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SoVaNow.com / August 20, 2014I’ve come to dread controversies such as the suddenly ubiquitous Ferguson saga for perhaps a different reason than many people: these white-hot debates yank the entire country out of orbit and appeals for calm and reason always seem to lack the force to set matters aright. At times like these, you can practically witness public opinion spinning out of control: One side pushes the line of racist police, the other pushes back by summoning the specter of a thug who got what he had coming, and the center cannot hold.
So let’s talk about the failures of the center. We may never know exactly what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, respectively, a white St. Louis-area cop and a young black man who lay dead in the streets after an encounter with the officer, but we do, alas, know quite a lot now about the community of Ferguson, Missouri. It’s overwhelmingly African-American, policed by a department that’s almost entirely white, and governed by elected municipal officials who, again, are white. How does a community that’s two-thirds black wind up with a power structure that’s lilied without the gild?
The short answer is that almost no one votes in local elections. (Before you turn up your noses in disdain at the folks in Ferguson, understand that the same is true in Mecklenburg County, Va.). Evidently the black community in Ferguson doesn’t engage in the nitty-gritty of local government, which subsequently leaves the field to a presumably more locally engaged white minority. (One doubts whether it will stay this way.) In ordinary times, controlling the agenda at town hall is about as meaningful and exciting as standing guard in front of an empty building, but there are times when the positioning pays off, so to speak. Obviously, a big problem in Ferguson has been police taking up positions fortified by armored vehicles, heavy weaponry, riot gear and tear gas, all items that should be deployed only in extreme circumstances that never should have come to pass with this episode.
Whatever else you believe about the events in Ferguson, there are a few truisms that everyone ought to be able to acknowledge. Just to start with the most basic, police work can be incredibly difficult and dangerous, and all the incentives for an officer in peril — for any person, for that matter — lean towards the use of overwhelming force, no matter how tenuous or trivial-seeming the threat. I guess I’ve sat through enough courtroom trials involving defendants who lipped off at an officer or, worse, took a potshot at one to know that the cop in question is not necessarily going to act out the Cool Hand Luke script in real time. If someone had a gun and it could be aimed at you, how would you react?
That leads to a related point: Despite their training and general professionalism, police can and do lose control — of themselves as well as others. A long time ago, I heard a radio interview with a New York cop that sticks in my mind to this day: The officer — I don’t remember his name — was talking about his primary beat: breaking up violent domestic disputes. He observed — and I believe this — that household fights produce some of the worst dangers a cop will ever see. His attitude towards overwhelming force was instructive: Sure, use it when necessary to seize control of a situation, but only to dampen passions, not incite them. Force is a tool, nothing more; if other tools exist to keep the peace, they should be employed first.
This leads to probably the most fateful lesson to emerge from Ferguson. Police departments depend on the confidence of the people they’re entrusted to protect, and loss of that legitimacy can have terrible consequences for a community, especially one where the social bonds are weak to begin with. “Clumsy” would be an extremely generous way of describing the response by Ferguson and St. Louis County authorities to community unrest in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death; just about everything that could have gone wrong in the past week has gone wrong, and while there’s plenty of blame to go around, the police force has rewritten the textbook on how not to go about calming a restive populace. What happened on the day that Michael Brown was gunned down is, and may always be, a subject of dispute. The department’s losing its cool — and acting out in ways that have led even law-and-order conservatives to inveigh against “boys with toys” — is plain for all to see.
In times like these, I think it’s useful to think about what events in Missouri say about the state of our own community. On the one hand, life here is surely much different. Having come up during the era of desegregation in the South, I can look around our small community and be genuinely thankful for the ease of so many of our social relationships. I’ve seen proud black men and unabashed white neo-Confederates form bonds of brotherhood that would be unthinkable in a racially-polarized place like Ferguson. By the same token, one doubts that town’s police force has ever engaged the local community with the same energy and commitment that went into an event seemingly as carefree as the National Night Out two weeks ago in South Hill. And while I’m no fan of Virginia’s system of elected constitutional offices, you do have to be grateful sometimes for the fact that our sheriffs must face the voters from time to time to hold onto their jobs. If only the same were true of Ferguson’s police chief.
Yet despite the evident differences between life in suburban Missouri and rural Southside, there’s no getting around the underlying issues raised by the Michael Brown shooting — what the episode says about race relations in America, and specifically how law enforcement interacts with the black community and, even more narrowly, young black men. A knot of fear and anger and unease is tied around these questions, and it only tightens with each fresh explosion of headlines — whether it’s Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or another dead teenager in the news. Suffice it to say that perceptions among whites and blacks as to whom is to blame for these tragedies tend to vary wildly, which is very troubling if you believe, as I do, that preserving some modicum of common ground is essential to the country’s future.
It was another black man who got the worst of a run-in with the police, Rodney King, who stated the point most plainly: “Can’t we all just get along?” Not always, obviously. But King expressed a desire that beats in the hearts of most people, including the vast majority of Ferguson residents who are probably wondering to themselves just what in Hades happened to their community this week. Some of the factors behind the turmoil are immediate. Other are more intractable and resistant to even the best intentions to solve. Yet as long as we live in a country where opportunity is out of reach for so many — white, black and brown — and where people struggle for a decent standard of living, conditions will be ripe for another blowup. People in Ferguson probably never imagined it could happen to them. No one ever does, until the unthinkable becomes the unquenchable.