The perfect storm of urban circumstances has enflamed the small suburb of Ferguson, Mo., at a time when the nation feels racial rift from every corner.
How the people of Ferguson answer will go a long way to uniting or dividing us on what seems to be an unceasing issue of race and justice.
We all know the story too well. Unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot six times, two times in the head, in a chase involving a white police officer, who apparently had word that Brown had been involved in a robbery, the stolen items being cigars.
The national social implications of the case exceed those at stake in the Trayvon Martin case. Brown was shot by a police officer, not a citizen crime watcher like George Zimmerman. The nature of the Ferguson shooting seems excessive, but other details remain unclear.
The sound of the police silence on this case early on was deafening. For several days, Ferguson police refused to name the officer involved and declined to provide even a short summary of the event. Even a little information on the case would have prevented the incentive for a national protest. But as the days wore on, well-meaning protestors as well as agitators descended on Ferguson.
Concerned local citizens were clearly part of the protests. But as Missouri State Patrol captain Ron Johnson who is in charge of the scene notes, those throwing Molotov cocktails, rocks and firing shots were not from Ferguson. Some of the most violent protestors arrested are from out of state. Only four people of the 57 arrested on Monday were from Ferguson, according to police reports.
The people of Ferguson now have the power to turn this into a peaceful protest, but a protest nonetheless. They must meet with the agitators and make very clear that the violence is not the way to justice. And the non-violent local protestors need to make clear to the agitators that their behavior and presence is “not welcome,” says Eugene O’Donnell, a former prosecutor and police officer who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
He told that such a conversation would go a long way to quelling some of the violence.
Another expert, Thomas Nolan, also a former police officer in Boston and professor at State University of New York, told the AP that police have to scale back the military looking style of their operation and reduce harsh methods of crowd control like the so-called sound cannons.
Ferguson police and the State Patrol also have to meet with the non-violent protesters and listen to their concerns. Already, Ferguson city leaders are vowing to increase the number of black police officers they have on their force. Currently only 3 of 53 officers are black.
Finally, the media must play a significant role in bringing about peace. That doesn’t mean it turns its cameras and notebooks away from the violence, but only that it turn those cameras and notebooks to the efforts at peacekeeping as well.
The violent protests make for good pictures and video, but responsible media must also show sides of the story where progress is being made on reducing the violence.
It’s easy, and almost automatic, for media to make these protests larger than they are. That will only enflame the situation and play into the hands of those outside agitators who are counting on just that kind of media coverage.
As is the case in many of these situations, the well-meaning people of Ferguson have to take back their community and take control of it. Their leaders must listen and respond. Justice will prevail if we make sure it can.
— The Free Press of Mankato (Minnesota)