By every indication — from both the street and civic offices — Ferguson, Missouri is expected to blow.
The grand jury decision on whether a white police officer will be charged in the shooting death of an unarmed 18-year-old black man could come any day. Many are expecting no indictment of the officer, no criminal charges alleging that he went too far the day Michael Brown died.
If that’s the outcome, God help us all. Keeping the lid on the public reaction will be a gargantuan task.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is keeping the president apprised. A recent phone call served to update the White House on plans to coordinate local and state law enforcement and the National Guard, if necessary. Police throughout the St. Louis area have fortified with extra training and equipment.
Community leaders are asking for advance notice, some warning so they can get the jump on flare-ups. Educators want the announcement timed so children leaving school are not trapped by angry protesters, or worse, violence.
And everyone emphasizes peace. Michael Brown’s parents reiterated that plea recently while addressing a United Nations conference in Geneva. Yes, Ferguson has reached the world stage.
The city’s name is shorthand for the tense relations between police and poorer minority communities, for every perceived and real abuse of police force. That’s the danger. No one incident, with all of its complicating factors, should ever have to serve as a test case for years of pent up frustration, social problems that are grounded in poverty, race, government inaction, poor education and a myriad of other factors.
We keep making that same mistake.
Watts in 1965. Los Angeles again in 1992, after the Rodney King acquittals. The similarities with Ferguson are striking.
In Watts nearly 50 years ago the name was Marquette Frye, not Michael Brown. Frye, 21, was pulled over in a traffic stop, suspected of being drunk. When other family members arrived, a fight broke out with police. Word spread, alleging police had over-reacted.
For six days people rioted. There were 34 deaths, more than 1,000 people injured, $40 million in property damage and more than 1,000 buildings were destroyed.
In 1992, the person at the center was Rodney King. He’d led police on a high-speed car chase, fleeing after fearing that his probation would be revoked from a robbery conviction. When he finally was stopped, what happened next shocked the nation. The video of the officers assaulting King without mercy when they could have simply handcuffed him was played over and over on television.
When those officers weren’t indicted, the city erupted again. This time, 53 people died, more than 2,000 were injured, the property damage was pegged at $1 billion and another 1,000 buildings were destroyed.
In both cases, commissions were formed and good people went to work unraveling how one incident could ignite such violence. The underlying causes were found to be similar despite the nearly 30 years that had passed: the burdens of poor education, lack of jobs, poverty, racial tensions, and inferior housing and transportation.
The same type of analysis is already underway in Missouri. The governor has ordered it, part of his pre-emptive strike against further unrest. Here’s an easy prediction: Nixon will find similar troubles in Ferguson.
He also ought to institute a second phase and order a study of why many of the official recommendations that followed Watts and the King protests went largely unfulfilled.
Two pieces of this American story do not have to repeat. The first is obvious: the public and police response after the decision comes. Chaos doesn’t have to win. There will be those who will show up in Ferguson simply to goad police into over-reacting. But it’s a good bet that most will be like the earlier protesters, angry but not destructive.
The second is long-term outcomes.
Some positive changes occurred after the King protests: in how long police chiefs serve, and in police hiring and training. Ferguson’s city council is working to establish a police citizen review board, among other changes.
And, most importantly, some within Ferguson’s elected and community leadership are working to establish alliances. It’s catch-up work, a dicey proposition when a city is attempting to outrun the potential for nationally televised rioting and the National Guard overtaking its streets.
Yet this is the path that will make a difference. Or, rather, could make a difference, if not engulfed by mindless violence instigated by a few yet suffered by all.
To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or email email@example.com or Twitter@msanchezcolumn.