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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ironies abound in Ferguson riots

Telegraph Editorial

The events in Ferguson, Mo., this week have reinforced that ours is a culture that wants to draw swift conclusions, as if doing so fulfills some primal human need to make snap judgments.

It seems clear enough that the death of an 18-year-old unarmed black man who was shot and killed by a police officer has re-ignited a social unease that resides never too far below the surface. ...

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The events in Ferguson, Mo., this week have reinforced that ours is a culture that wants to draw swift conclusions, as if doing so fulfills some primal human need to make snap judgments.

It seems clear enough that the death of an 18-year-old unarmed black man who was shot and killed by a police officer has re-ignited a social unease that resides never too far below the surface.

This is not the first time police have infamously shot and killed an unarmed man, and we’re not going to pretend that it doesn’t happen more often to people of color.

Just three days after Michael Brown was shot and killed in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Ezell Ford, a 24-year-old resident of South Los Angeles, was also shot by police. He, too, was unarmed and, like Brown, Ford was black.

In both instances, the accounts given by police and witnesses were so different as to make one wonder whether they were even talking about the same shootings.

In Ferguson, police said Brown was involved in an altercation in the back of a police cruiser and was shot by the officer as a result.

Witnesses friendly to Brown – and perhaps predisposed to be antagonistic to police – say Brown was shot while he had his hands in the air in a clear surrender position.

The result was several days of anger, protests, riots and looting, and a reaction by Ferguson police that made it look like a city that had declared war on its people.

It is helpful, however, to separate those things.

Those who protested had ample reason to do so.

First, there were suspicions in the community that the investigation would not be impartial, an impression that was reinforced when the Ferguson police chief refused to identify the name of the police officer who shot Brown. (He was finally identified by police on Friday.) Demonstrations calling for transparency and justice were entirely appropriate and for the most part, peaceful and thoughtful.

The same cannot be said of the riotous behavior, or the police response to it.

We appreciate that police wanted to stop rioting and looting – behavior that was carried out by opportunists who cared not a whit about Michael Brown or the cause of justice, but saw the cover of darkness and fog of community unrest as the perfect chance to steal.

We also understand, and think it appropriate, that police turned out in riot gear to stem the violence and stop the looting. We depend on police to keep us safe, and we want them to be safe as they perform that often thankless job.

But the image of police officers perched atop military-style vehicles, manning machine guns mounted on tripods, is not one that belongs in any American city, much less one about the size of Hudson. It speaks, we think, to a deep divide that likely existed between the police and the community long before that Ferguson police officer ever pulled the trigger and killed Michael Brown.

It was only after the Missouri Highway Patrol took over policing was trust restored, in no small part because the big guns and military vehicles were put away.

We found it ironic that Attorney General Eric Holder railed against the use of those armored vehicles and weapons. He was right, of course, in his assessment that they sent the wrong message and fanned the flames of unrest and anger. But it all seemed rather rich, coming as it did from someone who works for the same federal government that has encouraged local departments to stock up on armor and firepower in the first place.

Perhaps, if we learn nothing else in Ferguson, we’ll come to understand that all the firepower in the world is no substitute for patience, wisdom and justice.