Editor's Weekly: Three steps forward, then shots

Mar 12, 2015

A lot that hasn’t been happening since August happened in Ferguson this week – first three concrete steps toward change, then one step toward the abyss.

On Monday, the Missouri Supreme Court took over Ferguson’s municipal court, assigning all cases and broad reform powers to appeals court Judge Roy L. Richter. Ferguson municipal court judge Ronald Brockmeyer resigned.

Tuesday, city manager John Shaw departed. By law, the city manager runs Ferguson day-to-day and supervises the police department, so Shaw’s resignation was significant.

Wednesday, Mayor James Knowles III announced the departure of Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson, who has been a lightning rod for criticism since August.

Ferguson Mayor Knowles announces Police Chief Jackson's resignation.
Credit Wiley Price | St. Louis American

In three days, three top, controversial city officials were gone. And Ferguson had forged a new opportunity to rebuild trust at home and its reputation elsewhere.

Then, shots. Guns have been fired during previous protests, though miraculously no one was seriously hurt. This time, two police officers fell wounded. Strangely, whoever attacked early Thursday chose the very moment when Ferguson had finally taken significant action to address its law enforcement problems. Attorney General Eric Holder blamed a “damn punk” for “trying to sow discord.”

Protesters outside the police department denied that the shots came from within their group. Thursday, several protest groups decried the violence. But an ugly strain surfaced in social media discussion, with some aiming suspicion and resentment at police while voicing no regard for the injured officers.

All this followed the Justice Department’s investigations released last week. The department concluded that the city had been violating citizens’ constitutional rights for years. The department also explained why it would not charge former Ferguson officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, and in the process clarified much of what has seemed murky about that encounter.

Perhaps the power of the evidence in both reports created a tipping point toward change. Perhaps that pivotal moment grew as well from months of protest and myriad other efforts by concerned citizens since August. Whatever the reasons, something shifted. At last, officials found the will and means to act.

Then, shots. The cross currents of reaction and response Thursday roiled the delicate balance of forces that had finally aligned to produce action. We’ll see in coming days whether the momentum can be restored.

In the press conference announcing the police chief's departure, Mayor Knowles said he hoped Ferguson would “become an example of how a community can move forward in the face of adversity."

The resignations this week marked a promising start – though just a start – to an effort that eventually needs to include much more action and many more municipalities, here and around the nation. Then shots added yet another layer to the adversity that Ferguson – and all of us -- must overcome.