What did you think when you first heard reports of violence in Ferguson? I mean, after the shooting death of Michael Brown? Did you ever for a moment think, "this is about more than just Michael Brown?"
I hate to say that. It's embarrassing to admit that I'm so jaded as to think "that's all" when a young man dies. Sorry. I'm just being honest.
I understand community grief and anger. I worry every time my son walks out the front door. I worry every day about son who lives with his mom. And endlessly about my son serving in the Navy. I've lost a child to disease, not violence. I don't know which is worse, and I hope I never find out.
Still, I wasn't the only one who thought, "there's more here than just the shooting."
Today, St. Louis police shot and killed an African-American man just 10 miles from Ferguson. A crowd formed, but it didn't lose control. At least, it hasn't yet. Granted, Chief Dotson and Mayor Slay handled this sad case elegantly. I know "elegantly" is an awkward adverb when talking about a man's death, but that's the first word that came to mind. The chief addressed the crowd shortly after the incident, explaining everything that happened, as he knew it, and expressing his regret. Via STLToday.com:
Afterward, Dotson said, “I want this message to be out as quickly and truthfully as possible.” The tension on the street seemed diminished.
Props to Alderman Antonio French, too, who helped the crowd hold its judgment while the chief spoke.
If relations between St. Louis government and the people were really bad, would Dotson's and French's words have satisfied the crowd?
There seems to be a fundamental difference between the relationship of people to government in St. Louis compared to the same relationship in Ferguson. And the two candidates for County Executive better be prepared to deal with it. Fast.
(Speaking of which, one of those two candidates might want to get in front of this issue. Just sayin'.)
In the past 24 hours, I've receive unsolicited stories of remarkable abuse at the hands of North County police and municipal courts. Yeah, I know: you've been hearing it from the protesters in Ferguson and from Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, too. You've heard it til you're ready to puke. It's same old tune of the man beatin' down blacks.
Only, the two stories I got came from middle- to upper middle-class white, middle aged white men.
Maybe some of the protesters have a point. And maybe it's time someone listen. And act.
To give you a feel for what the police/community relations are in North County, I'll give you the two stories I heard last night—from middle-aged white men.
First, a friend of mine who lives in West County told me of a ridiculous ticket he received from a police officer in Bel-Ridge, Missouri. The ticket was for "pausing before making a left"—an offense I don't remember reading in the handbook. So this gentleman showed up in court to challenge the ticket. He observed police officers acting like rogue guards in a Turkish prison, treating the people who'd come to plea their cases like dirt. He commented to the person sitting next to him, "I don't like the way they're treating people," whereupon he was dragged into a jail cell and charged with contempt.
The judge did not charge him with contempt; the police did. Again, this is a white, middle-age, middle class man from West County. Just a hunch, but I bet a 22-year-old black male from Ferguson would have been treated no better.
Next, I received an email tonight from Dan, a middle-age white man (and Tea Partier), in response to a blog post on stlouisteaparty.com calling for a 10-second warning before opening fire on the crowds. Here's what he wrote:
I was down there the last 3 days.
1 Almost all the "protesters" are upset about the draconian treatment of them by police. The problem is that draconian police behavior [started] long before the shooting. The abusive municipal courts. And the attitude of "them".
2. The protesters were peaceful, and often festive. They kept talking about the cockroaches crawling out from the city at night causing trouble. The people are concerned not bad.
3. Saturday the churches had planned to provide security for the businesses for saturday night. But they put in a curfew and the police did a poor job protecting the businesses.
Unlike many of my friends passing judgment on the people of Ferguson, this gentleman was there. Not once, but three nights. Notice the pattern developing here:
- Poor police-community relations.
- Municipal courts that abuse their authority and sponge off the accused.
- A huge discrepancy between what's reported (chaos) and what's witnessed (peaceful assemblies interrupted by thugs from outside the neighborhood.)
As I said, my dad was a cop. I have a lot of friends on police forces or recently retired. I was a couple of months away from being a cop myself in 1995. The police in my part of St. Louis County treat us exceedingly well. The municipal police in the cities around me are wonderful—even when issuing me a speeding ticket. And I'm sure the men and women who patrol in North County are good people, too. That isn't the point. The point is about changing attitudes and perceptions.
Somehow a lot of people who live and work in the area feel that there's a huge wall in society. On one side are police and judges. On the other side, a bunch of people, mostly trying to get through life the best they can. No one trusts anyone from the other side of the wall. To the people, the legal side is looking for reason to ruin their lives. To the law side, there are only two kinds of people: victims and perps.
Perhaps, as Dan later pointed out, the Missouri Supreme Court needs to investigate the municipal court system, and he's willing to work with an attorney who would like fight the corruption, abuse, and incompetence he sees in the North County courts.
Then, as my friend points out:
5. It is clear this was the proverbial scary traffic stop.... The cop did not know it but he was stopping either a thief or a robber...a fight ensued, and someone got shot.
And Ferguson exploded.
Sure, out-of-state agitators descended on the scene. But they didn't get here Sunday. The looters, I'm guessing, are local hooligans who will use any sad situation as an excuse to steal and destroy. The bottle-throwers and looters don't give a hoot in hell for Michael Brown or anyone else. Like you, I hope they're identified and prosecuted. But they're actually not central to what's going on in Ferguson. They weren't here a week ago, and they won't be here for long.
The dedication of the peaceful protesters, though, tells me that this story began before Michael Brown's death. The question is, will it continue after the protests subside?
Which brings me back to the question of the day: what follows?
What follows depends on how we resolve this and what we want to follow. If we take the fast, emotional, "easy" way out, the wall between Law and People will be taller, thicker, and less penetrable. The next incident will spark more violence. Eventually, St. Louis County will look a lot like Gaza.
The other solution is a lot harder, looking at it from today's perspective. It means justice won't be as swift or certain as our frayed nerves wish. It means peace won't be secured as finally and violently as our sensibilities demand. It means people will have to show trust before they feel trust in their gut. It means politicians will have to stop throwing bones to poor neighborhoods and start charting real solutions that return business to a region in economic decline. (Yes, St. Louis City and County are falling fast on almost every measure of economic well-being.) It means political people of all stripes will have to spend less time schmoozing the rich and famous and more time building a real community.
I know. It sucks. I like hanging around with the powerful and rich, too. It's a lot more fun than actually solving real problems.
Lasting solutions to big problems with sordid histories never come easy. Tearing down walls of distrust and dislike takes cooperation, planning, patience, and sweat.
The alternative is to shoot it out and hope you're the last one standing.
I'd rather tear down that wall.
P.S. Point number 4 that my friend wants everyone to know: Many of the businesses with broken windows are OPEN FOR BUSINESS. Look for OPEN spray-painted on the plywood. Go ahead and shop. They need the business.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Bel Nor as the venue.