Editor's Weekly: What Do Ferguson Protesters Want?

Sep 18, 2014

Six weeks after Michael Brown’s death, certain key demands and questions are reverberating from the Big Bang of protest that erupted in Ferguson. Priorities seem to be emerging even though the protesters themselves – and the official and unofficial groups discussing what should happen -- have conflicting ideas and no central organization.

St. Louis County Council protest.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

The loudest and clearest demands have come from protesters focused first on the investigation of Brown's shooting. Many expressed their anger at the St. Louis County Council meeting this week, as Jason Rosenbaum reported. They want County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch off the case. They want the immediate arrest of Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, who shot Brown. And they want public officials, including Democratic county executive candidate Steve Stenger, to help make these things happen.

They say these steps are needed to ensure a fair shake for Brown's family and to shake up the status quo. Though there’s plenty of debate about whether these demands would actually achieve justice, they’ve become the most visible focus of the protest for now.

But there are many more issues related to Ferguson, including some that don’t easily lend themselves to specific demands or quick resolution. A second ring of issues involves municipal officials and courts. As Rachel Lippmann noted this week, the five basic demands protesters have made include ousting Ferguson’s mayor and police chief. They also want to change the system of ordinances, fines and fees that leads to jail time for many poor people and African Americans in Ferguson and elsewhere.

The departure of public officials is not immediately likely. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles won’t resign. Recalling him would be an onerous process. And he’s not up for re-election until 2016. Still, the voter registration drives now underway could eventually enable people who feel dissed to vote and take charge.

Court procedures could change sooner. Several groups and officials are working on proposals to ease the burden of fees in Ferguson, St. Louis County and elsewhere.

A third and especially crucial community issue involves police. The Justice Department is investigating whether there have been patterns of discrimination in Ferguson. But so far, much of the discussion about police has focused on the Brown shooting, on police response to the protest and on the possible use of body cameras to improve interactions with the public.

There’s been little discussion of policy or training changes that could smooth daily interactions with the public. Many departments have for years followed New York City’s lead, strictly enforcing laws on minor violations to avert major crime. This zero tolerance approach has earned accolades, but it's also fueled tensions, especially with young African-American men.

What’s the appropriate balance between zero tolerance and community policing? How can police minimize use of lethal force and remain safe? How can police defuse confrontations with people who are mentally ill? How can police work effectively in neighborhoods where the crime rate and suspicion of authorities both run high? These chronic questions are ripe for consideration.

Moving beyond the circle of community issues, Ferguson raises even broader questions about fairness, opportunity and the capacity of people to find common ground even though they see the world from different perspectives.

These deep questions are not easy to address, or even to define. In contrast to the specific demands that have drawn attention so far, they're too complex to reduce to a list. Yet they hold the key to whether reverberations from Ferguson will eventually produce broad waves of regional and national progress.