Ferguson, Mo. these days is a disturbing déjà vu for those of us who lived through the 1960s, especially in the wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Angry blacks and some whites rioted, looted and burned parts of cities. People died in those paroxysms of rage, and there was massive property damage.
A year ago, parts of downtown Ferguson were in flames after teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer. Recently, on the anniversary of Brown’s death, all hell broke loose again. During a demonstration, peace reigned for awhile, then things quickly went awry as anger predominated, escalating quickly out of control as people threw rocks and bottles at a line of police officers. At one point, an 18-year-old, Tyrone Harris of St. Louis, was shot after allegedly firing several rounds at police. Now hospitalized, he has been charged with 10 criminal actions against the police.
A Missouri legislator summed the situation up perfectly on TV Tuesday morning. There are peaceful demonstrators, he said, but then there are agitators – people out to cause mayhem. That’s true of Tyrone Harris and true of the agitators who trashed and burned Ferguson a year ago, most of them not even residents of Ferguson.
It’s no wonder there is such hostility between the blacks in Ferguson and its police force. Just a few statistics will explain why. Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis with 21,000 people, is 70 percent black and yet it has only five blacks on its police force of 50 members. After the violent ruckus a year ago, the U.S. Justice Department did a study and determined the city was resorting to “policing for profit” – that is, ticketing residents aggressively even for the smallest offenses to get money for the city’s coffers.
Last year, there were many good changes made in Ferguson, good foundations for progress toward a healthier community-based policing system in which officers and residents got to know one another. City officials resigned; a black interim police officer was appointed. Lines of communication had been opened. Nothing breeds fear, suspicion and ultimately violence more than lack of communication.
Sometimes sustained anger is a useful tool that forces change to happen. That is why demonstrations – peaceful ones – can be important. It’s a lesson we all should have learned from MLK Jr. But agitators set on violence can quickly undo any of the good initiated by peaceful demonstrations appealing through peaceable assembly for redress of grievances, as mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Respect peaceful demonstrators, but spurn the instigators who thrive on violence and destruction.
Right here in the St. Cloud area, we should keep that in mind. At Tech High School and in downtown St. Cloud, there have been demonstrations by Somali residents and some white residents. Fortunately, they were peaceful demonstrators, not agitators.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri wisely noted change in Ferguson will take time. The situation is complicated by all kinds of interconnected, socio-economic problems: lack of jobs, poor to nonexistent job skills, gaps in education, widespread poverty and hostile attitudes. McCaskill said all of those problems are now being addressed. It will take time to make things better, she cautioned. That is true of Ferguson, it’s true of St. Cloud, it’s true everywhere.