Friday, August 15, 2014
Friends from other cities ask if I am scared. Even as I wrote this yesterday, police were spraying tear gas on protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis about twenty-five minutes from my home. On Saturday afternoon, a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a young, unarmed black man, there. While the name of the officer has been withheld, police sources say that Brown had reached into the police car to take the officer’s gun, leaving the policeman with facial wounds. Brown’s friend tells a different story that Brown was running away with his hands in the air.
Outrage resulted over the death of this young, unarmed man. Since Saturday, protestors have gathered in Ferguson, in other parts of St. Louis County and around the country. In Ferguson, they have looted and burned stores and thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails at police. As a result, police have sprayed tear gas and arrested marchers, including Washington Post and Huffington Post reporters and a St. Louis alderman. The policemen donned riot gear that makes them look like U.S. marines. A photograph of these commandos standing in a phalanx confronting protestors makes suburban St. Louis looks like Beirut.
Race underlies the conflict and pain. A young black man has died; a white officer shot him. An article in yesterday’s New York Times describes Ferguson as a city afflicted by white flight: “While most of St. Louis County is white, Ferguson and neighboring towns are predominantly black. Blacks were once a minority in Ferguson, but the city’s demography has shifted in the last decade after white families moved out to surrounding suburbs.” The article quotes Richard Rosenfeld, a crime trends expert and professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who says Ferguson, a town of 21,000, is a “relatively stable, working and middle-income community. But it does have its pockets of disadvantage.” Today’s Wall Street Journal says that the suburb’s racial makeup changed to predominantly black over the last decade, but the Ferguson force remains 94 percent white because police tend to stay on the job.
Perhaps the tide is turning for the community. Yesterday, the Post-Dispatch reported that a young mother took her children to clean up their neighborhood Quik Trip that had been burned and looted. She inspired neighbors to do the same. Ferguson plans to hold its Saturday farmers market as usual. Vendors there will be selling tee shirts that read: I heart Ferguson. I intend to shop in solidarity.
Yesterday afternoon the Governor turned riot control over to the Missouri State Highway Patrol under Captain Ronald Johnson, an African-American officer who had grown up near Ferguson. Instead of facing off against a peace march, Johnson walked alongside the protestors. Instead of wearing paramilitary gear, he wore shirtsleeves. The message of peace and solidarity was clear.
I am not at all scared, but I am sick at heart.