson,” Missouri, you might well ask. For those who haven’t been following one of the hottest stories in the U.S. these days, on August 9, in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, a police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed an unarmed young black man named Michael Brown. There are conflicting accounts of just what happened, with the fact that Brown was unarmed the only real point of agreement. Other facts, though, are chilling – especially in the aftermath of this tragedy. A private pathologist’s examination of Brown’s body found that he’d been shot at least six times, including two times in the head, while the county coroner’s report said he’d been shot six to eight times. The local police haven’t covered themselves in glory in the handling of this case from day one, and in particular in dealing with the violent demonstrations that erupted almost immediately after the incident. What appears to be selective release of information designed to tarnish the victim’s reputation, while withholding other information, the police’s aggressive stance vis-à-vis sometimes peaceful demonstrators, arrest and detention of journalists, etc. The list, unfortunately, goes on.
It would be easy to take one side or the other and pass judgment from afar on the situation in Ferguson. A town where 67 percent of the citizens are black, but where, of the 53 police officers on the town police department, only three are black, Ferguson has a history of poor relations between the citizens and the police. A recent racial profiling report from the Missouri Attorney General’s office, for instance, found that last year, innocent blacks in Ferguson were much more likely to be searched when detained by police than whites. The report found that 21.7 percent of black people searched were found to be carrying contraband (the specific nature of the contraband was not identified), which means that four of out of every five were innocent. Searches of whites during the same period produced contraband 34 percent of the time. In Ferguson, blacks are also far more likely to be arrested than whites. Last year, 92.7 percent of all people arrested in Ferguson were black.
This is limited information, but viewing it, a pattern begins to emerge. A friend of mine decried the citizen reaction to this incident, claiming that police were justified in their militant response – deploying with body armor and military equipment obtained under the Pentagon’s 1033 program that provides excess military equipment to local police to aid them in their war on terror and drugs. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this equipment has ended up being used just as it has in Ferguson, against citizens. A chilling image from this incident – CNN footage showed a police officer shouting at protesters, “bring it, you fucking animals! Bring it!” The rules of engagement for use of this equipment on U.S. streets are less restrictive than they are for our military in the Afghanistan war zone. In fact, one of the requirements of the program is that those police forces receiving equipment must use it within one year or lose it. Thus, if they don’t encounter an al-Qaeda cell or a narco-army, they end up using it in routine police operations. That is truly scary, considering that there is no training that comes along with the gear.
But, I digress. In responding to my friend about the depth of citizen anger in Ferguson, while I do not condone criminal behavior, I must point out that most people don’t just go out and start riots. As was the case with the Los Angeles riots that erupted after police beat Rodney King, and the video tape of the beating aired nationwide, these things happen often as a result of anger and frustration built up over a long period of time. Sometimes, it’s a result of a gun being held at peoples’ heads too long, and some precipitating incident just pushes them over the edge. I worked in government for more than 50 years, and my sentiment is often with the authorities. It’s often a thankless job – pay is low, and the dangers are many.
As in the King incident, or the O.J. Simpson trial, views on this are likely to break down along racial lines – and, that’s unfortunate, for it’s likely to also obscure the truth – if in fact it ever emerges. With the competing investigations, local, state, and federal, there are likely to be slightly divergent findings, and we humans have an amazing ability to discount any inconvenient ‘fact’ that doesn’t accord with our preconceptions.
I, for one, would like to remove myself from the mainstream of humanity at this point and take the ‘wait and see’ position. Let the investigators to their work and then let’s objectively evaluate their findings. To the people of Ferguson I say, I understand your anger and frustration, but now is the time for calm not anger. To the police I say, your job is to protect and serve. When you view the citizens of your community as ‘the enemy,’ you set yourself up for failure.
I’ll go out on a limb with one finding of my own, though. What we have here is dysfunction – a dysfunctional community, and a dysfunctional police force – a situation that prevails in far too many communities in the U.S. these days, by the way. What has made them this way is unimportant. What is important is that both sides need to recognize the problem and then mutually agree to take the steps necessary to begin its resolution As for the rest of us, rather than engage in Monday-morning quarterbacking Ferguson, and taking sides in the dispute, maybe we need to around to assess our own environment.