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America still has a long way to go

Posted: August 22, 2014 10:12 a.m.
Updated: August 25, 2014 5:00 a.m.

There is no longer any doubt that America still has a long way to go before it can say that it has grown beyond the prejudices and fear and tragic cycle of action and reaction when it comes to relations between blacks and whites.

I am, as you can guess, reacting to what has happened in Ferguson, Mo., the city of about 21,000 that is part of the greater St. Louis metropolitan area.

We know what the national media has told us: on Aug. 9 Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man was fatally shot by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, 28, who is white. One of several autopsies show Brown was shot six times, including twice in the head.

Brown had just graduated from high school and was supposed to start technical school a few days after his death.

There are, of course, differing accounts of what happened. Dorian Johnson, a friend of Brown’s, was walking with him and said Wilson allegedly drove up in his patrol car and ordered them to get off the street and walk on a sidewalk because they were blocking traffic. Johnson claims an altercation took place between Brown and Wilson through one of the patrol car’s window and that -- as Brown was trying to get free of Wilson -- the officer fired a shot from his service weapon. Johnson said the two of them then ran for their lives, only to have Wilson get out of the patrol car, and shoot Brown a second time. Johnson said Brown turned around and put his hands up, but that Wilson fired four more times, killing Brown.

Police officials, on the other hand, claimed Brown assaulted Wilson and tried to take the officer’s gun. At one point, there were reports that Brown might be a suspect in a robbery a little while before Wilson confronted him, but then police said Wilson didn’t even know about the robbery. At another point, Ferguson police said Wilson reported that Brown lowered his hands and moved toward him -- that he fired the other shots because he thought Brown was attacking him.

Since the shooting, there’s been protests; heavy military-style crackdowns by police; looting; curfews; and lots of arrests, including of journalists trying to cover the story.

The main accusation: that racism is at the heart of it all.

I’m trying very hard not to prejudge either side. It is entirely possible that Brown did commit a robbery, that he attacked Wilson after the officer confronted him on the street and that Wilson, fearing for his life, shot Brown in self-defense.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that Wilson was racially motivated, or at least predisposed, to use lethal force on a young black man. It is possible that Brown did everything he could to follow Wilson’s commands, but that Wilson let himself get out of control, shooting and killing a man he should have had no reason to suspect of anything.

Unfortunately, there are three things that make it difficult to believe Wilson acted properly. In journalism, we believe in evidence. We need documents, photographs, audio and video recordings. Proof. None of Ferguson’s police cars have dash cams.

Next, we have the actions of both protesters and law enforcement during the days and nights after Brown’s death. Most protestors, to me, appeared to protest the way I expect them to: marching with signs and chants.

The violence, including throwing molotov cocktails and looting, appeared to be the work of a few and, possibly, outsiders.

Contrast that with the police department responding with military-level equipment, using riot gear, tear gas, smoke bombs, flash grenades, rubber bullets and more to try to break up the protests.

The arrest of journalists did not help matters. Look, as a journalist, I’m no better than any of you. Yet, I do not expect police officers to arrest me if I’m in a McDonald’s to use its WiFi connection, take my equipment and dismantle it or threaten me with mace. I don’t say that about me, personally, but as a member of the press, which extends to you by virtue of being umolested to do our job of reporting the news.

By violating that Constitutional protection, law enforcement acted as if they had something to hide.

Finally, we must go back to race. Looking at the 1990 Census, Ferguson was described as 74 percent white and 25 percent black. As of 2010, the numbers are almost flipped around: 67 percent black and 29 percent white. In between, back in 2000, the population was about 50-50.

According to media reports, almost the entire Ferguson police department is white and, therefore, not a reflection of the community. In fact, Wilson isn’t from Ferguson, but from Crestwood, Mo., about 18 miles away, where whites make up a whopping 94 percent of the population.

Most Ferguson residents probably feel disenfranchised. Turnout for the last mayoral election was only 12 percent.

I recently learned that many Ferguson residents came from a town called Kinloch, just west of Ferguson. Oh, but Kinloch doesn’t really exist anymore. About 30 years ago, almost the entire town was demolished to make room for a runway expansion -- an expansion that never happened.

So, let’s think about this. On one hand, you have a young black man living in one of the most “segregated metropolitan areas in the nation,” according to the Washington Post, in a city with what the 2010 Census said is a median household of $37,517. On the other, a relatively young officer from one of the “whitest” communities I’ve ever heard with a median household income of $67,225.

Those things in and of themselves do not create what happened Aug. 9 or its aftermath.

What it does speak to is the need to more fully confront our differences; reach out to our citizens, whoever they may be; and seek a way to break free of the chains that, apparently, still bind us all, keeping us from fully being the country we should be.

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