What lessons can be learned from the killing of Michael Brown and its aftermath in Ferguson?
For three hours Wednesday night, several panels discussed that question and more at “A community in turmoil,” a symposium at Harris-Stowe State University. Not surprisingly, given the setting, a lot of the answers had to do with education, on campus and on the streets.
And in many cases, speakers said it will be the young teaching the old, not the other way around.
“The last several days have been an education for me,” said the Rev. Ken McKoy, pastor of Progressive AME Zion Church. “Young people I’ve encountered are not necessarily concerned with economics and politics right now. They are concerned about the right to breathe. Michael Brown’s only crime was breathing while black.”
Added Stefan Bradley, chair of African-American studies at Saint Louis University: “What’s happening right now is the all-time best civic lesson ever taught.”
A crowded auditorium at the Harris-Stowe campus burst into applause several times during the session, as speakers dealt with political, educational, economic and other ramifications of the fatal shooting Aug. 9 that has led to several nights of unrest, looting and standoffs with heavily armed police.
That violence was addressed by Dan Isom, former police chief for the city of St. Louis and now a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He said police officers are schooled in escalating levels of response to specific situations, ranging from simply their presence, though verbal commands, defensive tactics to gain control, then non-lethal weapons and finally the gunfire that killed Brown.
“The thing to remember about the use of force continuum,” Isom said, “is that the officer’s use of force should be based upon the force that is used against him.”
Once a reasonable amount of force is used to gain control of a situation, he added, authorities should de-escalate the amount of force they are using.
“Sometimes officers don’t have the skill, the ability to de-escalate a situation through dialogue,” he said. “It’s something many officers learn over time. It’s a skill that you can learn. You can teach that skill, but oftentimes officers have to learn it through experience.
Problems often come, Isom said, when confrontations become more heated, because “officers are not taught to retreat or back down. They’re taught to move forward.”
Adding to the problem, said Duane Alexander, assistant sheriff for St. Louis County, is the increased use of military-style equipment by police forces.
“Even if you have these toys,” he said, “and you escalate to the point of bringing out your tanks or the heavy equipment that you have, at some point they should have de-escalated. Or if they brought them out, maybe they shouldn’t have brought them all the way out.”
Tim Wise, who lectures on racism at college campuses, said that how people perceive the police will depend on their experience.
Recalling the O.J. Simpson case, where blacks were shown to be much more willing to believe that police would manufacture evidence than whites were, Wise said that disparity results from black people’s interactions with police.
White people don’t necessarily feel that way, he said, because often they view police “as friendly folks who get your cat out of the tree.”
A failure of leadership
Mike Jones, a top aide to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley with lengthy political experience, said that much of the problem that has been exposed by the unrest in Ferguson can be laid at the feet of black leadership and how education has dealt with black children.
“There is a huge debate about education in America,” Jones said, “but it’s really only a debate about what to do with black children.”
“I prefer to think we control our own destiny. But the failure in our community is our lack of leadership.”
Rather than teach black kids they can grown up to be president of IBM, which Jones called a “bourgeois fantasy,” they need to be taught to think strategically, not tactically, and place their activity in the proper context.
“Nobody has a right to fail these kids,” Jones said. “If you are not good enough to educate these kids who come from a challenging background, we need to put you on the bench and find someone who can.”
Berkeley Mayor Ted Hoskins noted that Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, an African American who was given a visible role in the Ferguson response by Gov. Jay Nixon, is hardly representative of the makeup of the patrol.
“How many blacks are in the highway patrol?” Hoskins asked. “Let’s be real. They probably had to search to find him.”
For blacks to gain real power, he said, they have to vote to elect people like themselves.
In Ferguson, he said, only one member of the city council is black, so the majority is not likely to vote to favor black interests.
“It takes four to do anything,” Hoskins said. “Hire the city mayor. Hire the police chief. Hire all 53 policemen. And we’re up here talking about how we’re going to get more black fire and policemen. Because we don’t have four elected officials. That’s it.”
The tumult and looting in Ferguson has done more than give the community a bad image in the eyes of the world, panelists said. It has hurt those who depend on businesses in the community to make a living, and it has hurt school children who depend on free meals that they have missed because classes have been canceled.
Such collateral damage “is huge,” said Darryl Jones, managing partner of D&D Concessions.
To help recover, he added, “we have to engage the young folks in this conversation of rebuilding the region economically…. We’re going to move forward. We’re going to rebuild. We’re going to have it better. Everyone has to be involved. Everyone.”
Dwaun J. Warmack, who became president of Harris-Stowe last month, pledged to keep the campus involved in the questions that will have to be answered in the wake of what has happened in Ferguson since Aug. 9.
Wednesday night’s session is “the beginning of many conversations,” he said, saying that Harris-Stowe will serve as a think tank for solutions.
“We will be the place where the conversations happen,” Warmack said.
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