How do we think about Ferguson, MO?
Lots of opinions have been expressed, many leading in the direction of further, national polarization at a time when we need just the opposite.
I haven't read the 3,000 pages of grand jury transcription. I haven't heard all of "the facts of the case," not to equate the recorded proceedings with "fact."
Here's what I think I know about Ferguson, MO, and what I suspect may be in the background of considerations of recent horrific events there.
People of color in the small St. Louis suburb are vastly under-represented in public institutions such as government, school district and law enforcement.
People of color in Ferguson receive a disproportionate level of attention and ticketing from law enforcement officers who evidently play a large, some would say undue, role in raising operating capital for the city through writing citations. As a result, frustration with the police has been a long-standing fact of life in the small town.
The Ferguson tragedy that involved the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, is not unique in our nation. The fact that nationally young black men are shot by police officers 21 times the rate of young white men doesn't help the community atmosphere. Just here I could list a number of names in the news recently whose encounters with law enforcement officials needed in horror and loss.
For years African American parents have coached their children, especially their sons, about how to react to police attention or encounters. During the time I was a member of the Central Dallas Church, I had numerous discussions about this necessary "talk" that occurred again and again among our young men and their parents and peers.
People who wield power have a responsibility to approach conflict with a mindset and attitude of de-escalation and "win-win," rather than "win-lose." Controlling conflict accompanied by super-charged emotions requires special skills, servant leadership, expertise and great heart. Developing these special skills requires training and re-training as a part of a normal law enforcement regimen.
Community policing is all about establishing meaningful relationships with and in neighborhoods that move beyond heavy-handed confrontation. Again, this approach to law enforcement calls for special training and special law officers. Community policing by definition builds relationships, depends on residents to support police work and instills confidence, not fear in the lives of those being served.
Looting, burning, vandalizing and violence are never acceptable responses to the failure or the injustice of public policy or institutions. The rule of law is central to the stability and health of our communities and our nation. Non-violent actions of dissent are vital to a movement for change, but not violence that so often destroys neighborhoods and businesses already oppressed by social factors so evident in this case.
The vast majority of Ferguson residents involved in protests conducted themselves peacefully, with strength, dignity and determination. Such organized, community responses stand in the best, rich tradition of the American Civil Rights Movement, and should be encouraged and defended.
Poverty, a deep poverty, disproportionately affects African Americans in this small town. Consider these facts:
- 21% of Ferguson residents live in poverty
- Almost 7% live below 50% of the federal poverty level
- 30% of males between 12-14 years old live in poverty
- Almost 40% of males 15 years old live in poverty
- 30% of males 16-17 years old live in poverty
- Almost 35% of children under 5 years old live in poverty
- 26% of all youth live in poverty
- Under 600 white residents live in poverty
- Over 2,400 black residents live in poverty
- African Americans represent 67% of Ferguson residents
- Ferguson Police Department employs 53 officers, only 3 are African American
As friends and neighbors, we need to work for a better life together here in Dallas.
We need more friendships.
And, we need to talk.