St. Louisans may disagree on many things related to Michael Brown’s death, but we’ve been united in anxiety during the long wait for a St. Louis County grand jury’s decision on whether to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
When? What then? How will that affect each of us immediately and all of us long term? These questions have been hanging over everyone — from those directly involved in the protest or law enforcement to those who live far from Ferguson and see no direct connection to the issues raised there.
Some residents have responded to the tension by buying guns. Some have been training for peaceful protest. Some — at last including Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s Ferguson Commission — are beginning to address deeper issues of opportunity, racial disparity and police-community relations. These issues set the fuse that turned Brown’s death into an international explosion.
The long wait for the grand jury’s decision has been tedious. Yet in retrospect, it’s also been revealing.
For one thing, we’ve learned more about the protesters. The movement has many parts, divided internally at times by generation, organization and approach. Yet in recent weeks, all its public-facing leaders have united in trying to organize a forceful, nonviolent response if the grand jury does not indict Wilson.
Still, fear persists that hotheads, instigators or police overreaction will escalate the conflict. Massive, peaceful protest would send one message about the region’s readiness to confront massive, systemic problems. Violence would send quite another message, begetting backlash.
Yet even if violence erupts, our real test as a region lies beyond the narrow scope of the days that follow a grand jury decision. The long wait should have given us time to recognize and begin to face the long-term challenges.
Some of that has happened. But the long wait also has revealed a leadership void among elected officials. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has stepped forward, suggesting the Ferguson commission and other steps. And St. Louis Alderman Antonio French and Democratic committeewoman Patricia Bynes are among those on the line in protests.
Most other area leaders seem reluctant to step up. Some of the key players haven't even been talking to each other. That includes St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and his elected successor, Steve Stenger, as St. Louis Public Radio’s Jason Rosenbaum reported. And it includes Nixon and St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, Eli Yokley reported in PoliticMo.
When Nixon was asked this week whether he was ultimately in charge of the law enforcement effort, he flubbed the answer before acknowledging in a do-over the next day that he was responsible.
If ever there was a time to put aside political positioning and personal jealousies, it would be now. Yet that hasn’t happened.
Perhaps there’s a lesson in that as well. The problems raised by Ferguson certainly can’t be solved without smart leadership and deft policy. Yet they won’t be solved without sustained pressure from citizens and widespread support for change.
In an earlier era, the civil rights movement attacked discriminatory laws and challenged prejudiced attitudes. Today, the focus needs to be on the continuing impact of past overt discrimination and on current policies and practices that put extra burdens on disadvantaged groups.
As the long wait for a grand jury decision comes to an end, the long test of community character is just beginning.