The Sadness in Ferguson

A protester friend wrote of her experiences last night. She noted that she was at the front lines of social justice, as a peaceful protester and helping to confront agitators. She suggested the question that people needed to ask themselves was “Where were you last night?” My wife and I were on the front line, a different part since we live in Ferguson not too far from the police station. We spent part of the night looking out the front window to see if the destruction was coming into our neighborhood and part of it in the back yard watching the flames from the nearby Little Caesar’s Pizza and resale shop that were burning to the ground.

Published in St. Louis Post-Dispatch

It’s been a jarring few months. I have several good friends that are deeply involved with the protests, and I know their commitment to non-violence. But almost every time we went to any kind of public gathering we listened to one or several protestors note that Ferguson was going to burn and the fight would be taken into the neighborhoods. We never once heard a different protestor call out those making the threats. At best there was a lukewarm “Society created this anger, let’s hope it doesn’t happen, but if it does society is at fault”. “Society”, of course, is an abstraction. Violence happens in the real world. Nobody asked the family that owned the Imo’s pizza if they would mind standing in for society while payback was extracted. It doesn’t seem fair that they would be asked to help pay the tab for generations of accumulated pain and frustration.

I had to think back to an exchange on Facebook a while back, about the protests that shut down the Ferguson Farmer’s Market. I tried unsuccessfully to get any of people on the newsfeed to acknowledge that actions sparked by anger at society could actually work against the cause of social justice. Nobody would take the step of saying that yes, sometimes justifiably angry people do things which damage the cause of social justice.

Instead their argument seemed to be that while yes, a specific act of anger might be terribly unjust, these acts get society’s attention and thus lead to social progress. Hopefully the African American owners of the businesses that got burned to the ground will take comfort in knowing that their losses will eventually make us a better country.

Generally, I agree with the main point of the protestors. Regardless of the innocence or guilt of Officer Wilson, I believe we should have let a jury decide. We let people own machine guns because they don’t trust the authority of the federal government. Letting the public decide if a police officer was justified in using lethal force doesn’t seem like an unreasonable step to satisfy those that don’t trust the authority of the police department. To me, this would be a better society – more transparency for the police.

Did the violence last night help us advance the goal of increased police transparency? Any other step towards a more just society? We will never know. In the months since the shooting, many parts of our community have come together to begin the process of change, to begin work on making a better, more inclusive Ferguson. The people that were working to make things better before the violence will continue working. I guess it is possible that burning down the beauty supply store will make us work a little harder, but I doubt it. One of the few things we know for certain is that the hundred or so people that had their places of employment destroyed have to deal with the reality of not having an income to feed themselves and their family.

It’s a sad time for Ferguson, our little community. Many hundreds of people have seen their lives changed forever. And it seems to me it’s a sad and frustrating time for the social justice community as well. With heavy hearts, many seem to have concluded that, in our United States, violence is an unavoidable part of bringing progress.

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