The Ferguson Debacle

The repeated references to “unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown” are reminiscent of another racially charged incident from 1991.  How often did we hear the phrase “motorist Rodney King” back then?  Surely some people were given to believe “Motorist” was the man’s first name.  But it was easier to peddle the myth by labeling him a motorist than it would have been by telling the truth, which is that he was a paroled robber, drunk and perhaps high on PCP, fleeing from the California Highway Patrol at a hundred miles per hour.

And so it is with Michael Brown, the “gentle giant” who was revealed to have conducted himself less than gently while robbing a store of a box of cheap cigars just minutes before his fatal encounter with police.  It took a week for this information to come out, and even when it did, some in the media were all but apologizing for airing it.

Captain Ron Johnson

It was inevitable that when the protests that followed Michael Brown’s death devolved into violence and looting that someone would be found to replace Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson as the face of law enforcement in the city, and it was just as inevitable that the person chosen would be black.  Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol seemed ideal for the role.  He was a native of Ferguson, and he projected the air of calm confidence one hopes to see in a man placed in that situation.  When he enjoyed a day in the sun by marching along with protesters and promising a less confrontational approach by police, the strategy appeared to work, but only for one night.

The following night the shooters and looters were back, and when police did little to respond, in essence abandoning the business owners of the town to the appetites of a bunch of thugs, Johnson looked weak and ineffectual.  There is no better way to ensure that disorder will continue than by demonstrating that those who engage in it will suffer no consequences.

The demands placed on Johnson were daunting: he had to coordinate the police response from departments throughout the St. Louis area, meshing together hundreds of officers who may never have met each other, much less had the opportunity to train together.  And he had to be the PR man at the same time, showing the locals and the wider world that the police weren’t as bad as people had been led to believe.  All well and good, but when on Aug. 17 he appeared in uniform at a church event where Michael Brown’s family was present, he addressed them personally and said, “I’m sorry.”

The men and women under his command might well have asked, “Sorry for what, exactly?”  Had Johnson accepted as true the charge that Michael Brown was shot and killed without justification?  And he went on to describe his own son as a young man who “wears his pants sagging, wears his hat cocked to the side, got tattoos on his arms . . .”  In other words his son, with Captain Johnson’s blessing, apparently, chooses to adorn himself so as to emulate the very people Johnson was brought in to deal with: the looters and vandals who had been rampaging on the streets of Ferguson nearly every night for a week.  What was the value in the revelation about his son?

The speech went over big with the audience, who were often on their feet cheering and applauding, but anyone waiting for some words of condemnation, or even mild disapproval, for the looters would come away disappointed.

It’s all well and good to have a warm and fuzzy police spokesman be the public image of law enforcement, but somewhere away from the cameras there needs to be someone who, when chaos breaks out, can lead cops into the fray and bring order back to the streets.  Johnson is not that man.  You can lead the protest march or you can lead the police, but you can’t lead both.