Missouri racial unrest puts nation on notice to solve festering social problems

08/16/2014 12:00 AM

08/15/2014 6:52 PM

Based on its location and demographics, the small town of Ferguson, Mo., seems an unlikely epicenter for the nation’s latest racial clash.

But maybe what is happening there is just an indication that no place in America is immune from incendiary situations fueled by pent-up frustrations, deep-seated mistrust of law enforcement and a sense by minority residents in some communities that they have been marginalized.

Ferguson, which gets its name from a 19th-century farmer who donated a portion of his land for a railroad line and depot, is a suburb of St. Louis with just over 21,200 residents, 67 percent of whom are black. In 1970, the suburb was 99 percent white.

For skeptics who wonder what that has to do with anything, racial makeup does make a difference, especially considering the spark that ignited such intense civil unrest came when an unarmed 18-year-old black youth was shot to death by a white police officer.

It is a scenario that historically, over the last 50 years at least, has brought not just outrage but wholesale riots in cities across the country, accompanied by looting and burning of businesses.

So it was after the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Some witnesses say he was shot multiple times while holding his hands in the air.

Police have said Brown pushed the officer into his car and scuffled for his gun before the officer shot him.

What started as a peaceful protest turned into four nights disturbances with confrontations between residents and a heavily armed, “militarized” police force.

Before sorting out the facts of the shooting or the events that led up to it (we won’t know the full story for a while), it is worth noting that while the town of Ferguson has been changing ethnically over the past few decades, its police force has not.

The Ferguson Police Department, according to its website, has 54 commissioned officers. Only three are black, KSDK/Channel 5 in St. Louis reported.

With the vast majority of vehicular stops by police (86 percent) and total arrests (85 percent) involving African-Americans, it is safe to say that many black residents’ encounters with their local law enforcement have been negative.

It was a ticking bomb.

Still, that’s not reason enough for residents to become violent and to continue the disruption for several days.

It is clear now that adding to the already tense situation in Ferguson following Brown’s death was the reaction — indeed overreaction — by local police who confronted protesters looking more like military officers in combat, complete with high-powered rifles, armored vehicles and officers in sniper positions.

The use of rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse a crowd did not help.

Finally, on Thursday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon put the State Highway Patrol in charge, headed by Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, who grew up in Ferguson.

That defused the situation a great deal. We’ll have to see how long the relative calm will last.

The fact that some members of Congress, after seeing images from Ferguson, are concerned about the militarization of local police forces is ironic.

Many departments around the country, including the St. Louis suburb as well as some in North Texas, have obtained military equipment using government grants aimed to thwart terrorist attacks following 9/11.

The turmoil in Missouri has called attention to the racial divide in America, and it has politicians, local leaders and others talking about how we prevent such incidents and their aftermaths in the future.

We’ve had several police shooting incidents in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in recent years that easily could have become violent, but somehow were prevented from going in that direction through actions by local officials and community leaders. That’s not to say that it can’t happen here.

The key to stopping another Ferguson, is finding solutions to festering social problems and bad police relations before, not after, a shooting occurs and a riot erupts.

And police leaders must know how to defuse community confrontations before they escalate.

Meeting an angry crowd with riot gear, military vehicles and sniper rifles is not a solution. It’s a sign that things already have gotten way out of hand.

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