Anger boiled up again when the Ferguson City Council met this week. It was the first meeting since Michael Brown’s death sparked upheaval here and since upheaval here created the possibility of a national reckoning with issues that reach far beyond Ferguson.
Our region will continue to play a pivotal role in determining whether the nation seizes this moment to tackle its Gordian knot of problems related to race, fairness, opportunity and mutual respect.
This week’s city council meeting did not seem like a promising start. Ferguson officials may have thought they would assuage residents’ anger by proposing changes intended to ease tensions with police and the municipal courts. Instead, the council met with shouts and criticism, as Jason Rosenbaum and Durrie Bouscaren reported. Before hearing someone else’s solutions, people at the meeting wanted first to be heard.
Again and again over the last month, many African Americans have demanded the same thing — that their experiences be acknowledged and respected, not doubted or discounted. The message is as loud and compelling as one of the flash-bangs thrown to disperse protesters: Before we can work together to solve problems, we must first listen and respond to the people caught up in those problems.
At the center of Ferguson’s problems is the shooting of a young black man by a white police officer. Protesters say fairness requires that a special prosecutor investigate the circumstances and that the officer, Darren Wilson, be immediately arrested. Neither is likely to happen, nor is that failure in itself definitive proof of unfairness.
There will be many other important tests of whether citizen concerns about fairness are heard and heeded. These tests will include whether the public gets to see all the evidence that sheds light on what happened and whether the grand jury’s decision is clearly supported by that evidence.
In symbol and substance, Michael Brown’s death raises even deeper and more complicated questions about fairness – questions that flow from the pattern of racial disparities that shape life in Ferguson and beyond and that set the stage for this tragedy.
Among the particulars in this pattern, here and nationally, are these hard facts:
- African Americans are disproportionately likely to be stopped by police.
- African Americans and poor people disproportionately end up in jail — including some here who disproportionately suffer for violations of municipal ordinances.
- African Americans are disproportionately shortchanged by failing school districts.
- African American households have disproportionately low wealth and high unemployment.
- African Americans are disproportionately unlikely to lead long, healthy lives.
All this helps to explain why there is so much pent up anger — and why people who find the world statistically stacked against them don’t automatically trust those currently in charge to fix the problems.
In fact, no solution is likely to fly unless it springs from involvement of the people who have been pouring out their anger and frustration. The voter registration drives now underway are one way to achieve that involvement. Another is commitment by public officials to listen and respond to their constituents’ concerns.
After appropriate discussion, Ferguson’s focus on police and court procedures may turn out to be a great place to begin reforms. Simple changes in these areas could dramatically alter residents' day-to-day experience with law enforcement.
An angry meeting may not seem like a promising start on solving the problems Ferguson has unearthed. Yet hearing the anger and understanding its origins is, in fact, the only way to begin.