By Tom Baxter
These days some of our most important stories find their way to the top of the news cycle for incidental reasons, and such is the case with the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar notes in a searing essay in Time, three other unarmed black men were shot by police in the United States within the same month as Michael Brown. The Albuquerque, N.M. police department has been involved in the shooting of 37 people in the past four years, and killed 23. Even cases which sparked widespread protests and rioting, such as Cincinnati in 2001 and Anaheim in 2012, attracted far less national media attention than Ferguson.
As important as the issues it raises may be, what caused the ever-restless eye of the national media to focus on Ferguson was that this young man was shot in August, when Washington and the world’s other power centers are quiet, and his body was allowed to lay on the ground for four hours, an image broadcast nationally by the end of that news cycle.
When the media’s hungry eye settled on Ferguson, it could have been treated to no more enticing an image than the St. Louis county police in militarized gear responding to protesters with raised weapons. In the wink of an eye, one incident became symbolic of many, one death the center of a dozen controversies.
I spent a couple of days working for an urban research firm during a record cold wave more than 40 years ago in Florissant, the larger suburb which stretches to the north of Ferguson beyond I-270. It was so cold the graphite wouldn’t adhere to the paper when I made pencil sketches of storefronts.
That’s as close as I come to any personal knowledge of Ferguson. But there is a lot about the place that should be familiar to us all.
When I lived in St. Louis, urban blight was defined vertically, by the 57-acre high-rise development called Pruitt-Igoe, an experiment in urban development which went badly wrong, for reasons that are still being debated, and in a spectacular admission of failure was dynamited in 1972. If a white kid strayed too close to Pruitt-Igoe in those days, the police would pull you over and warn you they wouldn’t be coming in after you.
Since then, in St. Louis and Atlanta as well as the rest of the country, the problems that were once associated with the high-rises of Pruitt-Igoe and other inner-city areas have grown horizontally, into suburban towns that few people have ever heard of until they explode. Here the same problems of poverty and crime fester, but generally with even less attention paid to them than when these problems were identified with the inner city. The Ferguson story implicitly traces the tensions associated with this national trend.
I took an urban studies course back then taught by former St. Louis Mayor Raymond Tucker, a contemporary and in many ways a comparable figure to Atlanta’s William Hartsfield, and although he was quite elderly, he managed to drill in one lesson still very pertinent today. St. Louis County — which, incidentally, is completely separate from the City of St. Louis — has an astonishing number of overlapping boundaries, designating towns, school districts, water districts and other governmental entities which were created without much thought to regional coherence, much less planning. It’s a system that makes it easy for no one to be in charge. This was reflected in the authorities’ clumsy response to the unrest that erupted after Brown’s death, and the striking lack of discipline shown by the police during the demonstrations.
This also helps to explain how a town with a majority black population has a white city hall and an almost all-white police force: It isn’t easy to figure out how to gain political power there, and the reins of power change much more slowly than the demographics.
According to one poll, black Americans are much more likely to think the shooting of Brown by police officer Darren Wilson wasn’t justified than whites, who remain mostly undecided about the incident. That’s understandable. But there really are two separate questions: whether Wilson was justified in shooting Brown at all, and whether he was justified in shooting him six times.
The latter question may be the one on which the country should focus, because it goes to a matter of police doctrine connecting many of these cases around the country. There are cases where a police officer has reason to shoot to kill, and shoot several times to accomplish this. But the threshold for this use of ultimate force has been set too low, and too little thinking has gone in to figuring out how to manage violent situations short of it. Whatever the grand jury decides in Wilson’s case, that discussion — which gets to the heart of the matter more directly than what type of gear the police are equipped with — should begin.