Ferguson and America, hard by the Rubicon
Is this the wake-up call we get out of bed to answer or the one we sleep through, again?
“Post-Ferguson America”? You’re forgiven if your jaw dropped, even just a little, when you saw those words, in stories and headlines in news journals from The Huffington Post to The Nation to CNN. The first-blush reaction from editors and wordsmiths, of course, will be that there’s nothing to see here, that the phrase is just meant to convey a literal “before” and “after” of an actual event.
But it may not be as chronologically benign as all that. The very construction of the phrase embraces the possibility of an alternate interpretation: a watershed achieved, a Rubicon crossed, an Enough Moment finally realized, a point after which things change. And that remains to be seen.
For now the continued social attention paid to Ferguson, Mo., is welcome, justified and necessary. A rally in the town of 21,000 people took place on Saturday, with hundreds marching down Canfield Drive to the spot where Michael Brown Jr., 18, was shot to death by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.
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“We know that his life is not going to be in vain,” the Rev. Spencer Booker of St. Louis’ St. Paul A.M.E. Church said Saturday, as reported by The Washington Post. “We know you’re going to even the score, God. We know you’re going to make the wrong right.”
We the people represent on Ferguson in other ways particular to our modern culture. We’ve said the right things, tweeted the proper sentiments, made the well-timed affinity videos and Instagrams with our hands in the air, mute witnesses of commiseration.
And the machinery of the law — the same law likely violated by those sworn to uphold it — has ground its way along, resulting in at least some of the justice the protests have sought, as well as the pursuit of more enduring remedies.
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Ray Albers, a police lieutenant with the nearby St. Ann police department, pointed a rifle at Ferguson protesters on Aug. 19, while shouting “I will fucking kill you!” When asked for his name he shouted “Go fuck yourself!” A cooler head in the department intervened to get Albers to climb down, quickly walking the bad lieutenant away. An internal departmental investigation recommended that this big fan of the copulative expletive either quit or be fired for the videotaped incident. Albers has resigned.
Officer Matthew Pappert of the Glendale Police Department lost his gig after losing his cool, online. Pappert was fired after being suspended for some ugly Facebook posts, in which he called Ferguson demonstrators “thugs” and “a burden on society and a blight on the community,” and suggested they should be “put down like rabid dogs.” One post had an especially monstrous grace note: “Where is a Muslim with a backpack when you need them?”
They had company; other officers are the subjects of lawsuits alleging a pattern and practice of civil rights violations, including use of excessive force.
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The Post reported: “In four federal lawsuits, including one that is on appeal, and more than a half-dozen investigations over the past decade, colleagues of Darren Wilson’s have separately contested a variety of allegations, including killing a mentally-ill man with a Taser, pistol-whipping a child, choking and hog-tying a child and beating a man who was later charged with destroying city property because his blood spilled on officers’ clothes.
The Justice Department is reportedly considering whether to pursue a broader investigation into a pattern of this behavior by Ferguson police.
This follows the agency’s almost-immediate involvement in the Ferguson incident and its aftermath. Rather than taking the historically proven path of waiting for local officials to sort things out, Justice was on the scene within days — “Justice” meaning U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who came to Ferguson himself and met with the ranking law enforcement official — a highway patrol captain and himself an African American.
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The reactions of others in the national political spotlight hasn’t been as encouraging, or at least the timing of their reactions. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the all-but-certain 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, was scored on Aug. 18, when MSNBC show host Rev. Al Sharpton took Clinton, and others, to task for their silence on the chaos in Ferguson.
“This is now a national, central issue and anyone running for President needs to come up with a formula or — in my opinion — they forfeit their right to be taken seriously,” Sharpton said on MSNBC. Sharpton, who heads the National Action Network, also name-checked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — neither of whom has said a mumblin’ word about Ferguson.
Finally, on Thursday, 19 days after the killing of Michael Brown Jr., Hillary Clinton finally weighed in with comments, most of which could have been made much earlier:
“Watching the recent funeral for Michael Brown, as a mother, as a human being, my heart just broke for his family,” she said at a San Francisco conference hosted by Nexenta, a software company. “Because losing a child is every parent’s greatest fear and an unimaginable loss. But I also grieve for that community and for many like it across our country.”
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To her credit, when Clinton did speak up, she spoke truth to power, spotlighting “the inequities that persist in our justice system,” at one point in her speech borrowing from verstehen, the powerful sociological description of perspective that boils down to “walk a mile in my shoes.”
“Imagine what we would feel and what we would do if white drivers were three times as likely to be searched by police during a traffic stop as black drivers, instead of the other way around,” she told the wizards of software. “That is the reality in the lives of so many of our fellow Americans and so many of the communities in which they live.”
With those exceptions, Clinton’s comments were reasoned and impassioned, but they were hardly venturesome. The basic truth of those passages, and other of her remarks, has been an article of African American existential faith for decades. The probable Democratic frontrunner is hereby invited to tell black America something it doesn’t already know — to lead from the front, and not to try to lead from behind.
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If the events of Ferguson are really going to be the national threshold that the phrase “post-Ferguson America” implies, it’s going to require follow-through — implementing meaningful police review policies; widening the strike zone on the idea of “community policing. It means police more widely adopting less lethal devices, and dashcam and body-camera technology; rolling back the rampant militarization of America’s police forces. And maybe more important than anything else, it means the need for law enforcement to rethink its reflexively adversarial relationship with the citizens whom police are sworn to protect and serve.
It also means that our national leaders, and those who hope to be, recognize and acknowledge the anguish and gravity of such events as the Ferguson incident in real time, not strategic time, and bring their reactions more into line with the immediacy of those events, and their aftermaths.
“We want the president to come here,” said Jerryl Christmas, a St. Louis attorney who helped lead Saturday’s march, to The Post. “He remarked that he didn’t have a strategy for ISIS and Syria, but we need a strategy for urban America. The tragedy is this could have happened anywhere.”
This horrible summer — in the 51st-anniversary year of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—is almost in the rear view, but the tragedy of Aug. 9 and what happened will resonate as current events, because they are. What matters is what’s next. The “post” of post-Ferguson America is that phrase’s most operative word, the one that’s almost a question in itself. It posits whether we’re post-anything, whether Ferguson is a real wake-up call — the alarm clock you gotta get out of bed to turn off — or a wake-up call to be ignored, to be slept through, again.
And that remains to be seen.