In anticipation of the announcement by prosecutors of whether a grand jury will file charges against Darren Wilson — the Ferguson, MO police officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in August — Missouri Governor Jay Nixon stoked the flames of a virulent disconnect between government officials and black residents in greater St. Louis by declaring a state of emergency Monday. Nixon, a second-term Democrat, authorized National Guard troops to assist a coalition of three police agencies in controlling expected demonstrations following the announcement, sending a stark message to the nonviolent organizers: You are our enemy.
Nixon’s misguided action worsens a pervasive lack of effective leadership at a time when there are real opportunities for local, state and national officials to do better. The events of the past several months have laid bare many of the problems plaguing governments in Ferguson and beyond.
Ferguson, for its part, has an ugly history of disenfranchising African-Americans. Fueled partially by rapid gentrification in urban St. Louis, the suburb has shifted from being more than two-thirds white to two-thirds black in just two decades, according to Al Jazeera America. Yet its leadership has not adapted to reflect this.
Ferguson’s police department is more than 90 percent white, and both the local and St. Louis County police forces have well-documented histories of alleged racial bias, profiling and brutality. James Knowles, the young white mayor of Ferguson who was elected in 2011 with just 16 percent voter turnout, has appeared before cameras sporting an NRA cap to candidly deny the city’s long-standing racial tensions. In a recent clip on Vimeo titled “Ferguson Speaks: A Communique from Ferguson,” city residents offer criticisms of their mayor such as “He’s not for the people at all” and “It’s like he lives in another world.”
If other leaders accept the deep-rooted reality of these tensions, they haven’t shown it. Ever since Michael Brown’s death, the dominant treatment of demonstrations by both government and media has been one of law and order — even though the law is at clear odds with the people.
And Nixon’s executive order spells out some of the most dangerous ironies in this approach.
“Our citizens and businesses must be protected from violence and damage,” Nixon writes in the order, a clause that clearly invokes scenes from Ferguson in August in which demonstrations gave way to looting and vandalism. Yet nowhere in the order does he acknowledge the violence and damage done to communities of color on a daily basis by law enforcement.
“Our citizens have the right to peacefully assemble and protest and the State of Missouri is committed to protecting those rights,” he writes. Nowhere does he admit that so many of the demonstrations of the past several months, while peaceful in intent, were met with militarized police who fired tear gas and rubber bullets.
Nixon, Knowles and their fellow elected officials must change their course. They must see demonstrators for who they are: human beings, deprived of other channels of access, subjected to systems of government that are structured not to protect them but to protect others — oppressive, white others, many ignorant of their privilege — from them. And they must realize that the structures which put them in positions of authority did so in no small part through the exclusion and oppression of communities of color.
The first critical step toward any meaningful change is for them to listen. If the government of Missouri is sincere in its desire to uphold its citizens’ “right to peacefully assemble and protest,” it needs to recognize — as has long been the case — that smoke grenades and suppression will inspire fear and self-defense, not dialogue. It is the government’s responsibility not merely to allow demonstrations, but to acknowledge the protesters’ grievances and work diligently to redress them.
And it’s important to remember that whatever announcement the grand jury ultimately makes, it will not change the fact that Michael Brown is dead. The fate of Darren Wilson will not be determined by what is morally just; instead, the decision of whether or not to indict the officer will be made by a group of jurors constrained by a narrow legal framework. They will settle a matter of law, not morality, and their decision will do nothing to dismantle the structures of injustice that tie Michael Brown’s death into a bleak nationwide picture. This last task must become the priority of government officials — and these officials must carry it out on the terms of the citizens they represent.