Ferguson no 30-second sound bite

Ferguson no 30-second sound bite

August 16th, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

Chattanooga has been there before - been where Ferguson, Mo., is today, that is.

The St. Louis suburb erupted in violence earlier this week after an unarmed black teenager suspected in a robbery was fatally shot during an altercation with white police last Saturday.

In protests that followed this week, stores were looted, property was damaged, firebombs were thrown, and bricks, rocks and coins were hurled at police, two of whom were injured.

Residents who go back 50 years can remember at least three incidents of rioting and violence that lasted for several days in Chattanooga and, on at least one occasion, necessitated the National Guard being called to help bring about peace.

• In 1968, following the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., 300 to 500 people smashed store windows and looted downtown stores the day of his funeral, and others separately threw firebombs and generally vandalized property in isolated incidents in the days afterward.

• In 1971, following the cancellation of a Wilson Pickett concert when the star didn't go on, some in the assembled crowd vandalized the lobby of Memorial Auditorium, then moved down to what is now M.L. King Boulevard and began to riot. Because the unrest continued for several days, the National Guard eventually was called to assist.

• In 1980, following the acquittal of two of three men linked to Ku Klux Klan groups by an all-white jury in a case involving the shooting of five black women on what is now M.L. King Boulevard, three nights of violence ensued.

Although tensions have been high during numerous incidents in the years since, even after incidents in which white officers shot black suspects, cooler heads on the parts of residents and police prevailed. Would that it could have happened that way in Ferguson.

Unfortunately, in Ferguson as in other places, important parts of the story get melded together in 30-second sound bites. And many of us listen with our 30-second ears and make our snap judgments. But we shouldn't.

Parts of the story need separating.

• A thorough, nonpartisan examination of the incident needs to be completed by the Ferguson police, the FBI and any other law-enforcement departments necessary to determine whether the policeman acted within his training and the law. Thoughtful people on both sides of the issue also can debate the proper use of guns in policing. And if the officer in question is found not to have acted correctly, consequences can and should ensue.

• Ferguson residents have a right to their feelings about the death of a young man, whether or not it turns out the policeman in question is determined to have acted within the law. Indeed, within the law, they have a right to peacefully protest the incident and give their anguished feelings a voice.

• What protesters don't have a right to do in Ferguson, in Chattanooga or anywhere else is plunder the property of subjects who have nothing to do with the incident, and hurt other people. They can be angry and they can want revenge, but neither action will bring back the young man in question.

Four days into the violence in Ferguson, the show of force by police, in which officers wore military-style camouflage and gas masks while training their rifles on civilians, has become the issue rather than the death or the violence.

Thomas Jenkins, police chief in the Missouri town, captured what police are up against in trying to maintain a balance between safety and the public's right to protest.

But, he said, "if firebombs are being thrown, property gets destroyed, shots get fired ... we have to respond to deadly force."

Forty-six years ago, after the Chattanooga violence that followed King's death, Ernest Campbell, president of the police local, had the same question.

In disorder or riot situations, he asked the then-Chattanooga City Commission, according to Times Free Press archives, "are [we] going to run around and coddle and pamper people or are we going to enforce the law?"

Fred Fletcher, Chattanooga's new police chief, said in a meeting with Times Free Press writers and editors on Friday that he'd read little about the Ferguson situation but acknowledged it is a situation he hopes the Scenic City can avoid through the department's efforts toward community policing.

"We're committed to bold relationships" with the community, he said. It "will be our hallmark to start" the dialogue "with the community before a crisis."

Protesters -- indeed, all citizens -- can and should ask questions if they believe an injustice was committed in a situation like that in Ferguson. What they cannot do is attempt to extract justice by breaking the law. That only exacerbates tensions on both sides and sets back progress.