Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What Have We Learned From Ferguson?

The election of Barak Obama as the nation’s first black president was seen by many as a transformative event; an affirmation that the racial discord that has plagued our country since its birth was finally drawing to an end. Six years later many would argue that Barak Obama’s election has only served to exacerbate racial tensions. Recent events in Fergusson, Missouri suggest that they may have a point.

Over the past few months Ferguson, Missouri has served as a microcosm of the racial divide that still tears at the very fabric of our country.

A young black male decides to rob a convenient store…a handful of cigars the reward for his effort. Minutes later a confrontation with the responding white police officer leaves him dead in the street. Violence erupts as whites and blacks alike take to the streets in protest. Vandalism and looting are widespread. Fires rage. Small business owners can only watch as their livelihood goes up in flames. Police respond with military grade weaponry donated by the federal government. High powered assault weapons and tactical vehicles are used against the protestors. It is a scene one might expect out of a third world country.

For ninety days the predominantly black community awaits a grand jury decision on whether to indict the responding white officer. Tensions are at razor’s edge. Law enforcement officials promise local business owners that this time their businesses will be protected. The National Guard is brought in. A “no indictment” announcement is expected. When the anticipated verdict is announced the city erupts once again. This time there are as many protestors from outside the community as from within. Their goal is to create chaos and use violence to unleash their pent up frustrations. The community is set afire once more. Law enforcement fails to protect the business community. Instead they move to protect public facilities while confining protests to a few city blocks. They stand back and watch the city burn. Twelve businesses are burned to the ground. Several more are vandalized and looted.

So what do we have to show for all this violence and misery? In the end, another young black male is dead, a white police officer is acquitted and a predominantly black community will take years if not decades to recover. Inequality and a a lack of trust in law enforcement still reign supreme.

Yesterday the president took steps to “reduce the simmering distrust between police and minority communities” and thereby lessen the likelihood of incidents like those in Ferguson from happening again. He proposed a three year, $263 million dollar plan to assist community policing and training. Included in the plan are tighter controls on the use of military grade equipment and the federal funds local communities use to buy them. Also included is $75 million for 50,000 new body cameras to be used by police officers.

This is a good step and the president should be applauded for taking it. Anything one can do to easy tension between police and minority communities is a step in the right direction. And if you are going to make military grade equipment available to local law enforcement agencies it is probably a good idea to make certain that the officers are properly trained in the use and deployment of same.

But this is a very small step to repair the racial divide that is still a monumental national problem. The “simmering distrust” between minority communities and local police will not be resolved by training videos and body cameras. For law enforcement to be effective there has to be a partnership between the law enforcement community and the civilian population. That will only occur if law enforcement officials recruit local residents to work within the law enforcement apparatus. Law enforcement has to work from within the community…not outside it.

And community relations are only a part of the problem. The seeds for anger and violence are sewn by despair. What we have witnessed in Ferguson these past few months is what despair looks like. It is what happens when people feel that there is now way out of a desperate situation. We hear more and more about middle class families struggling to survive financially; fearful of what the future may hold for their children. Imagine what it must feel like to the poor and disenfranchised. Nothing good can come from hopelessness.

The president is doing what he can do to close the racial divide. As with immigration reform, he is trying to move the country forward. But he can only do so much.

Economic inequality, racism and the systemic distrust of all things government have coalesced into a national quagmire that is far from resolved. We can work toward closing the racial divide that exists by preaching about how we are all God’s children and lecturing police on being more sensitive to minority concerns. But until we find a solution to the unfairness of economic inequality that plagues this country; particularly that which exists along racial lines; we will never live up to that pronouncement that we claim to hold so dear...that all men are created equal.

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