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Violent reaction to Ferguson grand jury will not create the change that’s needed

There are two things, besides the obvious, that we know about Monday’s grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo. One, the investigation that led up to it was exhaustive and, two, the violent reaction to it was about much more than a decision that was disappointing to those who believe Michael Brown was attempting to surrender when Officer Darren Wilson shot him on Aug. 9.

We still don’t know exactly what happened that day, although virtually all grand jury witnesses agreed that Brown and Wilson struggled in the officer’s squad car before the shooting. There is a system in place for investigating possible crimes and, barring evidence that the process itself was corrupted – and there is none, thus far – the responsible choice is to accept the decision, learn from it all that is possible and confront the continuing and over-arching sense of alienation that pervades African-American communities across the country.

For his part, Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown wisely issued a statement calling for “thoughtful conversation” and unity in a city marked by segregation and poverty.

A sense of anger and hopelessness is the real driver of the violence that erupted in Ferguson Monday night, and of the largely peaceful protests that occurred in cities across the country. A single instance or perception of injustice, however egregious, doesn’t produce that kind of broad and deeply rooted response.

But when your own history includes brutalities such as slavery and Jim Crow, and when, even today, African-Americans are followed in stores lest they shoplift, it can hardly be surprising that people would react viscerally – which is not to say appropriately or even usefully – to events such as the shooting of Brown.

The police chief in Kalamazoo, Mich., learned something about the divisions between police and minority citizens recently following a city-funded study showing that black drivers in his city were nearly twice as likely to be stopped and then “much more likely to be asked to exit their vehicle, to be handcuffed, searched and arrested.”

Speaking to a reporter for the New York Times, the city’s chief of public safety, Jeff Hadley, noted that he imposed new rules to stop “the fishing expeditions,” but also said that he was startled by the forward-looking response to the study from the African-American community. “I thought they would be up in arms, but they said: ‘You’re not telling us anything we didn’t already know. How can we help?’ ”

The comments were part of a larger story about how African-American community leaders, themselves, are using government data to document unequal treatment of black citizens and, through that effort, are driving change. That is a far better way to force improvement than smashing windows and burning buildings.

More than that needs to be done, of course, including improving educational systems and creating economic opportunities to offer pathways out of poverty. Police departments, including Ferguson’s, also need to work harder to attract qualified minority officers. Residents of largely minority communities are unlikely to feel served and protected when almost no one in the department looks like them.

There have been many victims of the tragedy in Ferguson, beginning with Brown, though he plainly can’t be called an innocent victim. Wilson may be a victim, too – is one, if the grand jury reached the right decision.

Today, we have to hope that the victimization stops in Ferguson – that people have had enough of smashing windows and setting fires. Instead, follow the lead of those who are mining data, proving their case and inducing change. It’s a better way.