The shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has always been about much more than a confrontation between a white police officer and a black teenager. It is about the use of force, racial profiling, historical injustices, pent-up anger, policing tactics and testing the limits of protest. And that’s just getting started.
It follows that a grand jury decision, expected any day, will be about more than whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson will face charges for fatally shooting Brown on Aug. 9. It will encompass everything named above, plus questions about the nation’s rule of law, freedom of speech and the need to protect lives and property.
The city of Ferguson and St. Louis County are holding their collective breath, waiting for a decision that many believe will not bring charges against Wilson.
But to end the grand jury probe that way would likely reignite the tinderbox that is Ferguson.
Since Brown’s death and the ensuing riots in August, the small city has become ground zero for a disparate protest movement. It ranges from longtime community members urging crowds to remain peaceful to outright anarchists who traveled to the St. Louis area to fling themselves into the melee.
Many people agree with DeRay Mckesson, a school administrator from Minneapolis who spends his weekends and vacations in Ferguson to participate in and document the backlash to Brown’s killing.
“I want to believe there is a way to protest that is more than marching but not bloodshed,“ he told The Washington Post.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon held a news conference this week to announce preparations in advance of the grand jury decision. The Missouri Highway Patrol, St. Louis County Police and St. Louis Metropolitan Police will operate under a unified command, he said. Officers have received additional training in crowd control tactics and constitutional rights.
Nixon acknowledged the right to protest but took a hard line. Violent acts and threats to persons and property would not be tolerated, he said.
Indeed, innocent people must not be placed in danger by mob violence. But neither should the governor nor law enforcement expect protesters to raise up a few signs and quietly go home. With justification, they believe the price of complacency is the trampling of civil liberties and abuse of minorities in America.
“The protests have been 99.5 percent nonviolent. But we are also being purposefully militant and disruptive,” leaders of the Don’t Shoot Coalition, which consists of more than 50 social justice groups, wrote in an essay published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Change has not come through the courts, through politics or through gentle persuasion. We cannot wait any longer for whole segments of our society to gain freedom from abuse.”
Nixon should have acknowledged in his remarks that police also displayed a brand of violence when they confronted protesters in August with tanks, riot gear, tear gas and unconstitutional arrests. It can only be hoped that those scenes won’t be repeated in the coming days.
Getting past the grand jury verdict will call for all sides to exercise discipline, said Patricia Bynes, a Democratic committeewoman who represents Ferguson Township. Good police officers must keep their ranks in check. And resolute protesters must let the “bad actors” know they aren’t welcome.
“If you stand by and watch, you are part of the problem,” she said.
There is a lot of work to be done in Ferguson — and in America. Overreaction on the part of either police or protesters will only make the job harder.