What Ferguson tells us
By Andre Jackson
In early 2008, I wrestled with whether to move 500 miles south. A journalistic mentor told me, simply: “Atlanta became the city that St. Louis once was.”
Her observation clinched the decision to leave my hometown and hire on at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
This month’s tragic events in Ferguson, Mo., reconfirms that I made the correct choice. Call me an Atlantan now. Here’s why.
I grew up barely six miles from Ferguson — on the same, sepia side of the bright line that’s historically divided white from black in St. Louis. I come from a family of police officers, a sheriff’s deputy and a state trooper. Since age 12, I’ve learned what it’s like to be stopped, questioned, or frisked too.
Like much of America, I’ve shaken my head in dismay and disgust at what’s uncoiled in Ferguson and neighboring towns. That includes the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson cop and the looting that followed. Even worse are the succession of bone-headed, if not idiotic, decisions and actions by officials and others who should, at this point in history, know better. That they don’t speaks poorly of my birthplace.
The Budweiser crates in my family room remind me of where I came from – a second-tier town best known for beer, fighter jets and baseball. It’s a pleasant enough place.
It could be a mean, dangerous one, too.
I grew up lodged firmly between a choice few schoolmates who ended up locked away and my cop relatives whose job it was to slam the jailhouse door. One fellow student was later put to death for murdering a state trooper. Of criminals like him, my homicide detective uncle was fond of saying, “They can do better in the next world.”
When I once confronted a man assaulting a woman in front of our house, I thought about my late stepfather’s steel-tipped, police-issue nightstick hanging in our living room. It was a replacement for one he’d long ago shattered while subduing a domestic abuser.
And the old man’s off-duty, Colt .38 revolver was in my coat pocket the night I spoke with a would-be drug buyer who’d showed up at the wrong house and announced his presence by repeatedly blaring his car horn in my driveway.
So I don’t have an idealized view of home. And this month’s events remind me that St. Louis can be a xenophobic place. A common icebreaker at cocktail parties or backyard barbecues there was, “So, where’d you go to high school?” It’s a quick way of assessing societal standing along lines of class and race.
Back home, I was often greeted with wide eyes when I’d name my alma mater — the first public high school for African-Americans west of the Mississippi River. It claims pop icon Tina Turner and tennis great Arthur Ashe as alums. It also had security checkpoints and a police substation near the principal’s office in the mid-1970s.
Asking where anyone attended high school in metro Atlanta is pointless — most of us are from someplace else. Which means this region’s grown, drawing people from every quadrant of the globe. Thriving cities do that. Atlanta can be proud of its rise. I am.
But that’s not St. Louis. Growing up there, and moving away, taught me that doing only what you’ve always done ensures you’ll never be more than what you’ve always been. Like a stubborn Missouri Mule, the region’s remained largely mired in old ways and old thinking.
Race relations weren’t on the local priority list before 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead. Not surprising since black and white St. Louisans aren’t generally known for associating much outside of the workplace. That’s hard to do when the boundaries between black and white are so easy to draw on a metro map.
It’s why Ferguson’s mayor insisted last week on national TV that there is no racial divide there, even as protesters took to his streets to forcefully disagree. Much of the rest of the U.S., and Atlanta, have long moved past that plantation-overseer way of thinking, but not St. Louis. The complacency there afflicts both blacks and whites.
It makes me glad I’m in Atlanta. We’ve got our issues, but unlike on the streets of suburban St. Louis, I haven’t routinely felt like an unwanted outsider here.
Then there was last week’s MSNBC interview with Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder. While being at least smart enough to acknowledge that, yes, race was a factor in what’s transpiring in Ferguson, he went on to praise “Anglo-American” jurisprudence and civilization.
At best, Kinder’s comments show an astounding tone-deafness to what’s happening around him. Yet, in Missouri, he’s likely on safe political ground.
And lost in the predictable blowback is that Kinder had a valid point about letting the judicial system do its work without interference or partiality.
My now-retired detective uncle told me shortly after the Brown shooting that he wished any credible witnesses to what happened would simply tell investigators the truth, with no additions or subtractions. Doing otherwise puts justice at risk, said this man who knows the difference between looters and those exercising their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble.
Law enforcement in Ferguson could benefit from his skills of discernment. Facing down largely nonviolent, if boisterous, protesters while suited up in a manner fit for patrolling the streets of Baghdad seems a sure-fire way to elicit the very behaviors police seek to prevent.
And, yes, I get that police strap on life-and-death responsibility each time they don a uniform. Yet, the wayward cops caught cursing protesters on live TV, or threatening to kill them at the point of an assault rifle, only diverted Ferguson away from any path toward peace and common ground. Save those tactics for locking up looters. If push ever came to shove here, I’d hope my Atlanta knows better. I also hope we never have to find out.
Every cop called into the Ferguson melee should give thanks for the commonsense street smarts of Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald Johnson, whose step-down-the-storm-trooper strategy may well have saved lives of cops or protesters. In my view, he took an Atlanta-like approach. Which reflects well on us.
Watching Ferguson’s upheaval carries me back to the day in 1990 when I sat in a downtown office interviewing Dan Sweat, who once led Central Atlanta Progress. I was then a visiting young reporter intent on learning how Atlanta so successfully bridged the racial divide of the 1960s. A patient Sweat told me how a white business and political community and African-American leadership eventually managed to reason together around shared concerns. Summing it all up, Sweat said quietly that “black plus white equals green here.”
My trip coincided with news that Atlanta would host the 1996 Olympic Games. I was among the media waiting at Hartsfield Airport as the winning delegation returned from Tokyo. I recorded then that Andrew Young credited the win to “the grace of God and because of our racial harmony.”
That “Atlanta Way” still serves us well today.
St. Louis, and Ferguson, could learn from that.
Andre Jackson, Editorial Editor.
How our prejudices tell us lots about Ferguson
By The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board
Some of what you’ve heard about the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., is incorrect. Some of what you’ve heard is correct, and chilling.
Trouble is, we don’t yet know enough of what occurred Aug. 9 in that St. Louis suburb to adequately separate fact from rapidly widespread fiction. Nor do we know enough to pass judgment on Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot him, or on others who were directly involved in this volatile episode.
In a better world, all of us who want justice done would be pressing for hard facts, evaluating eyewitness and official accounts — and suspending judgment until we know as much as we can. But that clearheaded methodology demands more patience, more suppression of preconceived notions, than we can muster. The human mind craves a plotline that pulls dots of information into a mosaic — a plotline that brings comforting order to troubling ambiguity.
We’d bet that within days, weeks, months, we’ll all learn facts that disprove some of the facile judgments now passing for knowledgeable commentary about this case. One example of how time can bring clarity:
We were struck early on by the fast framing of this story. Those accounts had Brown, hands raised as if in surrender, being shot in the back. Reports Monday said the two autopsies performed to date have all of the bullets striking from the front. Was Brown surrendering to Wilson? Charging Wilson? Something else?
The answer could hardly be more crucial. Yet all we can say for certain is that this early framing of Brown’s death as a street execution has played a powerful role in forming Americans’ attitudes.
Actually, we can say something else for certain: Some opportunists are busy hijacking Ferguson. Our list includes looters and others who’ve thrown Molotov cocktails and fired guns — violent acts that undermined the admirable and restrained calls for peace and justice that protesters, church congregations and many residents of Ferguson have requested of us all.
And there’s a debate to be had soon over what’s being called the militarization of U.S. police departments in the dozen years since 9/11. Chilling photographs of officers uniformed in camouflage and pointing rifles at people in Ferguson has energized the broader liberal and libertarian argument that police agencies have too much firepower. To which conservatives are retorting: When an emergency erupts, police have to be prepared for whatever happens next; they can’t let crowds destroy businesses and then plead that they didn’t expect a protest to turn violent. Our own view is that it’s wise for authorities to have the equipment that allows them to restore order; the question here is whether, at the moment the equipment was deployed, that was a reasonable response to the evident threat.
The opaque nature of this tragic death invited mistakes and misstatements: Other than Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, few if any other individuals knew exactly what was happening; most of what we’ve all heard comes from people who weren’t there and are relaying accounts that are, at best, secondhand.
The flip side of what’s hard to assess — that is, what occurred between an officer and a young man when few people were around — was the first official response to the ensuing rioting: an increasingly intimidating police presence, unleavened by an explanation of what authorities already knew about the incident. The police would say their first priority was to protect Ferguson; more transparency might well have defused anger in the streets.