Ferguson Revisited: Pictures at an Exhibition

Brian Birdnow
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Posted: Sep 09, 2014 12:01 AM
Ferguson Revisited: Pictures at an Exhibition

During the last week to ten days the troubles in Ferguson, Missouri have faded somewhat from the national consciousness. This is to be expected, since the modern media cycle reflects the decreasing attention span of the public. An important story has a short shelf life, and the media is pulled in different directions, as international stories begin, once again, to take center stage. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that Ferguson is all quiet now that the city has slipped from the public consideration, and the headlines. There have been renewed protest marches and public pressures on elected officials, although these have been generally peaceful and calm, in marked contrast to the events of August10-20th. Clearly, the Ferguson situation has cooled down, but there are a number of hands still to be played in this high-stakes poker match and the next few months will witness some interesting infighting between the media, politicians, the judicial system, and ordinary citizens as the game is played out to the last card.

On Monday, August 25th Michael Brown was laid to rest on a brutally hot afternoon, with the temperature hovering at the century mark, and humidity to match. A number of mourners were overcome by the elements, and required medical assistance. The register of funeral-goers included, of course, Mr. Brown’s family and friends. The list of those paying their final respects included, however, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, Bernice King, Spike Lee, MC Hammer, Sean (Diddy) Combs, the family of Trayvon Martin, and the family of Emmitt Till. The political contingent included U.S. Representative Maxine Waters D-California, a former resident of Kinloch, Missouri, which borders Ferguson on the west side. Also in attendance was U.S. Representative William L. Clay, who represents the district in Congress, and has routinely referred to the tragic event as a “murder”. Finally the legislative branch was represented by U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill D-Mo. Chris Koster, the Attorney General of Missouri, and a widely rumored future Democratic candidate for state governor, attended, as did St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. Finally, the federal government was represented by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and four unnamed White House aides who came as President Obama’s personal representatives. It speaks well of many of these people, who have no discernible connection to the Brown family, that they chose to come to North St. Louis County to comfort the grieving relatives and friends. One is left to wonder, however, if this was the primary reason that so many who did not know Michael Brown chose to attend his funeral.

The proceedings were quite decorous, by all accounts. The speakers preached reconciliation, and spoke, quite appropriately, of the need for healing. No one urged resistance or violence, although there were a few references to racial solidarity, which seems peculiar, given the strong support across racial lines for a thorough investigation of the incident, and punishment for any wrongdoing, if this is proven to be true. The Ferguson PD has also come in for criticism over heavy-handed tactics, and this has also crossed the racial divide.

The next topic of discussion must be the community of Ferguson, itself. The working class suburb has suffered a heavy body blow, and it is doubtful that the city’s reputation will ever recover. Much of the reporting concerning Ferguson has been plainly incorrect. It became something of a mantra to preface reports with the lead-in, “…the impoverished community of Ferguson, Missouri…” Ferguson has a long and generally favorable history. It was the home of General Jimmy Doolittle, major league baseball Hall-of-Famer Enos Slaughter, and Michael McDonald, of Doobie Brothers pop music fame. The country town was incorporated in 1896, and easily drew St. Louisans who liked living in a country village, a short train ride from the big city. Urban sprawl after 1940 led to a period of rapid growth, and by the late 1960s Ferguson boasted a population of over 30,000 souls. The populace was an eclectic mix of skilled laborers, white collar families, and professionals like attorneys, physicians, and academics.

Clearly, Ferguson has declined somewhat from the halcyon days of its 1960-1980 peak. Still, Ferguson is home to the Emerson Electric Corporation, and is within a stone’s throw of the Boeing Corporation World Headquarters-Defense Properties and the adjacent manufacturing facility. Centene Corporation has announced that they will shift their operations to Ferguson in the next year. Ferguson is certainly not Georgetown, Martha’s Vineyard, Malibu, or the Hamptons and the elite would not spend summers there, but media efforts to portray it as a vast and sprawling example of third world-type poverty is an inaccuracy of the worst order.

The current discontents have led, predictably, to calls to reorganize the city. Many Ferguson residents are now attaching “I Love Ferguson” stickers to their car bumpers and their houses in an effort to buck up people’s spirits. Yet, the drumbeat of criticism continues. The protests outside of the Ferguson City Hall and the Police Department carry on daily. There are calls for the city to contract policing responsibilities out to the county, or to neighboring jurisdictions. The city atmosphere is tense, if not as hot as the weather. Through it all many Ferguson residents and even the police are continuing their normal routines. Last week, two Ferguson residents who were riding horses along West Florissant Avenue in a silent protest remembering Michael Brown heard the sound of a fracas and accompanying gunshots. They witnessed an armed robbery, wherein two miscreants had relieved passersby of their I-phones. The horseback riders called police, followed the perpetrators, and helped to arrest one of them, after officers responded to the call. Police officers doing their jobs with the active assistance of concerned citizens represent the best of American life, and this is on display in Ferguson.

The media would prefer to ignore this and concentrate, instead, on the conflict here, and the racial element involved in that struggle. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the local metropolitan daily newspaper, has been stirring the pot, as is their tradition. The Post-Dispatch has slammed Ferguson for having only three African-American police officers, even though the city is 67% black. They have also argued that a city 2/3 black should, by mathematical formulae, have a similar number of black public officials. The Ferguson mayor and aldermen are all white, and this angers the Post-Dispatch to no end. Some of the few people who read the newspaper anymore have pointed out that the entire executive and editorial board of the Post-Dispatch is white, but the irony of the situation is lost on the editor and his henchmen. Rather than putting their own house in order, the Post-Dispatch scribes prefer to lob cream pies at St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, demanding that he recuse himself from any further proceedings in this case, even though he has said he will carry out the duties he was elected to perform. Last week, the Post-Dispatch issued a formal call for President Obama to come to Ferguson and to exert his moral authority to ensure that justice is served in the community. So far they have received no response from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. With an election coming up in a couple of months one would think that the President is a little too busy at the present moment.

This preoccupation has not stopped other politicians from getting into the act. Attorney General Holder announced last week that, in addition to the civil rights investigation he ordered in Ferguson in the wake of the original protests he is ordering a concurrent investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, specifically their hiring practices, the statistics concerning traffic stops, arrests, and other assorted sundry items. Holder states that it is important that the people know that the Ferguson PD is made up of capable, competent, professional and non-racist officers. The fact that no Missouri policing jurisdiction can hire anyone who has not received 640 hours of classroom instruction and extensive field training as an officer seems lost in the sound and fury emanating from Washington.

Closer to home in Missouri, the political fallout continues to build. Jay Nixon, the state governor, lifted the state of emergency in Ferguson last week. Nixon was missing in action for the first four days of the rioting and lawlessness, and he had been dubbed the “Stealth Governor” by some. Nixon has been nothing short of breathlessly clueless and incompetent during the whole crisis. Governor Nixon has always been a slippery customer. He is a Democrat in a purple state, but one that has been trending Republican at the statewide level. He has played the game well in the sense that he is a rural Democrat and, thus, is generally trusted in outstate Missouri. He has, as a Democrat, carried the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas easily in statewide elections and has managed to scrape together enough support outstate to win four terms as state Attorney General, and two terms as Governor. He prefers to avoid controversy and adopts fairly liberal positions on social issues, gun control, and tax and spending questions. When he loses in the legislature, as is increasingly the case, he denounces the GOP, and goes off to his next fund raising event. Nixon has, however, sailed into a hurricane he never envisioned. He has lost all support among the St. Louis black political community, and has blown his support among the law and order Democrats as well, since he seemed to prejudge the case against the Ferguson PD in public comments. Nixon is term limited and cannot run for governor again. He does, however, desperately want, to win a U.S. Senate seat in 2016. He can very likely kiss that one goodbye.

One of the two current U.S. Senators, Claire McCaskill, has been very visible during the crisis, actually attending Michael Brown’s funeral, as was noted earlier. McCaskill, a former Kansas City area prosecuting attorney, now lives in suburban St. Louis, although a pretty good distance from Ferguson. McCaskill is promising hearings in Washington, she has demanded a formal investigation of the operations of Ferguson and St. Louis County Police departments, and has suggested a federal law that requires all police officers to wear body cameras in order to track their behavior during stops and arrests, not to mention possible shootouts. McCaskill may be sincere, but she has a tendency, like many politicians, to grandstand and to seek headlines. McCaskill, a savvy political operator, knows that she is a blue state woman in a purple state, and like Governor Nixon, she has to walk a thin line in order to stay in office. She does not run again until 2018, but she may be trying to build some sort of national reputation, since it is unlikely that she’ll face another weak opponent like she did in 2012.

The wild cards in the deck are a number of local figures. As was mentioned before, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch finds himself in the eye of the storm. McCulloch has been in office for years, and is respected enough that the St. Louis County Republicans are not fielding a candidate against him in November. The current unpleasantness is the first time that the temperature is ratcheting up in the McCulloch political dining hall, and the citizens will see if McCulloch can take the heat, or if he gets out of the kitchen, to paraphrase another Missouri political figure of note, namely Harry Truman.

Much of McCulloch’s discomfiture is coming from fellow St. Louis area Democrats. Antonio French, a St. Louis city alderman, has been a permanent presence at the protests and has garnered favorable national press, as a result. French has no political connection to Ferguson, but has cut a good figure, and has walked the thin line very carefully and with great skill. He has, correctly, denounced looting and rioting, but has denounced heavy handed policing, as well. Two other St. Louis area politicians Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a state representative, and Jamilah Nasheed, a state senator, have also been prominent in the protests and the action. Ms. Chappelle-Nadal has led protests outside of Ferguson City Hall, the St. Louis County Government complex, and the county police headquarters. She has led a petition drive to take Bob McCulloch off of the case, and has personally attacked McCulloch, Governor Nixon, and other public figures. She has, however, hurt her case by frequently peppering her comments with profanities, and public swearing and cursing, which alienates many right- thinking people. Ms. Nasheed has, for her own reasons, promised to shut down Interstate-70 in St. Louis next week. In response to a question from a television reporter as to what this was intended to accomplish she simply repeated the overused cliché, “No Justice, No peace.” Ms. Nasheed continued on to say that this would be only the beginning, although she refused to elaborate on that remark, or to say what would come next.

So, the unbiased observer can see that, while “peace” has returned to the recently mean streets of Ferguson, Missouri those of us who live in the area know that we aren’t out of the woods. Maybe this will start a useful national conversation, although the confrontational attitudes mentioned above are not encouraging. No one knows what lies ahead, but it will not be business as usual.