NO LAUGHING MATTER — When tragedies occur as in Ferguson, Missouri, I wish I had a second column banner in addition to “Laughing Matters” with the chuckling cartoon character. For more serious stories I’d like a “No Laughing Matter” banner where the character flashes a frown.
Years ago I pitched this idea to my editor who looked at me with a blank stare. Occasionally I think about trying again but mentioning it here is probably the closest I will ever come.
Ferguson is where unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed two weeks ago tomorrow. He will be buried on Monday. In the meantime, on the news we watch footage of armored tanks and assault weapons as the police confront protesters. Frankly, it looks like the Middle East not middle Missouri. (Next we’ll see the headline, “Egypt urges U.S. restraint in Ferguson.”)
The images from Ferguson looked more like Fergustan or, as I call it, ‘Arab Spring American style.’ The images also bring back painful memories of the violence from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. All we need now are the late Bull Connor, fire hoses and vicious dogs.
Certainly President Obama couldn’t have imagined that, at a press conference in the 6th year of his presidency, most questions would be about troops going back to Iraq and a race riot in Middle America. No wonder Obama’s hair seems greyer every day.
Back to Ferguson. On August 9, Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. With no previous criminal history, Brown was a recent high school graduate who was due to start college in two days. Wilson, 26, has been on the force for six years without incident. Brown was black, Wilson is white.
Wilson shot Brown six times, including one in the eye and one in the head. Prior to the shooting, Brown, 6’4” and 292 pounds, is seen on a convenience story surveillance camera.
With friend, Dorian Johnson, Brown appears to commit a strong-arm robbery of a box of cigars. Before leaving Brown grabs a clerk by the shirt and pushes him into a display rack. Dubbed a ‘gentle giant’ by friends, Brown didn’t look very gentle on the videotape.
Minutes later, Officer Wilson reportedly stopped Brown and Johnson because “they were in the middle of the street, blocking traffic.” Wilson reportedly noticed Brown was carrying a box of cigars that had been reported stolen. Either way, the loss of a human life over a box of cigars is beyond tragic. To quote Colonel Kurt’s (played by Marlon Brando) dying words in Apocalypse, Now, “Oh, the horror.”
The police contend that Brown initiated a physical altercation with Wilson trying to get his gun. Johnson contends that Brown was shot in the back, “Gunned down like an animal.” In fact Brown’s body lay moldering on the ground for hours like a dog killed in the road.
But one aspect of Johnson’s story is suspect. An autopsy conducted by famed forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, reports that all 6 shots were from the front, although some seemingly credible eye-witness accounts contradict that. Either way, why six shots if the suspect was unarmed?
Ferguson has a 67 percent black population but of its 53 police officers only three are African-American. Also troubling in a city of 22,000 is the type of weaponry displayed by the Ferguson Police Department as if supplied by the Defense Department.
Since 9/11, many police departments nationwide have become militarized. And in Ferguson the use of this weaponry on its citizens is causing harsh criticism. Hundreds have been arrested including ten reporters and dozens have been injured including many police officers.
At least three demonstrators have been shot and, on Tuesday, in nearby St. Louis, a 23-year-old knife-wielding black man approached police taunting them to kill him. They obliged. (Suicide by cop?) Couldn’t the police have used rubber bullets, tasers, mace, pepper spray or at least shot him in the legs?
If Officer Wilson had been the one killed it’s inconceivable that Michael Brown would be free ‘pending an investigation.’ But the tide appears to be turning toward restoring calm. (My fingers are crossed, which would also explain any typos.)
On Wednesday the Grand Jury finally heard testimony and Attorney General Eric Holder came to Ferguson and met all day with community leaders. (It might help if, instead of entirely on the violence, the media covered the hard work Ferguson’s churches, activists and volunteers are doing to promote peace.)
It was fifty years ago this past June when freedom riders James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were brutally murdered by the KKK in Mississippi. Now reportedly Klansmen from three states are en route to Ferguson to “support the police and defend white businesses.” Frankly, it’s demoralizing to witness how deep the racial divide still is. It’s definitely no laughing matter.
Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or firstname.lastname@example.org.