For a long time I lived in the U City Loop, one of the more diverse and integrated parts of St. Louis County. Years ago one of the hippy shops was robbed broad daylight, the hippy kid behind the counter killed. At first the robber wasn’t known, and there was a sense of dread that our happy little integrated community might be upended, that the robber might prove to be a Black person. When we learned it was a White kid from St. Charles County that was the murderer there was a palpable sense of relief.
When I first heard about the surveillance video, I have to admit, I felt the same sense of relief. While shooting and killing a kid for stealing cigarillos was clearly an excessive response, at least there was a reason the confrontation started, it wasn’t just a police officer stopping a kid for walking while Black. But then it all unraveled again… the situation did begin just because the kids were walking in the middle of the street. And again, I find myself with questions about how the police have handled the situation. I’ve only lived in Ferguson for a couple of years, and I have the advantage of being a mild mannered, middle class white guy that looks vaguely like Clark Kent. My impressions of the local police force were derived from seeing people pulled over for traffic violations or watching the police interact at music festivals and farmers markets. There are places in St. Louis County where if you see a person pulled over by an officer you can be pretty sure the person pulled over was Black. Ferguson is NOT one of those cities – I have seen a fair number of white people stewing by the side of the road waiting for their tickets. And I have seen Ferguson police interact cheerfully with Blacks and Whites at Ferguson events.
As I watched the Ferguson police chief talk, he doesn’t seem like a bad person, he even seems like a person that genuinely cares. But his comments about the release of the video seemed poorly thought out at best, and disingenuous at worst. He suggested he had to release the surveillance video, because he had received Freedom of Information requests for information related to the shooting. This implies that the officer was responding to the robbery when he confronted Mike Brown and so the tape had to be released. But now he has said this wasn’t the case, he didn’t know Mike Brown was a suspect at the start, but might have once the situation started. So unfortunately releasing the video when he did looks to many people, myself included, like an attempt to provide justification for Mike Brown’s death.
When the Black officer from the Highway Patrol was brought in, some of my White friends suggested it was a publicity stunt. Well, whatever it was, it worked. Dara and I went down to the Quick Trip on Thursday, along with thousands of other people, and it was a peaceful protest (yes, my sometimes timid small-town wife wanted to go to the site of the violence, to prove that Ferguson was a community and we supported each other). There was this sense that regardless of the outcome of the shooting, at least the Police weren’t just out to get Black people, that they were trying to figure out how to serve and protect everybody.
But then yesterday morning came the release of the video. Yet again my Black friends were confronted with the idea that the police were more interested in justifying what had happened than understanding what had happened to make sure it didn’t happen again. And for whatever reason, the Black highway patrol officer that had been so integral to decompressing the situation had not been told that the video was going to be released. Suddenly, the tension was even worse. Suddenly, the perception was that not only do the police not respect Black citizens, they don’t even respect Black police officers.
This is not my United States. In my United States, we believe that all men and women deserve equal respect. The words in the Constitution are not just words, they are what we aspire to, our guiding principles. There are no easy answers, and I continue to believe that everyone involved, including the Ferguson police chief, are good people doing the best they can. I continue to believe the Ferguson police department consists of decent, good people. But we have fallen short of our beliefs. We have fallen short of the level of respect that we owe each and every one of our citizens, regardless of color.