Why Ferguson Burns

People are occupying the same communities while seeming to live in different worlds.

Before Ferguson erupted into flames, there was almost a sense of gallows humor surrounding District Attorney Robert McCulloch’s press conference announcing that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

McCulloch raspily and methodically laid out the evidence. Whatever you think on the merits, as important as that evidence is, it was almost beside the point. Most of the people watching, black and white, had already arrived at their own conclusions.

Those conclusions weren’t driven by what happened between Wilson and Brown. They were shaped by what they have experienced in their own lives.

White America, by and large, sees the system as fair, racism as a relic of a bygone era of Mississippi Burning. A substantial slice of black America sees the system as being designed for someone else’s benefit, not theirs, and sees the failure to indict Wilson as the latest sign that black lives simply matter less under the law.

At a less abstract level, the people with faith in the grand jury to do the right thing concerning Wilson had confidence in the system, because they had seen it work. The skeptics did not share this confidence, in some cases because they did not share those experiences.

Where does this leave us? In Ferguson, it left us with one part of the community outraged over what it perceived to be the summary execution of a young black man. Yet some of those who were most outraged would not have been satisfied with any outcome short of Wilson going to trial and ultimately being convicted. Failing that, they were ready to mete out mob justice.

Others were so confident in the grand jury’s work that they were either perplexed by or indifferent to the pained convulsions in the street. What is wrong with those people? Didn’t they listen to what McCulloch had to say?

Before long, Ferguson became another front in the unending left-right battle—but not without some role reversals. You saw liberals complaining about a prosecutor not being zealous enough and a grand jury giving too much benefit of the doubt to a defendant in failing to indict. Conservatives found themselves emphasizing the legal presumption of innocence.

Some of this carried over into the reactions to the unrest that followed. Liberals took to quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. about riots being the language of the unheard. Conservatives complained about a weak law enforcement response to the looting, with one lamenting that this is what happens when the government shackles the police. (Last I checked, the police were part of the government.)

There is an element of truth to both responses. What did the riots of 1968 and 1992 accomplish besides destroying businesses (many of them minority-owned) and further damaging black neighborhoods? Some of the impacted streets look like war zones to this day.

“No justice, no peace,” is a popular rallying cry. But without peace, there is seldom justice. Civil rights are unlikely to be advanced by ransacking an auto-parts store.

At the same time, the fact that so many Americans feel so disenfranchised and disillusioned should matter, regardless of what transpired the day Brown died. There are communities telling us something about their daily interactions with police, their distrust of the people paid to protect them.

White racism and black crime are often treated as if they are mutually exclusive, but our society provides ample evidence for the existence of both.

In the meantime, Ferguson is burning. Darren Wilson is ruined. Michael Brown is dead. People are occupying the same communities while seeming to live in different worlds. And we’re still having the same arguments we had in 1968.

I’m sure there are things that can be done to shore up trust between the police and communities of color, especially as the country is increasingly governed by minority mayors, police chiefs, attorneys general and even presidents of the United States. Both law enforcement and the people they protect could also become more educated about what constitutes lawful force.

Perhaps there can be healing and forgiveness instead of recriminations when it comes to reckoning with the nation’s history on race.

Right now, though, all of that seems much further away than Ferguson, Missouri.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? He tweets at @jimantle.

Image: Flickr/Loavesofbread/CC by-sa 4.0