The Ferguson race riots: An outsider’s perspective from not far outside

A Ferguson police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, on August 9, 2014. The night after, riots broke out.

Ferguson is an inner-ring suburb in north St. Louis County. As such, Ferguson is now approximately 67% African-American, although the power structure remains mostly white.

I am a native of Kansas City who has lived in suburban St. Louis for a little more than 20 years. As a quasi-outsider, St. Louis has some quirks that I recognize and understand. It helps to understand that St. Louis is very divided, both along the lines of race but also along the lines of class. One of the first questions many St. Louisans will ask you is what high school you went to. This conveniently tells people how much money you grew up with. If you went to a private school, you’re good. If you went to a public school in an affluent area, you’re good. If you went to a public school in a poor area, I hope you’re living in a more affluent area now because there are people who will look down on you.

Sometimes the lines are fuzzy but sometimes they’re very stark. In north St. Louis, there’s an east-west street called Delmar. On the south side of the street are expensive houses. I won’t say they’re all millionaires on that side of the street, but many undoubtedly are. On the north side of the street, the houses that aren’t vacant are occupied by people who have minimum-wage jobs. The haves and have-nots can stare at each other from their windows, separated by five lanes of traffic. This oddity has even caught the attention of the BBC.

Ferguson is a step up from the wrong side of Delmar, but many St. Louisans would have jumped to conclusions about Michael Brown and his Normandy High School diploma for the rest of his life, regardless of how long that might have been.I’m glad that the FBI is going to be handling the investigation into what happened in the final moments of Michael Brown’s life. The St. Louis County police department, which was initially handling the investigation, has had racial problems of its own in recent years. Last year, a St. Louis County police lieutenant was fired after accusations of racial profiling. The incidents happened on the opposite side of the county from Ferguson, but could potentially have called the impartiality of the investigation into question.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Michael Brown isn’t alive to testify. Michael Brown may have committed a crime or attempted to commit a crime, or he may have been a case of mistaken identity. We do not know. WE DO NOT KNOW. Had Michael Brown committed a crime, he had a constitutional right to a trial, just like every other U.S. citizen, and Michael Brown didn’t get a trial. According to at least one eyewitness report, he was trying to surrender when he was shot.

That’s what the citizens of Ferguson are upset about. Someone is looking after the rights of the police officer who fired the shots. In the meantime, he’s on paid administrative leave. Nothing will bring Michael Brown back. The other side of the story is that Michael Brown was an ambitious young man who made a point to graduate high school and enroll in college. He was supposed to start college two days before he died. By the accounts of the people who knew him, Michael Brown looked intimidating but was a gentle giant. That’s what makes me raise the possibility of mistaken identity.

The police officer reported that two men attempted to assault him in his police car, then the two men fled. The second man hasn’t been found. It’s not hard to imagine two men running in opposite directions, and in the heat of the moment, the officer spotting Michael Brown, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and firing shots.

Update: The second man, Dorian Johnson, has come forward. His account has serious discrepancies with the police officer’s account, but the basic story matches.

I’m not accusing the police officer of lying. I’m raising the possibility that the police officer made a mistake. The badge and gun don’t make him infallible. He’s still a human being.

I will also raise another question that people in Ferguson are asking: Why couldn’t the police officer have used non-lethal force? That seems like a reasonable enough question. Michael Brown also was a human being–something that seems to get lost in the rhetoric at times–and it’s always better to err on the side of preserving human life than taking it. If Michael Brown deserved to die, the courts would decide that.

I don’t have an easy answer for why the city of Ferguson descended into riots on Sunday night. The protests during the day were inflammatory, but by and large they were peaceful. When night came, it turned into window smashing, looting and burning.

The city of Ferguson may have a hard time recovering from that. Some of the damaged businesses may choose not to re-open. It’s not justifiable. Maybe it was scared people lashing out. Maybe it was opportunism. More likely it was a combination of the two.

The NAACP is complaining that African-Americans, particularly African-American males, get unfairly treated by law enforcement. I can only speak to being hassled by law enforcement due to my age. There was a cop in my neighborhood with a vaguely Italian last name I can’t spell who had it in for me when I was a teenager. He hassled me for three years until I was 19, then he left me alone. I outgrew him. Yes, he was the wrong end of a horse, but he never put any of us in danger.

But the color of your skin doesn’t change unless you have a rare medical condition, so if it’s the color of your skin rather than your age that makes you automatically suspicious, you’ll live with it the rest of your life. To a middle-class white guy like me, phrases like “driving while black,” “wearing a hoodie while black,” and “running while black” are just phrases. To 67% of the people of Ferguson, it’s a benefit of the doubt they don’t get.

But that’s the important thing. They are people. Michael Brown was a human being with feelings, ambitions, hopes and dreams, and now there’s nothing that will bring him back.

If we draw lines and make rules not to cross them–rules like “don’t cross Delmar”–it makes it easy to ignore the problem. Middle class guys like me never hear about it because I have no reason to go into Ferguson. I’ve been in Ferguson twice in 21 years. If a crime or something happens in Ferguson or one of the other suburbs near it with similar demographics, I might hear about it on the news, but that reinforces the stereotype. Ignore it and maybe it’ll go away, but if it doesn’t, at least it doesn’t affect me.

Michael Brown gave the problem a name and a face. And even if it turns out he was guilty of something, that doesn’t make the problem go away.

8 thoughts on “The Ferguson race riots: An outsider’s perspective from not far outside

  • August 12, 2014 at 1:52 pm
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    Dave,
    I thought you didn’t do politics.
    I hope you never have to cross the street as Jesse Jackson has. Most white liberals never observe the criminal’s actions as they are to busy attacking those who protect them and their families.
    ….
    “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
    George Orwell

    • August 13, 2014 at 5:43 pm
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      This is only a political issue if you allow it to be. It’s a regional issue that multiple people have asked me about, since I live and work near there. It’s a security issue, in that a security professional, whose job is to preserve human life, fired multiple rounds into the body of someone he is paid to protect. He may have felt like he was in danger (there are conflicting accounts of who provoked whom) but non-lethal force would have been sufficient.

      And there are cultural issues in the St. Louis area that outsiders may not be aware of that contribute to what is happening right now.

      Not to mention when a child asks a St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist why the police are going to war and bringing tanks to Ferguson, something’s more than a little out of control. http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/relationships-and-special-occasions/parenting/aisha-sultan/why-you-ve-been-seeing-young-kids-at-the-ferguson/article_3bee38cd-113b-53fe-b6d9-87ece2d843ba.html

  • August 13, 2014 at 10:53 pm
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    Dave,
    The policeman hasn’t given his side of the incident, yet, he is already been lynched in the press. The President of the United States has made a statement without knowing the facts.
    What if the witness is lying to avoid criminal charges? When 1 in 9 black males are on probation, in prison, or on parole, why can’t we wait until Eric Holder investigates before we build the scaffold.
    ….
    “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”
    Malcolm X

    • August 13, 2014 at 11:04 pm
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      I’m in no mood to argue this with you, but the Ferguson Police Department would have a much stronger case in the court of public opinion if they hadn’t assaulted and arrested two journalists this afternoon.

  • August 14, 2014 at 12:01 am
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    Dave,
    I don’t wish to argue. I believe that if something is provably true, it is not racist.
    I examine everything in that light.
    Wesley Lowery is a young black man. Jayson Blair is a young black man who lost his job as a reporter for lying.
    Ryan J. Reilly is a reporter for a liberal paper.
    Reporters work for money. They shade their stories for money. Reporters are not saints.
    Why did the Sheriff’s deputies arrest these reporters? They must have had good reasons.
    ….
    “The two reporters said they were working in a McDonald’s when SWAT officers entered the restaurant and encouraged customers to leave.

    Lowery said that request quickly turned to a demand, and that he was placed in restraints after he stopped to straighten a backpack that had fallen from his back while exiting the scene. Reilly said police told them they were arrested for “not packing their bags quick enough” when leaving the restaurant.

    Both were later released after a request from the Ferguson police chief to the sheriff’s department.
    http://www.boston.com/news/nation/2014/08/13/washington-post-reporter-wesley-lowery-arrested-ferguson/HZT5nQ24ok8XFukceoZ4SJ/story.html

    • August 14, 2014 at 8:00 pm
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      Blame the victim much, Joseph?

      • August 14, 2014 at 11:08 pm
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        Joseph, this discussion is over.

  • August 14, 2014 at 1:18 pm
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    I thought it was an excellent blog. The thinly veiled racist statements are starting to wear me down. I’m horrified that media outlets like Fox News are all over a Black Panther on the ground in Ferguson, but are not showing any of the peaceful protests that go on during the day. I thought it was in other countries where journalists get assaulted and arrested for simply covering the news. You know what has horrified me the most? This is the first time my husband and I have not been able to shield our kids from the news. Night before school starts, and the kids come to us and first ask if they are safe. Their next question, was whether Michael Brown was killed because he is black like them. We answered their questions honestly. They are safe, and we will keep it that way. We honestly don’t know, because the investigation is not complete, but even once it’s completed, we may never know. We told them that as Americans, we have the right to peacefully protest, and there are groups who are doing that, or trying to do that. We do not have a right to loot, destroy, or riot, and whether the shooting was justified or not, that is wrong in every way. It segwayed into the conversation that we knew was going to have to have, but were hoping it wouldn’t happen for a few more years. We had to tell them that there are people who are going to make assumptions based on the color of their skin, no matter how well they act or how impeccably they are dressed. We told them that for right now, people see them with us, white parents, and assume they are ok, but one day they are going to grow up and not always be seen with us. We will have to teach them strategies to navigate through that. It was a good conversation, but dammit, not something I thought should come with being a parent.

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