Six Vital Conversations Jumpstarted on the Streets of Ferguson

  • submit to reddit
A man watches as police walk through a cloud of smoke during a clash with protesters Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Protests in the St. Louis suburb rocked by racial unrest since a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager to death turned violent Wednesday night, with people lobbing Molotov cocktails at police who responded with smoke bombs and tear gas to disperse the crowd. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
A man watches as police walk through a cloud of smoke during a clash with protesters Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

After nearly two weeks, the outrage in Ferguson appears to be taking new forms, and becoming less openly confrontational. But the shooting of Michael Brown — along with a number of similar, troubling, fatal incidents in which a police officer’s overreaction ended in a black man’s death — have started a nationwide conversation about race, class and the nature of American law enforcement.

Here are a few discussions that are emerging as America takes a step back:

1. Ferguson is part of a long history of racial discrimination

The shooting of Michael Brown may have been the spark that ignited a powder keg, but the protests were in response to a legacy of racial injustice in St. Louis’ segregated suburbs, and, more broadly, in America on the whole.

At the LA Times, Michael Hiltzik notes that before being shot, Michael Brown was, ostensibly, stopped for the most minor of offenses: jaywalking.
Peter Coy reports for Bloomberg Businessweek that earlier this year, “a legal aid firm called ArchCity Defenders prepared a white paper that accused several municipalities in St. Louis County of stopping black drivers disproportionately for traffic violations, fining them in court sessions that were closed to the public, and jailing them when they were unable to pay.” The report found that “poorer drivers, mostly black, who can’t afford lawyers, often find themselves caught in a downward spiral. They get points on their licenses, they can’t afford their fines, they’re jailed, they lose their jobs, they drive with suspended licenses and get into deeper trouble.” The recent unrest in Ferguson is “taking place in a society that plainly isn’t working,” Coy writes.

At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok calls the system described in the report a modern-day “debtors prison.” At the LA Times, Michael Hiltzik notes that before being shot, Michael Brown was, ostensibly, stopped for the most minor of offenses: jaywalking.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic that the prejudices shown here are not specific to Ferguson, nor to police officers. “Black people,” he writes “are not above calling the police—but often we do so fully understanding that we are introducing an element that is unaccountable to us. We introduce the police into our communities, the way you might introduce a predator into the food chain. This is not the singular, special fault of the police. The police are but the tip of the sword wielded by American society itself.” And in a sometimes humorous but mostly sobering summary of the first week’s events, John Oliver calls out Ferguson Mayor James Knowles for claiming that the town had no history of racial tensions: “As a general rule, the mayor should not be able to say, ‘There is no history of racial tension here,’ because that sentence has never been true anywhere on earth.”

2. A militarized police force is a scary thing

In an editorial titled “Overkill,” The Economist quotes Gene O’Donnell of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice: “It is hard to point to anything that Ferguson police did [since Mr Brown’s shooting] that was not wrong.” Among these blunders was the over-the-top and ham-handed show of miltary might by the mostly white officers in a majority black town. “They confronted peaceful demonstrators and rioters alike with a stunning show of force—armored cars with snipers on top—and precious little tact,” the editorial board writes. At, Iraq War veteran Rafael Noboa y Rivera writes that Ferguson police were better armed than his men were in a war zone, and used confrontational tactics that the military is trained to avoid when attempting to de-escalate a protest.

It’s not just Ferguson, Alex Kane warns. “The weapons that destroyed Afghanistan and Iraq have made their way to local law enforcement,” he writes. “It is harming civil liberties, ramping up the ‘war on drugs,’ impacting the most marginalized members of society and transforming neighborhoods into war zones.” And Paul Waldman notes that there are limits to what the federal government can do to remedy the situation: “Congress could turn off the spigot that pours this equipment into these communities, but unless the federal government starts repossessing the equipment it already distributed (highly unlikely, to say the least), police departments all over the country will still be awash in military gear.” But Waldman hopes that the consensus among police chiefs nationwide is that Ferguson is exhibit A of what not to do: Maybe “some of those police chiefs will examine their own policies, when it comes to both using that equipment and dealing with crowds of protesters. Ferguson surely won’t change everything. But it might be a start.”

Police wearing riot gear try to disperse a crowd Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Authorities in Ferguson used tear gas and rubber bullets to try to disperse a large crowd Monday night. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Police wearing riot gear try to disperse a crowd Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.

3. Do we talk about race or do we talk about class?

Race is a key factor, but the unrest in Ferguson is also a window into America’s class conflict, argues Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the retired basketball legend, in Time Magazine. He writes that framing Brown’s death and the protests that followed as a racial struggle will start a series of debates that are less relevant than the one we should be having: How the majority can reclaim democracy from the rich few who hold the reigns.

He writes:

This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor. Of course, to many in America, being a person of color is synonymous with being poor, and being poor is synonymous with being a criminal….

So, it’s crucial that those in the wealthiest One Percent keep the poor fractured by distracting them with emotional issues like immigration, abortion and gun control so they never stop to wonder how they got so screwed over for so long.

Noting that there’s “so much good” in Abdul-Jabbar’s treatment of the topic, Nation sports editor Dave Zirin takes issue with one of Jabbar’s central arguments. Racism is the key discussion here, writes Zirin. “Michael Brown was shot dead by the police because he is black,” he argues. “Fighting racism, sexism and anti-LGBT bigotry is not a distraction from building a united struggle but a precondition for building a united struggle.”

4. Ferguson shows that “small,” close-to-home government isn’t necessarily best

Paul Waldman writes for The Washington Post’s Plumline blog that, although liberals and libertarians were horrified at the show of military-style police force in Ferguson, the conflict demonstrates that sometimes, the best government isn’t that which is small and close at hand. He writes:

Local government, the one that’s supposed to be in touch with the people, is not only out of touch, it’s making their lives miserable. The events in Ferguson have also shown us a case of inept local government that has made the situation worse at every turn. First the Ferguson police responded to protesting residents like they were retaking Fallujah. Then when state troopers succeeded in calming things down for a night — a higher level of government trying to correct the failures of a lower level — the Ferguson police released the surveillance video from that convenience store, as though trying to make the case that Michael Brown had it coming, which enraged local residents and started a new cycle of unrest….

The next time you hear someone say that power should be devolved as far as possible to the state and local level, remember that those lower levels of government are often where the worst problems are.

5. Is the press under attack?

Roughly a dozen members of the press were arrested while covering the protests in Ferguson. Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept, Aaron Ernst of Al Jazeera, Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post each published accounts of their run-ins with aggressive police officers; three of the four spent time in jail. Noting that the threat to the press extends beyond Ferguson, to government prosecution of journalists like James Risen who publish leaks without revealing their source, John Nichols writes, “There has to be a consistent and absolute defense of the rights not just of high-profile national reporters but of all journalists and all citizens who gather information, demand answers, speak truth to power and then seek to disseminate their reports.”

Jay Mitchell, of Pagedale, Mo., speaks and solicits a response of hands in the air from the crowd Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, in St. Louis during a peace vigil and moment of silence for Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager who was shot and killed by Ferguson, Mo., police Saturday. Vigils have been held across the country for people who died at the hands of police. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Christian Gooden)

Jay Mitchell, of Pagedale, Missouri, speaks and solicits a response of hands in the air from the crowd Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, in St. Louis during a peace vigil and moment of silence for Michael Brown. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Christian Gooden)

6. Is it time for the next civil rights movement?

At The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb notes that what’s happening in Ferguson bears resemblance to the start of a movement. “More than one person in the streets of Ferguson has compared what is happening here to the chaotic days of the Birmingham desegregation campaign in 1963,” Cobb writes. “And, like that struggle, the local authorities, long immune to public sentiment, were incapable of understanding how their actions reverberated outside the hermetic world where they held sway—how they looked to the world.”

At The Nation, Deepa Iyer writes that it is important for all communities of color to stand in solidarity with the protestors in Ferguson: “Latinos and Asian and Arab-Americans are no strangers to police violence and profiling based on skin color, accent, language, immigration status and faith.”

But, at The Root, Tufts historian Peniel E. Joseph writes that, unlike a half-century ago, black youth today don’t identify with any particular civil rights leader. “America’s racial underclass… rarely sees political leaders of any color advocating for them,” he writes. And former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert writes for the think tank Demos that movements are inhibited by how quickly Americans forget. Incidents that expose racism and poverty crop up periodically, but then poor black people fade “back into the invisibility from which they had come … Now, because of the persistence of racism and a relaxation of the fight against it, we are moving backwards. Ferguson is just the latest illustration.”

He concludes:

What is needed right now is a national gathering of some of the brightest and most committed African-American men and women to begin devising strategies to fight back in a coherent and sustained way against the racial injustice that still permeates this society. Let that be the first step toward the development of a new cadre of black leadership to carry this fight forward.

John Light is a writer and journalist sometimes based in New York. He writes a lot about climate policy, both inside and outside of the US. He was a former associate digital producer for Moyers & Company. His work has been supported by grants from The Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards, and has been included in ProPublica's #MuckReads collection. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
  • submit to reddit
  • Anonymous

    OK, here’s the thing I contest: “Michael Brown was shot dead by the police because he is black..”
    Let me state clearly up front: No concrete evidence has been released. (Which, under the circumstances, I think is a bad thing. We need as many facts as we can have right now.)
    But so far, here’s what has come out:
    Michael Brown had just robbed a store. Officer Wilson may or may not have been aware of that. (It would help to know exactly when that call went out on the police radio.) But regardless, Michael Brown knew had just robbed the store…which does influence his own state of mind.
    Brown’s friend who was with him (Corian) stated at first (as reported by the NY Times) that Brown was fleeing and was shot in the back. We know now…based on the autopsy…that information was incorrect.
    We know that Officer Wilson has bruises on his face, though a reported eye-socket break was incorrect.
    We know that the fatal shot was on top of the head, which could either be from Brown leaning forward trying to surrender, or leaning forward in a charge at the officer.
    In a video recording an eyewitness states: “Then the next thing I know he [Brown] doubled back toward him [Wilson]” which does tend to indicate that Brown did charge at the officer, and was not trying to flee.

    And though no other information has come out, you are perfectly willing to just jump immediately to the conclusion that Officer Wilson shot Brown because the young man “is black”. As if it had been a young white man who attacked Officer Wilson, then Wilson would have just thought “This guy is not black, so I’m just going to let him beat the hell out of me and get away.”

  • Leave A Mark

    [TIME cover] The Tragedy of Ferguson.

    [Answer] Inequality of the tragedy.

    TIME missed the narrative and failed to cover the systemic inequality. Its not about the individual outline warned “disperse, go home” but the community protesting, we had enough – “hands up , don’t shoot”. The message going viral in opposition to excessive force used by increasingly militarized peace keepers.

    Its unfortunate but true.

    We have many examples of unjustified shootings by killer-cops against a diverse mix of human ethnicity. I don’t excuse the designer propaganda of either side of the argument. .

    “Yes, there is good reason to think that many of these unjustifiable homicides by police across the country are racially motivated. But there is a lot more than that going on here. Our country is simply not paying enough attention to the terrible lack of accountability of police departments and the way it affects all of us—regardless of race or ethnicity.” – MICHAEL BELL, father of killer-cop victim.

    “Cops investigating cops and reporting to cops. Voila! Justified!” – BILL SCOTT, father of killer-cop victim.

  • Thaddeus Kozubal

    I think the officer was spot on. He was accosted in his vehicle earlier and
    knew he didn’t have the physical strength to subdue Brown. And when he was
    being bum-rushed, he tried non-threatening wounds to no avail. Then he stopped
    the perp dead. When you are being charged by an elephant, if the first shot
    does not do the job, you keep shooting until it falls. There’s a
    misinterpretation by observers. Brown didn’t have his hands up, he had them out
    in front of him for balance as he charged as evidenced by a lateral finger
    wound. I speculate that the head wound was sustained as Brown was falling
    forward but still maintaining froward motion. I must admit that the officer
    might need more time on the shooting range to sharpen his skills on moving
    targets while under threat.

  • Thaddeus Kozubal

    The use of tear gas makes for stunning photo-journalism at night with all the
    street lights back-lighting the clouds. It’s a cameraman’s dream. As far as not
    being discriminating in its effect, it’s an out of control crowd. It gets the
    crowd. It disperses the crowd while incapacitating a few and reducing the
    numbers of combatents. Would you rather have broken bones and fractured skulls
    from the use of night sticks? When you are in a crowd, you get what you get.

  • Thaddeus Kozubal

    Reporters should be required to wear electrified halos when covering this
    type of entertainment. They show up in street clothes looking like the rest of
    the crowd with only their egos showing. Clown suites would be even better to
    distinguish them from the “other” crowd. They get hurt? Hey. It’s
    just a part of the job, just like it is for the police who never know if they
    will make it home every night.

    I’m sure the newsmen and cameramen weren’t from the local paper and TV
    station. With their out-of-town coverage, they probably doubled the size of the
    crowd. You know, before covering events like this, they should probably be
    required to register with the local police chief who gets all their names and
    ensures they have their clown suits with them before they go marching out to
    the fifty-yard line for that shot of a lifetime, because it just might be.

    Now, can we get back to the gore from Israel, Ukraine, Iraq, or even the
    wild fire in California because this story is becoming boring. Yes, folks. It’s
    a circus out there.

  • Leave A Mark

    You focus on Brown, and ignore brown.

    The tragedy of Ferguson, is, inequality of the tragedy.

    (See Papachristou, 405 U.S. at 162.) “If a statute provides “no standards governing the exercise of . . .discretion,” it becomes “a convenient tool for harsh and discriminatory enforcement by local prosecuting officials, against particular groups deemed to merit their displeasure.” Id. at 170 (internal quotation marks omitted).

    “Ferguson is not just about systemic racism — it’s about class warfare and how America’s poor are held back”. – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar”

    “The killing of unarmed black people by American police is a human rights issue. It should also be a concern for all people, on all sides of the color line, who care about civil liberties, rights, and freedom. Why? The terrorizing of black and brown communities is a preview of what a militarized and fully unleashed police department, enlisted in the service of the surveillance society and a culture of cruelty, can (and will) do to white Americans in the future.”

  • Leave A Mark

    How true on a local level, not so much – yet – on the National stage.

    We have not escaped that illusion of choice or its enslavement.

    What Cornel West referes to as “The Niggerization of America” and Chris Hedges proclaims as “Sacrifice Zones” and urban reservations, and Glenn Greenwald examines in ” With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful”.

  • Leave A Mark

    7. Crowdfunding skunkworks for non-violent protest methodology and standards.

  • Leave A Mark

    I can see 501(c) organizations, for; The Advancement of Sound Protest Science, Watts Endowment for International Protest, National Opposition Planning Association, Selma Committee for Walkout Development. . .

  • Stuart

    Trivia quiz: Could a black man open-carry an AR-15 in Ferguson, Mo., the same as a white man?

  • Anonymous

    Huh? There’s no “nationwide conversation on race.” There’s talking heads
    on TV and bloggers talking about it, like this. A useful nationwide
    conversation would take place face-to-face among average people in
    communities all over the country. Not happening yet, but it should be.

  • gregorylent

    class is an even more valuable construct than race .. america is out of control at the top .. and all races need to deal with that


    Janet Wolfe
    We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery march and the voting rights act (1965). As a participant in the march and in SCLC’s SCOPE project that summer, I have been reviewing my notes from that time. I cannot help but think that (1) the campaign for voting rights is a constant struggle. So many states are attempting to restrict voting rights, and people need to be convinced how important it is to vote in local elections as well as the Presidential election. Many feel alienated from the system and so do not bother. (2) Poverty is indeed a big part of the problem. As inequality increases, such problems as Ferguson increase. (3) Some of the current violence seems to be a backlash against the steps we have taken toward equality. Some of the attacks on Obama seem to have a hidden racial agenda.

  • Dude

    Yes, there really is little known about what really happened at this time. Declaring Mr. Brown to be no more than a hood or Mr. Wilson the next coming of the new racist police state are most probably both wrong. The truth is not yet known. This to me is the real metaphor of this tragedy. People on both sides of the debate are talking right past each other. Each side is so fixed on their own ideological narrative that it is almost preordained that this will never be a catalyst for self analysis, solutions or even constructive debate. Nobody wants to look at the complicated reality of what causes these sorts of horrible confrontations. It conflicts too much with their emotional and intellectual predisposition. Perhaps both sides are somewhat right and somewhat wrong? Is that a possibility? How do problems get solved if no one is open to real analysis?

  • Anonymous

    There is no way that liberal media and Democrats will touch our poverty crisis beyond trying to safely confine it to a “racial issue” affecting specific urban communities.The majority of US poor are white. We call the poor who are black “disadvantaged,” and the poor who are white “white trash.” We have a poverty crisis because of a political agenda demanded by the middle class, implicitly (strongly) supported by the media marketed to liberals, enacted by the Democrats (or at least, what Bill Clinton proudly proclaimed “the New Democrats,” solid neoliberals). The US shipped out a huge share of our working class jobs since the 1980s, then ended welfare aid in the 1990s, creating a poverty crisis, and it is poverty that continues increasing the tensions.

  • Anonymous

    We will only pay marginal attention to voter suppression tactics for several reasons. Most of the people blocked from voting by these measures are the (primarily white) rural poor, the elderly and the disabled. On the “bright” side, for whom should the poor vote? They did overwhelmingly vote for Barack Obama, based on his own record, reasonably certain that he wouldn’t worsen conditions for them. But beyond that? In a nutshell, Republicans have contempt for the poor, but it is Democrats who have dramatically worsened conditions for them (NAFTA, repealing poverty relief, etc.). With the latest budget, Democrats voted to cut food stamp aid to the elderly, disabled and working poor. Again.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you! Of course, much work has gone into pitting the middle class against the poor, and the poor against each other by race.

  • Anonymous

    From all I’ve heard and read, they maintain the myth of “white privilege,” to the disgust of the masses of poor (most of whom are white/women).

  • Anonymous

    Oh brother.

  • Anonymous

    Very weird perspective. I should mention that it wasn’t Israel that attacked us on 9/11, and that America’s only interest in Israel is that it serves as a vital landing base for US troops foght9ing our oil wars.

  • Anonymous

    Yes indeed, we must be passive. Just get up every morning, work hard and play by all the rules, and pay no attention to that corporation behind the curtain.

  • ObamaYoda

    My thoughts about Ferguson revolve around the informal racism that has replaced de jure racism in America.

    I’m not clear what alternate universe Chief Justice John Roberts lives on. In striking down key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Roberts declared that America was now a “post-racial society.” Really?

    That 5-4 decision (Shelby County v. Holder) will go down in history next to the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision which said “A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a “citizen” within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.”

    Roberts’ Shelby County decision gutted the part of the law which calculated which states and jurisdictions — mostly in the former Confederate states — had to submit their voting law changes to the Justice Department for pre-approval.

    The United States has the largest prison population in the world.

    The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world (743 per 100,000), followed by Russia (577 per 100,000) and Rwanda (561 per 100,000).

    At year-end 2007 the United States had less than 5% of the world’s population but had a whopping 23.4% of the world’s prison and jail population.

    According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, “tough-on-crime” laws adopted since the 1980s have spiked U.S. prisons with mostly nonviolent offenders.

    In 2013, by age 23, 49% of black males in America have been arrested, and blacks accounted for 39.4% of the total prison and jail population in 2009 but comprised 13.6% of the US population.

    And although debtor’s prisons no longer exist in the United States, residents of some U.S. states can still be incarcerated for debt.

    And in many parts of America today, felons cannot vote. They can still live in America, but cannot take part in the democratic process.

    If the dollar value of the crimes were the measure of our prison population, it would be filled with white-collar criminals. But the percentage of white collar miscreants is infinitesimal.

    Before he died of cancer, the late Harvard Law Professor, William J. Stuntz wrote a brilliant analysis of our legal system. His book is “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice”.

    Potential without opportunity is a tragedy.