There are several disturbing trends coming out of the shooting and subsequent protests/rioting in Ferguson, Mo.
First is the issue of unarmed people in this country being killed by police. That trend is growing. More and more you're seeing cases where people are dying at the hands of law enforcement officers in situations where non-lethal means, such as a taser, were available as an alternative. I once did a story on a taser in which the local cops delighted in testing it on me. I had agreed, readily, to the test. I had serious second thoughts about my sanity when it was over. Those things will stop you, cold.
Most cops I know never want to use their weapon. In fact, most of them hope they never have to even draw their weapon on anyone. But there are bad apples in every bunch, and some of them wear badges. I'm starting to see stories every month or two now of someone who is unarmed being killed by someone with a badge. It used to be, those were really rare. Not anymore, and there are far too many places in this country right now where if you're black, brown or red, if you're stopped by police for whatever reason (and sometimes for no reason at all) you can be legitimately concerned for your civil rights, your physical well-being and even your life.
Keep in mind right now, as of my writing this, that there's a lot of conflicting information about what happened in the Brown shooting. Witnesses and the police officer's accounts differ. Substantially. In the end, a court is going to determine what the truth is. Until then, everybody, from Brown to the cop, are innocent until proven otherwise. This is clearly a case where anyone needs a healthy dose of skepticism when they hear any account of what happened. Wait and learn before you judge.
There's also the issue of how heavily armed law enforcement should be. Ask a cop and he wouldn't mind having a tank sitting in the cop car lot, just in case they need it. They tend to deal in worst-case scenarios when it comes to training and planning.
But it looks bad when you see a bunch of peaceful people with both hands raised in the air having tear gas thrown at them and being advanced upon by armored vehicles and cops in body armor with military grade assault rifles in their hands (whatever happened to the good old nightstick?).
And when I see images of what looks like a clearly peaceful protest being broken up with tear gas (which is really nasty if you've never experienced it), then it is reasonable to wonder if the police in Ferguson are interested in calming tensions or proving how tough they are.
But once again, all the facts aren't in. Most of the cops I know are the finest human beings you'll ever meet. But I've also known a few in my 45 years in this business that would be behind bars if they didn't wear a badge. As in all things, one or two bad apples can make the whole barrel smell rotten.
Ferguson is a town of 21,000 people on the outskirts of St. Louis, Mo. Two-thirds are black, one-third is white. Black officers account for less than 5 percent of the total local law enforcement. Yet everything I hear from the police chief, the sheriff and the highway patrol boss who are dealing with the situation there does NOT indicate this is Bull Conner in Birmingham in the 1960s, even though there are some images from this incident that remind people of that time.
I hate to admit this, because at one time I thought racism had been driven underground, left only to the purview of extremists like klansmen and neo-nazis, but the last six years (in particular) have shown that it's still simmering below the surface. It hasn't been defeated and that all Americans must continue to be vigilant in opposing it. By the next census, every American will be part of a minority. So the rights of minorities are the rights of us all and it is vital that we protect every American's rights at all times, regardless of race, religion or economic class.
Is this shooting a racial issue? Who knows. There's no actual evidence one way or the other right now. Some are making it out to be. An equal number are attacking those who are playing the race card, laying their own anti-race card on the table of political punditry, apparently preferring to believe that racism is no longer an issue anywhere in the country. Both of those sides have agendas that go beyond this incident. I hope the truth doesn't get buried by people pushing political agendas.
What is important is that an unarmed man was shot six times and killed by a man with a badge when a non-lethal option probably was available. The color of those men should be irrelevant. The mechanism of what happened is what's important.
This whole incident triggered some protests that turned into rioting and looting in some cases. In some cases, not all.
Let's look at the protests first. There obviously are a lot of people in that community that don't trust the police to provide them with justice and protection. Police should be (and usually are, in most parts of this county) people you look forward to seeing on your block, not someone you don't trust -- or even fear.
These protests arise from a fundamental underlying problem that needs to be addressed -- but which is being trampled by the events that followed the shooting.
There are always people who will take advantage of any case in which police aren't likely to simply open fire on a crowd, or can't move around in anything other than large groups.
You see it when some college wins a championship and suddenly cars are being burned and stores looted as a small number of people more interested in mayhem and vandalism take advantage of what they see is an opportunity to ignore the rules of civilization.
I remember the Rodney King beating (and the totally inexplicable verdict) that triggered a massive six-day riot that burned 3,700 buildings and resulted in 58 deaths in LA. Most of the people who lived in those areas -- whose homes and businesses burned -- where just trying to get out of the way of the looters and arsonists who used the incident as an excuse for their sociopathic behavior.
So it has been each night in Ferguson. Those who were exercising their rights to peaceful protest had everything they were working for -- the point they were trying to make -- destroyed by a handful of other people more interested in vandalism, theft and mayhem. It was the looting and arsons that made the news (as it naturally would).
It's also the reason you're seeing two completely different stories coming out, one from protestors who claim the police just attacked with tear gas and smoke grenades for no reason, and the other from police who say they were attacked. Both are right.
For most of the protesters, they WERE being peaceful and non-threatening. But in a crowd of 2,000, if one person has a gun and another a molotov cocktail, and they shoot and throw firebombs at the police, the police are naturally going to feel they are under attack. And since they can't make out specifically who in the crowd is doing it, their responses wind up being against the entire crowd, even those parts that weren't aware of the shot or the firebomb.
Nobody wins and both sides wind up looking bad, even though the vast majority of the people on each side of the tear gas line didn't want any trouble.
Two bad apples in a crowd of 2,000 is all it would take to create the disaster that is Ferguson.
What's worse, and this goes back to the issue of people with agendas different than the peaceful protestors, outsiders are now showing up in Ferguson to pour gasoline on the fire.
So here are the trends that Ferguson is bringing to focus:
1) The increasing lethality of cop-citizen confrontations;
2) The increasing militarization of local law enforcement;
3) The still, very real, issues of racism and discrimination;
4) The declining level of respect for law enforcement and the declining levels of trust in far too many communities that they really are there to protect and to serve (which, personally, I think most of them are), and,
5) The rise of sociopathic behavior by a very few that takes advantage of and contributes to an overall decline of civilized behavior, creating chaos that leaves ordinary, peaceful people as victims caught in the crossfire.
Ferguson is in the news not because it is an isolated incident, but because it is a snapshot of an America in crisis, with old wounds that still fester, people who want to throw salt in those wounds, and much work still to be done to achieve the American ideal of peace, equality and justice for all.