As Rome burned, Nero fiddled, or so the legend goes. In reality, history notes that Nero actually coordinated firefighting efforts, opened his estate to homeless residents and provided citizens with heavily discounted grain. Moreover, the invention of the violin was more than a millennium in the future. So much for facts.
Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, are a grim reminder of the power of perception. Shortly after the prosecutor announced the grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, the rational voices appealing for calm were drowned out by screams and gunfire, shattering glass and the crackle of burning buildings.
While it may be too soon to sift through the wreckage for lessons, a few are obvious. First, it is now apparent that protesters built their narrative on eyewitness accounts rife with error and blatant untruth. The physical evidence suggests a completely different version than the one hyped by the media, that Brown had his hands up when Wilson shot him. Though the exact circumstances remain unclear, it is now apparent that Brown and Wilson were mutual combatants in a deadly altercation. In retrospect, choosing this unfortunate young man as a civil rights martyr was a poor choice.
The second lesson is that sloppy police tactics can have lethal consequences. When Wilson confronted Brown and another subject on a Ferguson street, his patrol car was in such close proximity that Brown was allegedly able to shove him back into his seat. Further, instead of employing a Taser, which he purportedly stated was too cumbersome a tool, his only available response to Brown’s force was his firearm. In the harsh glare of hindsight, if Wilson had made a better approach and had access to other nonlethal options, there could have been a different outcome.
The third, and most important, lesson has nothing to do with either Brown or Wilson. Despite the overwhelming presence of police and troops, and amidst the pleas of its leaders to in include Michael Brown’s father, Ferguson burned for one simple reason: It was flammable.
While there is no justification for the rioting which took place in Ferguson, there is more to this story than mere criminal behavior. Like South Central Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit before it, Ferguson is a city filled with the disenfranchised, people who believe their voices are ignored in the halls of power. Whether this is true or not, it is hard to ignore the predominance of black faces behind the protest signs and the white faces behind the riot helmets. If nothing else, this is a strong indication that the bond of trust between the community and those sworn to protect it has been severed.
To repeat, there is no justification for the mob rule that descended on Ferguson streets. Yet it would be wrong to frame this debacle as mere criminal behavior and move on, not when other communities have somehow managed to avoid violent protests.
Many of us can recall a similar ethnic divide here at home. In the ’80s and ’90s, our area saw its share of racial violence when the Crips and Bloods fought it out with each other and the number of deadly police shootings skyrocketed. Yet it seemed to me at the time that the violent encounters between Tacoma cops and the predominantly African-American gang members were always met with far more outrage by the community than when similar incidents occurred in nearby Lakewood. It was not until years later, when the Tacoma Police Department followed Lakewood’s example by working closely with activists, neighborhood groups and citizen groups, that the situation — not to mention crime stats — began to improve.
Finding a similar solution will be a difficult task for a broken community such as Ferguson. With residents and protesters eager to spread a compelling, yet inherently unfair, version of events, police sit atop armored vehicles and thus miss the opportunity to dispel their negative image. Ultimately, there is plenty of blame to go around for the torched mess in Ferguson. The way forward will require firm leadership on both sides. As Tacoma learned, you can’t arrest your way out of a mess like this.
If city leaders keep fiddling around with relationships between their police and communities, they will again, like Nero, watch streets burn.
Brian O’Neill, a Gig Harbor resident and former South Sound police officer, is a former reader columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.