A few words for those who roll their eyes at conversations about “disenfranchised communities,” calls for “diversity” and other moves to ensure fairness in politics and civic life.
What’s happening in Ferguson, Mo., now is the result of a lack of attention to such things. The seeds of the tensions were sown long before the police killing of Michael Brown. Attitudes and practices that allow whole swaths of a city to be disconnected from jobs, from a solid public education, from public transportation to reach available jobs — all play a role.
A person dignified by an education, gainful employment and by extension a connection to the community, does not loot the neighborhood QuikTrip.
A police force that fears the very community it is sworn to protect might bring in police dogs, then lob tear gas when better-trained and calmer officers would have kept an agitated crowd in check.
To the question “Could such violence erupt here?” — of course it could. A few angry people can incite a crowd within minutes. Fire burns quickly, bullets shot in fear kill indiscriminately. But Kansas City has done some important groundwork in ways that Ferguson seems to be lacking.
Our challenge is to keep pressing forward in such matters.
Years ago, Kansas City leadership — in the best sense of the word — kept the lid on tensions after the 1992 acquittal in the Rodney King case. The verdict was anticipated, so there was time to prepare. But it was relationships built over years that were tapped. You can’t forge such ties during a crisis. They must be nurtured election by election, community event by event, by daily interactions and decision-making.
Crowds of nearly 1,000 did gather. They were justifiably angry and needed to vent, much like in Ferguson. But then-Mayor Emanuel Cleaver worked with then-Police Chief Steven Bishop. Cleaver requested that uniformed police stay out of sight.
Organizers allowed people to speak, carefully tamping down calls for violence. Radio was involved, extending call-in shows. Black men in the community were organized as mediators, clergy were called in, rumors were quickly squashed. Police were reassigned, patrolling to look for problems, but they used restraint in pulling over cars or stopping people.
Trust reigned. Relationships established before, between many differing types of people, were allowed to engage. It worked. Kansas City chose community over chaos.