Thursday, August 14, 2014

Commentary: The Trouble in Ferguson

Warning: I'm going to do something here I've never done before in nine and a half years of running this site - namely, write about a non-musical topic. If you're not interested in reading this, please feel free to move on to another post, or another site.

My apologies for the lack of posts here this week. In addition to having some other work to do, and some blogging burnout as well, I've been preoccupied with following the events in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis that's less than a 30 minute drive from StLJN HQ.

By now, many of you outside the St. Louis area will have seen news reports about this, and I'm not even going to attempt to recount everything that's gone down in the last five days, although there will be some links at the bottom of this post with more info.

What I will tell you is this: On Saturday, an 18-year-old black kid named Michael Brown was walking to his grandmother's house with a friend when they were stopped by a Ferguson police officer. Brown, a recent high school graduate who had no criminal record, was unarmed.

Statements from witnesses and the statements made by police sources differ on exactly what happened next, but the end result of the altercation was that the officer, whose name still has not been disclosed, shot and killed Brown. Immediately afterward, while police secured the scene and gathered evidence, Brown's body was left uncovered in the road for several hours, causing a great deal of distress for family members and neighbors on the residential street.

The next evening, a group of people gathered near the site of Brown's death were met by a large contingent of police in riot gear. When the crowd disbursed, there was some vandalism and looting of businesses on a nearby commercial street, and one, a QuikTrip convenience store/gas station, was set on fire and destroyed.

This led to three nights of tense confrontations between protestors, who were noisy but almost completely non-violent except for a handful of rock-throwing knuckleheads, and a frighteningly large force of police officers, drawn from more than two dozen local departments, fitted out in military gear, and seemingly determined to escalate tensions rather than ease them.

For three nights in a row, police pointed guns at the protestors, formed battle lines to block the streets and prevent people from moving freely (and in some cases, from getting home), and ultimately wound up using an array of weapons including tear gas, rubber bullets and "baton rounds" to disperse the crowds. In the process, police gassed a state senator; targeted members of the news media, detaining some and firing on others; and in a couple of instance, shot tear gas at people standing in their own yards.

Despite all this, and despite how it may have been portrayed in the media outside St. Louis, there's been no further "rioting," burning or looting. The continuing escalation of tensions appears to have been a result of the actions of police, more specifically the command decisions made by the leaders of the St. Louis County Police Department and the Ferguson PD, and NOT the fault of the protestors, who have been attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights to speak and protest freely. Much of the damage from Sunday night has been cleaned up already, with people pitching in from all over the community; a number of the looters have been arrested and charged; and several of the affected businesses have reopened.

Today, Missouri's governor came to St. Louis, and put the Missouri State Highway Patrol in charge of security for the ongoing protests in Ferguson. With a new man - Captain Ronald Johnson, an African American who used to live in Ferguson - in charge, the easing of tensions onsite seems to have been almost immediate, as he and other police officers mingled, talked and marched with the protestors instead of pointing guns at them.

As I'm writing this shortly after 9:00 p.m. St. Louis time, there have been peaceful protests all over St. Louis and all over the country tonight, but so far, no more violence in Ferguson.

I fervently hope that continues to be the case, and that the investigation of Mike Brown's death, which now has been joined by the FBI, will be thorough, transparent, and lead to a just result. Nothing can undo what's already been done, but the Brown family and the larger community deserve some answers.

In the meantime, there are plenty of large questions that still will need to be addressed, about police conduct in this specific case, and towards black folks and other people of color generally; the militarization of many of our local police departments; racism and political representation; and many other issues that I don't have the time or expertise to comment upon in a meaningful way. So, I'm not even going to try, except to note that these are things we all should be concerned about. 

Instead, I'm going to try to get back to writing about music. I don't know if I'll be able to get a "Jazz This Week" post up in time for it be of any use, but I will update the St. Louis Jazz Notes calendar with all the latest information I've received, and with any luck, something resembling regular posting will resume some time tomorrow.

For more about the situation in Ferguson, this seems to be as evenhanded and accurate an overview of events as I've been able to find so far:

The local daily, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has had reporters on scene all week and has extensive coverage here:

The local NPR affiliate, KWMU aka St. Louis Public Radio, has maintained a timeline of social media posts and other reporting that's being updated on an ongoing basis:

Antonio French, an alderman in the City of St. Louis (which is surrounded by, but not technically part of, St Louis County), has been doing citizen journalism all week, posting videos to his Twitter feed. Alderman French also spent a night in the lockup for his trouble, but even with that interruption, many St. Louisans from all over the area and people from all over the world have been continuing to follow his coverage:

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