Having lived in St. Louis for a year (1994-95) I observe the current trials and tribulations of the people of Ferguson with a heavy heart. Very little seems to have changed regarding race relations in that central part of the country. I remember remarking to a classmate that I had never seen a city with racial division as much as I experienced in St. Louis. There was the physical separation of the Black and White communities according to specific East-West streets across the city, it was if the white community had a shadow that was there but did not affect one’s daily life. The African-American community had its own major newspaper, so subscribers to the St. Louis Post Dispatch had primarily white readers and the St Louis Independent American had its roots in the African-American readership. Two major regional newspapers that presented the news to separate communities in the wider metropolitan area. One rarely saw mixed groups of people and I felt I had walked into a 1950’s time warp.
Residents of Ferguson were alarmed by their police department as it deployed “to protect and serve” somebody—who, it appears, meant the white residents and white-owned businesses. The appearance and demeanor of the police was that of an Army platoon, complete with its APC and bomb-proof assault vehicle. Rifles were pointed at the demonstrators as they reacted in demonstrations about the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson policeman on August 9th. I think if I looked down the street and saw such a platoon, armed to the teeth and wearing Army fatigue uniforms, I would be more than a little disturbed. Part of me would want to get away from the scene as quickly as possible and part of me would be so offended that I would want to confront the police for escalating the violent aspects of the scene.
Yet, even after the federal Justice Department opened its own investigation of Mike Brown’s killing, and after the Missouri governor relieved local police leadership and brought in the state’s highway patrol, local officials remained ignorant of the fact that they were no longer in charge of their town. Here is what remains unacceptable from the effort to discredit the victim and the insensitivity to public perception of Ferguson’s awareness and competence.
- First, using military garb and weaponry when confronting a demonstration by the citizens of Ferguson, the police created an “us vs. them” dynamic that inhibited any peaceful outcomes those first few nights. Even though 70+ percent of Ferguson residents are African-American, the police assumed they were wrong on site; because they were black. Some police referred to the crowd as “animals”.
- The appearance in the minds of the neighborhoods was that Mike Brown was murdered, yet as of eight days after his killing, local officials have yet to release the police report on the shooting nor the initial autopsy. Would the same process have been followed if Mike Brown were white? Perhaps the community’s reaction to the shooting would not have been a volatile and large, nevertheless would the police have been as aggressive against a gathering of white people asking for information about the circumstances of the killing of an unarmed man by a policeman? I doubt it, even if the victim had tried to assault the officer before being shot.
- This afternoon and tonight there will be another demonstration by Ferguson citizens demanding more information about the killing of Mike Brown. Last night there was some looting and the police responded with smoke and tear gas grenades. The police were outfitted like a military platoon. The police leaders chose to escalate the level of violence. One has to ask why the police do not approach demonstrators who are violating the curfew with demands to disburse or to receive citations on the spot—not arrest—for curfew violations. Given the overwhelming armaments and physical outfitting of the police, they could engage individuals calmly without threatening arrest or injury. If there is looting, then a squadron could be dispatched to prevent further property damage without trying to arrest everyone in sight first. Let the community punish the looters; let the community disenfranchise the outsiders who are trying to roil the situation into a race war. If the Missouri Highway Patrol cannot contain the actions of the local police, then I think President Obama should activate the National Guard to restore peace and to separate the community from an out-of-control police department at city and county levels. Local police units should be shut down until new leadership can retrain and redeploy police officers with the mission of “to protect and to serve, not corral and intimidate.” If not already in place, the City Council should require all city employees, including police, to live within the boundaries of Ferguson. Military gear, weaponry and vehicles should be decommissioned within the police department and given to the Missouri National Guard. Neighborhood policing on foot should become the norm within Ferguson so that residents can learn who their police protectors are and vice versa.
- If these reforms cannot occur, then the residents should demand the Council create a Citizens Review Board to oversee police department activities.