“They’re talking ‘peace, peace’ because there’s been no tear gas and bullets for the last couple of nights. But make no mistake, Peterr, Ferguson is not at peace.” Those were the words of a friend of mine, speaking of the governmental leaders in Ferguson and St. Louis County, as the two of us spoke of the events of recent weeks in Ferguson, where he is a pastor and where I used to live.
Two weeks ago, the mayor of Ferguson told Tamron Hall of MSNBC that the problem was outsiders. “The vast majority of my community — and I’ll now put that number in the 95th percentile — is supportive of what we’ve been doing and we’re going to do going forward.” Hall was stunned, as were many in Ferguson.
And this past Thursday at a forum organized by St. Louis Public Radio, they let him know about it in no uncertain terms.
A forum Thursday evening peering into Ferguson’s longstanding tensions as well as the St. Louis region’s racial divisions became angry and heated, with most of a crowd’s ire directed at the town’s mayor.
Audience members expressed searing criticism of Ferguson’s governance and leadership, both of which have come under fire since one of the Ferguson’s police officers shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
The forum was held at Wellspring Church in Ferguson and drew a standing room-only crowd of more than 200. It was sponsored by St. Louis Public Radio and moderated by NPR’s Michel Martin. Panelists included Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, former St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom, former state Sen. Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, Habitat for Humanity St. Louis CEO Kimberly McKinney and Wellspring Church Pastor Willis Johnson.
Many people in the sweltering church were fiercely upset with how Ferguson officials handled the shooting death of Brown. Some expressed anger about the incident itself. Others questioned the city’s policies on ticketing people. And many were upset that Brown’s body was in the street for several hours.
After Knowles tried to defend leaving the body in the street to preserve the investigation, former St. Louis police chief Dan Isom pushed back hard:
Isom – who was recently tapped by Gov. Jay Nixon to be the state’s director of public safety – took issue with Knowles’ explanation.
“I think one thing all of us know is that Michael Brown should not have laid out there for four hours on the street. So you’ve got to acknowledge that was wrong. And that you’re sorry for it,” Isom said. “Because, just from a human standpoint, and if you want to just take it from a policing standpoint, it wasn’t appropriate.”
“I don’t care how under any circumstances what any kind of investigation was going on,” he added. “A person’s body does not lay out in the street for four hours.”
Did the mayor take Isom’s advice, and acknowledge the mistake and apologize? Um, well, . . .
Knowles was constantly put on the defensive. At one point one of the audience members came forward to show rubber bullet wound he sustained during the riots.
When asked whether he would resign from office, Knowles said no. He promised that the city would create a civilian review board over the police department.
“I would hope that you would understand my sincerest apologies if you’ve been wronged,” Knowles said.
That would be a “no.” (Audio of the almost 2 hour event at the link above.)
Which brings me to the prophet Jeremiah.
As the story is told in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was a time of turmoil in Israel, as they faced external threats of invasion and lived with internal injustice. Crying in anguish at the situation, God told Jeremiah to bring a message to the leaders of the people (from chapter 8):
You shall say to them, Thus says the LORD: When people fall, do they not get up again? If they go astray, do they not turn back? Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding? They have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return. I have given heed and listened, but they do not speak honestly; no one repents of wickedness, saying, “What have I done!” All of them turn to their own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle. Even the stork in the heavens knows its times; and the turtledove, swallow, and crane observe the time of their coming; but my people do not know the ordinance of the LORD. How can you say, “We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us,” when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie? The wise shall be put to shame, they shall be dismayed and taken; since they have rejected the word of the LORD, what wisdom is in them? . . .
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not at all ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time when I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the LORD. . . . My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land . . . For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
Why, indeed? As a doctor friend of mine is fond of saying (my paraphrase), “If you don’t want to diagnose a fever, don’t take a temperature.”
Whether you take Jeremiah as holy scripture or simply as a quaint story, the picture painted by the storyteller certainly rings true. Those who are proclaiming “peace” either have their heads in the sand or they’re lying through their teeth — and either one will result in disaster rather than healing.
Ferguson’s problems didn’t start with the shooting of Michael Brown. For decades, St. Louis County — including Ferguson — was the destination of whites fleeing the city of St. Louis. For over three decades (if my memory is correct), St. Louis city schools could not pass a bond issue or a levy increase to help their struggling schools, because too many of the ethnic whites chose to either head to the burbs or to private schools and didn’t want their tax money paying for “those people and their kids”. In the 1960s, the great St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson (now in the Baseball Hall of Fame) could lead the Cardinals to two World Series Championships (and came within a whisker of a third), but he not buy a home in the lily-white suburb of Clayton. Just today, Joe Holleman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch tells from personal experience what Ferguson’s police practices looked like in 1978 when he — a young long haired white guy — and his African-American co-worker headed out from work in Ferguson one Friday night. The word “profiling” wasn’t in fashion back then, but the practice sure was.
Right now, most local eyes are turned toward Clayton and the offices of the St. Louis County government — in particular the office of the county prosecutor. Right now, he’s keeping a very low profile, claiming that grand jury secrecy requires it. That’s a nice line, but it’s far from true. If no charges are brought against the officer that shot Michael Brown, Ferguson and the county will explode once more. That’s not a threat, mind you — that’s looking around at the community and listening to what’s being said.
The decades of dry tinder are still lying around Ferguson, St. Louis, and St. Louis County, and too many people in power are walking around with lit matches. This is not a good combination.
h/t to Brekles for the photo, and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.