by Joe Shea
August 16, 2014
A MIRACLE IN FERGUSON
BRADENTON, Fla., Aug. 16, 2014 -- It's a 15-hour drive from here on Florida's Gulf Coast to the troubled town of Ferguson, Mo., a place where four straight nights of protest calmed last night after a forward-looking Governor - named Nixon, ironically - introduced a new approach to the perennial problem of citizen protests that become violent.
Instead of the violence that had wracked the city for days, a calm returned that carried with it a binding lesson for police departments throughout the counry.
Most folks know the basic story. An 18-year-old kid named Michael Brown, a big, tough kid, was approached by a police officer in the middle of a street in downtown Ferguson. Some said he had his hands in the air, and others said he tried to grab the police officer's gun.
Minutes later, he was dead in a pool of blood. Protests followed and the confrontation appeared to grow more dangerous by the day.
On Thursday, responding to calls for the state to intervene, Gov. Jay Nixon held a press conference in Ferguson and promised a different approach than the one local police were using.
In that model, the local police - the beneficiaries of tons of high-powered military gear shipped to them for free after it was withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan - seemed to the people of Ferguson like an invading army. They wore camouflage uniforms, drove Humvees and armored personnel carriers, and even posted snipers on top of some of the vehicles.
Here my narrative of the basic facts stops and my opinion begins. I believe that we are a country of one people, Americans, who come in a bewildering variety of races, religions and cultures. Out of this mix, as in the Latin slogan found on our coins, E Pluribus Unum, we are supposed to create "out of many, one." Those are words we live and survive by.
Back to the facts. Gov. Nixon appointed a black man, Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, to take over the police response to the Michael Brown unrest. He sent all the militarized local policemen home and brought in his own state troopers.
That produced the miracle of Ferguson. Where nervous news reporters were getting arrested for working on their stories at McDonald's the night before, and the backdrop to a thousand videos of the earlier confrontation was showering sparks of tear gas canisters and police flash-bang "stun" grenades exploding - and sometimes being hurled back at police - the scene behind CNN's Don Lemon was different Thursday night. Rather than angry chants and exploding devices, you could hear the easy laughter and excited, pleasant voices of people walking along the streets.
The first time I heard a couple laughing quietly as they strolled down a sidewalk as part of the evening's protest march, I knew a sea change had occurred. Where there was rage, now there was a peaceful demonstration.
The difference, as we saw it, was the style of confrontation. It was no longer so clearly an Us vs. Them thing as much as an Us to Them thing, or even an Us with Them thing.
It was out of many, one - one large group of people, again questioning why yet another young black man had been shot down by local police. That is an ongoing story, and not the message of Ferguson Friday night.
That lesson, at least to me, a viewer in Florida, was that there is an unforeseen peril in preparing local police forces for war against our own people. It's one thing to talk about public safety, and quite another to risk making a public protest very unsafe.
We don't need millions of closed-circuit cameras recording every square of sidewalk in America, or snipers guarding every block from rooftops, or tanks and armored personnel carriers treading heavily down our streets surrounded by men armed with assault rifles and dressed in camouflage combat gear.
Instead, we need people who can see the meaning of a thing from the way it looks, and understand that changing perceptions can vastly improve not only public safety but also reduce the chasm that has too long existed between local police and minority communities.
What happened in Ferguson, I hope, will forever become an object lesson in every police academy in this nation. There is no academy for protestors, although there has been something like that at liberal colleges for a long time, but by their nature protests are ad hoc, creatures of a moment more than a movement. Sometimes they grow into a movement, but they don't start out that way.
We live today in a society in which television images of violence, and "viral" social media content can ignite change and conflagration as easily as a match dropped in this year's California forests. Understanding what those image-makers - You Tube videos, Instagram, Flickr and Shutterfly photography, Snapchat snaps, Skype chats, tweets, website comments and blogs - convey and how they can add to the violence is essential, but so also is knowing how to change the content by responsible actions at ground zero.
In Ferguson, Mo., it was done by replacing the highly militarized police officers of the town with highly trained and friendly state troopers determined to end a confrontation that had deadly potential, and by bringing those most responsible for executive decisions out from behind their desks and into the streets to take responsibility for the prevailing circumstances.
For some reason, where so many others have failed to act wisely and well in similar situations, Missouri's leadership did. I don't doubt that lives were saved as a result, lives whose loss might have ignited the entire city of St. Louis. I think Ron Johnson ought to be elected to the U.S. Senate.
For their part, I have to feel that the protestors made the state troopers part of their protest, rather than protesting against them as stand-ins for the local police. The young people who spontaneously became their spokespersons were articulate, logical and aggressive in making the protest heard. I can't recall that ever happening before, and frankly, when I saw it happen there for the first time, I cried.
I felt as though we might have spared ourselves from that bloody civil war that so many people seem to be talking about, and given ourselves a shot at the restoration of American unity.
Editor's Note: On Friday night, after the release of a video suggesting Michael Brown had committed a strongarm robbery at a local convenience store, unrest returned to Ferguson and the "miracle" unraveled a bit. Federal officials had warned against the release because the officer named in the shooting was reportedly unaware of the 911 call about it when he confronted Michael Brown. However, the lessons of Thursday night are still significant, the author believes.
Joe Shea, Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter, has covered protests in America and elsewhere, and twice was injured, over the course of his 44 years as a journalist.