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Lessons from Ferguson

Public opinion about the shooting is split along predictable racial and political lines. Have we made any progress towards bridging this divide?
The fatal shooting of the unarmed teen sparked protests, looting and a whole lot of soul searching about race.

The fatal shooting of the unarmed teen sparked protests, looting and a whole lot of soul searching about race. Credit: Paul Sableman/Flickr

I've sat down every morning for the past few weeks determined to write something about the Ferguson, Missouri calamity only to end up in a seriously demoralized state. At one moment in my peripatetic career I was administrative assistant to the Detroit commissioner of police. The last month of that 18-month assignment saw Detroit break out in an episode of civic chaos which turned out to be the worst of a five-year-long saga of urban uprisings that occurred all across the nation in the 1960s.

As I read the news from Ferguson, I couldn't help reliving the experience of Detroit, and lamenting how little a half-century has taught us. Police departments, ever since 9/11, have been armed to the teeth and too many of them itch for the opportunity to try out their military hardware. The Boston PD showed restraint during the Marathon bombing, but there are hundreds of law enforcement agencies that are equipped far beyond the capacity of their training and judgment.

I doubt that we will ever have an accurate account of what occurred in Ferguson. In Detroit, we had to contend with two daily newspapers, a handful of weeklies and three television stations. None provided today’s 24-7 coverage.

In contrast, I doubt if there is anyone left in Ferguson who hasn't been interviewed by a reporter and had his or her account become part of the folklore that is beginning to surround the shooting. No grand jury, federal investigation or other inquiry will be able to sift through it all and sort things out.

The polarization of public opinion, as indicated by Pew and other polls, suggests that the only thing we can say for certain about this tragedy is that views of it are becoming calcified along the predictable racial-political divide. That, for me, is the ultimate tragedy.

I look back over my eight decades and wonder whether we've made any progress towards bridging this chasm.

A recent op-ed in The New York Times contained one devastating, irrefutable fact. Overwhelming numbers of African-American children who were born between the late 1950s and the early 1980s are in far worse shape economically than their parents. Sixty percent of black children whose parents were in the top half of income distribution during this 30-year period have fallen into the bottom half as working-age adults.

My own family reflects this sad reality. The difference in income between me and my two adult daughters mirrors the trend highlighted by the NYT’s op-ed. The age-old American expectation that our children will do better economically than we have simply doesn't hold true for this huge swath of Americans.

Those of us who came to adulthood in the ‘50s entered the workforce during a period when black progress was measured by the "firsts" that were happening all around us. I can't begin to count the number of high school buddies (male and female) who became "the first" black person to get this job or work in that department or get promoted to some position that black employees had never held. There was this huge surge in economic opportunities for black Americans of the sort that whites took for granted. But it seems to have lasted for one generation only.

What went wrong? There are as many answers as there are observers. My feeling is that a seismic shift occurred in our society during the ‘50s and ‘60s, a shift that allowed my generation to be the first — and perhaps the only — black cohort to enjoy and take advantage of what turned out to be a fleeting rupture in this country’s long established patterns and practices of racial discrimination.

But this change happened just as the Industrial Age was giving way to the new economic realities of the Digital Era, which has ushered in a whole new and different set of workplace demands and expectations. My children's generation is the first to contend with this new economic order, and we are witnessing the throes and dislocations of their struggle to do so. 


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Sep 1, 1:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Fortunately, our government is working hard to allow millions of undocumented workers to enter our country, in order to "boost" the economy. I'm certain that these new undocumented workers will help raise the standard of living for all Americans, right?

ltfd

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 11:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Locke wrote, "Police departments, ever since 9/11, have been armed to the teeth and too many of them itch for the opportunity to try out their military hardware. The Boston PD showed restraint during the Marathon bombing, but there are hundreds of law enforcement agencies that are equipped far beyond the capacity of their training and judgment." If the issue is with the training in the use of the equipment, I have no quibble with this quote. If it is with the police having this equipment, then I have an issue.

A man in Portland was pointing a handgun at an off-ramp from I-84 in Portland and attempting to get into vehicle stopped on the off-ramp. An officer shot him. He ran off and collapsed. Officers were able to safely approach and apprehend him, ALIVE, because they had an armored vehicle. Without such a vehicle, they would have had to approach on foot, without limited protection, increasing the odds the officers or suspect would have engaged in further gunfire and one or both would have been further injured or killed.

http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/09/ne_portland_police_shooting_su.html#incart_m-rpt-1

See also, the Queen Anne incident where police used high powered rifles, armored vehicles, and a robot. Unfortunately this suspect died; however, Officers were able to approach and verify that with limited risk to themselves because of this high-grade military surplus equipment. They deployed it against a well armed, barricaded suspect.
http://spdblotter.seattle.gov/2014/08/31/gunman-fatally-wounded-after-exchanging-gunfire-with-police/

Norm Stamper, former chief of SPD, in commenting on Ferguson, has noted that this kind of equipment is appropriate in these circumstances like those noted above. His critique is that that it gets deployed inappropriately in the wrong circumstances, like in Ferguson. He is right on both counts.

So Mr. Locke, are you objecting to PD's having the equipment or their lack of training and judgment in deploying it?

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 11:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Locke wrote, "Police departments, ever since 9/11, have been armed to the teeth and too many of them itch for the opportunity to try out their military hardware. The Boston PD showed restraint during the Marathon bombing, but there are hundreds of law enforcement agencies that are equipped far beyond the capacity of their training and judgment." If the issue is with the training in the use of the equipment, I have no quibble with this quote. If it is with the police having this equipment, then I have an issue.

A man in Portland was pointing a handgun at an off-ramp from I-84 in Portland and attempting to get into vehicle stopped on the off-ramp. An officer shot him. He ran off and collapsed. Officers were able to safely approach and apprehend him, ALIVE, because they had an armored vehicle. Without such a vehicle, they would have had to approach on foot, without limited protection, increasing the odds the officers or suspect would have engaged in further gunfire and one or both would have been further injured or killed.

http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/09/ne_portland_police_shooting_su.html#incart_m-rpt-1

See also, the Queen Anne incident where police used high powered rifles, armored vehicles, and a robot. Unfortunately this suspect died; however, Officers were able to approach and verify that with limited risk to themselves because of this high-grade military surplus equipment. They deployed it against a well armed, barricaded suspect.
http://spdblotter.seattle.gov/2014/08/31/gunman-fatally-wounded-after-exchanging-gunfire-with-police/

Norm Stamper, former chief of SPD, in commenting on Ferguson, has noted that this kind of equipment is appropriate in these circumstances like those noted above. His critique is that that it gets deployed inappropriately in the wrong circumstances, like in Ferguson. He is right on both counts.

So Mr. Locke, are you objecting to PD's having the equipment or their lack of training and judgment in deploying it?

Posted Tue, Sep 2, noon Inappropriate

We are missing the point of what Dr. Locke is saying. The issue of what type of equipment and tactics the police used in Ferguson, or in similar situations in other communities is something that needs a thorough investigation.

The main point of his article was what has happened to the African American community over the last 40 to 50 years. Yes, some progress for the generation of African Americans coming of age in the 1950's and 1960's. All this progress now seems as if we went one step forward and two backwards. There has over the last 30 years an economic attack on the middle class and lower economic classes in this country, that has allowed the perpetuation of the restricting of Americans moving forward economically and socially, with a special emphasis on the African American community. The poll result, that Dr. Locke mentions does not surprise me. Just listen to those around you, and you will hear the voices of prejudice, and inability to even to try to think through what we need to do to improve how we interact with each other, and what the remedies are to stop further Fergusons from happening.

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 1:24 p.m. Inappropriate

I did not miss Locke’s major premise. It is clear. I just asked him to clarify his minor premise, which is ambiguous.

With regard to his major premise, you wrote, “The main point of his article was what has happened to the African American community over the last 40 to 50 years. Yes, some progress for the generation of African Americans coming of age in the 1950's and 1960's. All this progress now seems as if we went one step forward and two backwards.”

I think you are spot-on in your observation; however, permit me to engage the premise somewhat. The progress made for “African Americans coming of age in the 1950's and 1960's” was only possible because liberal, post-modern thought had not asserted dominance in the culture. That seems counter-intuitive; however, bear with me. Truth in post-modern, liberal thinking holds that truth is relative. It comes from your tribe or social group. That is why identifying what group one comes from is so important in commenting on current events, in current cultural commentary, and in academic circles that embrace post-modernism and deconstruction.

Post-modernism rejects thousands of years of thinking that there is absolute truth applicable to all persons in all times. Over the millennia, there has been vigorous, and often violent, debate about what that truth is, even while there was agreement that there was absolute truth. The predominance of the deconstructionist, post-modern thought that dominates the U.S. and Europe is relatively new.

What is ironic, given the state of modern, progressive, liberal thought, which abhors suppression of people of minority races (but not people of minority thought groups), is that Martin Luther King, Jr. embraced and appealed to the latter line of thought, not post-modern thought. It’s a good thing too. His view, and those of his contemporaries, was a minority view in America, held by ethnic minorities. He appealed to moral absolutes to make his arguments. Racism and injustice are wrong, no matter what the majority population of the South in particular, and America more generally, believed and embraced as their truth norm and imposed on the rest of the country. Racism was wrong at all times and in all places. No appeal was made to the belief of his identity group. It was wrong no matter what norms you grew up with or were embraced by your community or culture.

Where I part company with King, is his statement, “The ark of history bends toward justice.”

Humankind’s nature does not change. We corrupt everything we touch. Jeremiah, observing his fellow human beings, wrote millennia ago, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” That is certainly true in Locke’s article. The police acquire armored cars and military gear and corrupt the intent in which it was likely given and received, from protecting the public and using it in the most extreme circumstances, to using it to intimidate, occupy, and suppress lawful protest, in routine circumstances. The crowds, protesting against a tragedy and for civil rights, turn into mobs and looters. Everyone rushes to judgment about the actions of the officer, without a complete body (or as complete a body as we are likely to get) of facts. His department is a model of obfuscation, rather than transparency.

Getting beyond Locke’s article, there is well documented evidence that the more we train and make people aware of their sub-conscious pro-filing of black men, the more they engage in it, even when they strongly agree that it is wrong. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2012/03/26/trayvon-martins-psychological-killer-why-we-see-guns-that-arent-there/

We corrupt everything.

In the short-term, we need to have a healthy dose of humility, and like Locke, and King before him, confront injustice and racism everywhere we find it. We also need to reject post-modern thought, since it leaves minorities, and people like King in particular, with nothing to appeal to when confronting racism. That would be, to turn your phrase, “two steps forward, for every step back.” In the long-term this will be remedied when the Creator reconciles himself with his creation, not by the an arrogant humankind that has the arrogance to think it can fix itself by its own inherent merit.

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 3:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you Hubert. You always share something to think about and ponder. Appreciate it.

marveck

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 4:12 p.m. Inappropriate

I too feel a certain despair over Ferguson and it's aftermath. And, closer to home, the SPD has officers intent on "kicking the Mexican piss out" of them. So the mists of Ferguson are everywhere.

The carpet bombing of the cable news cycle adds to this sense of despair. Rational voices are shut out of public discourse while loud, angry voices are given a microphone a platform and an endless news loop.

I think about Ferguson and see it as part of a backlash - the last dying vestiges of fear of a black president. I think about the rise in bias crimes against gays (two young men shot to death in the Central District) as part of a backlash - the last dying vestiges of homophobia.

I'm usually not a "glass half full kinda guy" but for my esteemed Dr Locke I'm going to try. Progress is here. Your daughters generation and the generation of your grandchildren don't see the same things you do.

Dr Locke I swore on a stack of bibles that I'd never see a black man as President or gay marriage in my lifetime. Sure, maybe in a future just after I'm gone. But not now.

Hatred of "the other" is a less easy sell with each generation. For that I am grateful. And the glass, sir, is surely half full. (Preferably with your favorite adult beverage.)

Always, John Reed.

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 6:49 p.m. Inappropriate

The police in Ferguson probably don't live in the town they police. It was that way in Compton when I was growing up back in the 60's, and they acted very much like what we saw in Ferguson. When the only connection between the police and the citizens in their jurisdiction are economic, the police have no stake in the long range outcomes of their actions. And they probably don't care and they act it.

Part of the problem is that black America is not a cohesive unit and never will be. So when Dr. Locke talks about racial problems and the gulf that exists, it's only a partial description of the situation. When only 6% of black voters participated in the local elections, that in it self is an act of surrender to the minority white power structure. Small wonder small problems go unaddressed till they become very large problems.

A partial solution to some of the local problems is local leadership. It seems, right or wrong, that local incidents and the local citizenry are waiting for big out of town names and big government to solve their problems for them. Local leadership would know and understand the strengths and weakness of the solutions offered and are the ones best suited to address the concerns about them.

Djinn

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