Why I Fear for the People of Ferguson

On the afternoon of January 20, 2009, just a few hours after President Obama was sworn in for his first term, I was in a marked police car and driving through South-Central Los Angeles.  The atmosphere in the area was festive – unusual in a place where there is not often much cause for celebration.  I was stopped at a red light on a busy street, and when the light changed to green I started to drive through the intersection when something in the corner of my eye caused me to brake.  There, gliding through the red light as casually as you please, was a young black man on a bicycle.  Wearing a T-shirt adorned on the front with a picture of the new president, he passed in front of my car and, looking directly at me, raised a fist in the air and shouted, “Obama!”

In due course we were engaged in conversation.  “President Obama says you still have to stop for the red lights,” I told him.  Minutes later he was pedaling on his way, perhaps slightly less ebullient at having received his traffic ticket.  Why should he have allowed such a minor inconvenience as a traffic ticket mar the New Day that had only just dawned?

If today you were to visit the intersection where I very nearly flattened that young man, you would find the neighborhood much as it was that day six years ago.  Unemployment and crime remain higher than in most other areas of Los Angeles, characteristics that are sadly reflected in inner-city neighborhoods from coast to coast.  And though I cannot be absolutely certain of this, I suspect that if today I were to speak to that young man I nearly flattened, I would find him six years older but otherwise much the same: poor, unemployed, and all but unemployable.

But for that young man on that Inauguration Day, and for so many others in South-Central Los Angeles, as in similar parts of Chicago, Atlanta, New York, and, yes, St. Louis, all was sunshine and lollipops.  President Obama, it was widely believed, would soon fix everything.

And now, six years on, what has become of all those golden dreams that once wafted along on the sweetly scented breezes of Hope and Change?  Not much.  And with the recent midterm elections, whatever chances that might have remained of those dreams becoming reality have gone up the spout.  President Obama, whom so many saw as the Bringer of All Good Things, has been rendered into the lamest of all lame ducks.  The sunny optimism that reigned six years ago has given way to deep disaffection.

Which is why I fear for the people of Ferguson, Missouri.

The St. Louis County grand jury has for several weeks been hearing evidence in the case of Michael Brown, the so-called “gentle giant” who was shot to death by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9.  Their decision in the matter is expected soon, and if we are to believe leaked details of the investigation, the substance of which is that Brown attempted to disarm Officer Wilson before being shot, it appears unlikely Wilson will be indicted.  And when that decision is announced, the street violence that followed the shooting will seem tame by comparison.

We can speculate on the motive behind these leaks, and for what it’s worth I offer here my own theory.  Recall the riots that broke out in Los Angeles following the 1992 acquittals of the four LAPD officers accused in the beating of Rodney King (there was actually a hung jury as to one of them).  One reason the acquittals were greeted with so much outrage was that the substance of the officers’ defense was given so little coverage in the media.  So endlessly were the most inflammatory moments of the Rodney King arrest video played on television, so filled with certitude was the media commentary, that the public had come to expect convictions.  Indeed, the chance that the officers might not be convicted seemed utterly remote to anyone who had not followed the case closely.  When the officers were not convicted, the outrage was all the greater for this lack of balanced coverage.

So, the leaks coming out of the Michael Brown investigation may serve to diminish the widely held expectations that Officer Wilson will be charged.  To the extent the leaks have achieved this purpose, they should be welcomed rather than condemned.  Michael Brown’s autopsy alone, which comports in all details with Wilson’s reported version of the encounter, provides ample reasonable doubt that Wilson committed a crime.  Absent a jury as blinkered to the evidence as was O.J. Simpson’s, Wilson will never be convicted of anything.

But none of this will matter to the perpetually and professionally aggrieved, of whom there has been no shortage in Ferguson these past months.  For them, there can be no satisfactory conclusion short of Darren Wilson being hauled off to prison.

So we will soon see a gathering in Ferguson of people for whom rioting is but a pastime, and for whom an excuse to engage in it is always and ever welcome.  In the months since Michael Brown’s death we have seen, in addition to the many sincerely minded peaceful protesters, street thugs and itinerant rabble rousers unite under the banner of opposition to police violence.  Cloaked with this veneer of moral authority, they have protested against this perceived deadly threat against young black males while in blithe denial of the actual one: other young black males.

Yes, the troubles are coming, in Ferguson and very likely other cities, too, so it’s best to be prepared.  The last large-scale riot in the United States was the one mentioned above, that which followed the first trial of the LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King.  I was in the middle of that riot, and from that perspective I can offer some hints of what to expect.

When the Rodney King riots broke out on April 29, 1992, the LAPD was caught embarrassingly off guard.  For example, I was scheduled to finish my shift that day at 6 p.m., an hour at which the rioting was clearly underway.  As six o’clock approached, my coworkers and I gathered around a television set in the police station and watched things unfold, and we monitored the police radio frequencies for the reports of violence that came ever more rapidly as the minutes passed.  Despite this, we were told to go home at the regular time.  Hundreds of officers were allowed to leave their stations between 3 and 7 p.m., even as the first fires of the riot burned out of control.

That won’t happen in Ferguson.  The violence seen after the Michael Brown shooting, as bad as it was, was but a dress rehearsal for the real show about to begin.  There is no substitute for experience when it comes to managing crowds, and the cops in and around St. Louis who have been dealing with protests since August are by now as experienced as any in the country.  They’ll be ready – but only if they’re properly led.

Seeking to calm anxious people living and working in the St. Louis area, Governor Jay Nixon of Missouri held a press conference on Tuesday, at which he told of the preparations being made in advance of the grand jury’s decision.  “Violence will not be tolerated,” he said. “The residents and businesses of this region will be protected.”

We’ll see.