If you are anything like me, you haven't quite known what to make of the Ferguson, Missouri riots. It seems so surreal. Violence, looting, fires in the streets. This is not Los Angeles, Beirut, Berlin or Belfast. It's not some civil-war-torn third world country. It's a modest size suburban midAmerican town, just about exactly the population of Buena Vista County, only about seven hours from here.
If this could happen here, it could happen anywhere.
And the irony cuts like a white-hot knife. The violent mobs running the streets in response to the shooting of a black teenager did their worst damage in the very neighborhood shooting victim Michael Brown grew up in. They victimized their own people, robbed their own stores, and set fire to their own neighborhood. What exactly were they hoping to achieve?
This is a hard one to get an emotional handle on. Who are the good guys and the bad guys here? It all seems shades of dismal gray...
Teenager Michael Brown was not exactly an innocent. We're told that he and another youth had just stolen cigarettes in a convenience store robbery and roughed up the clerk a bit. He had allegedly struggled with a white officer who pulled up in a cruiser and told them to move out of the middle of the street, until the officer's gun went off. The boys fled, the officer chased Brown and unloaded a dozen shots, hitting him six. Some say the shooting was justified; some say the boy was trying to surrender, and was no threat to the officer at that time. It is unclear the officer knew that there had been a robbery. What was known was that a white policeman had killed an unarmed black teenager; and that is gasoline thrown on a fire in a time of concern about possible rattail profiling.
Through a steaming hot summer the little city waited and percolated, and it seemed like everything that could be done wrong, was.
The teenager's body was left laying in the street for hours, as if it didn't matter. The video of the robbery was unwisely made public right after the death. The officer's name was almost immediately made public. Bureaucrats seems callous and uncaring, the city seemed bent on a show of armed force. The cop went on a national TV interview to say he wouldn't do anything different if he had it to do over. When a grand jury decided not to indict the officer, the decision was announced at night while masses of angry people were in the streets. The media gleefully fanned the flames, unconcerned for this community and only after a sensational headline. It is not hard to imagine the disillusion people must have felt.
So many people tried to do the right thing, with peaceful vigils and prayer and attempts to insure justice. But in the end, mob mentality overpowered them. Once people have started to mindlessly destroy, and raw emotion has overcome any sense of right and wrong, it is hard to stop. We've seen it on a much smaller scale in VEISHEA riots at Iowa State in past years. Cops in riot gear and Guard soldiers with rifles may beat that kind of emotion back for a time, but that only addresses the symptom and not the disease.
What is so perplexing here is not the violence, but that it could not be stopped. For months everyone had known that the city was a powderkeg, and that a likely decision by the grand jury would push things over the edge. And yet, anarchy in the streets of middle America seemed somehow utterly inevitable.
So much so, that press conferences by the Brown family before the grand jury announcement pleaded to avoid what they knew would be coming. The mayor in his press conference seemed so accepting of a violent response that he was detailing how restraint would be ordered in police use of tear gas and assault vehicles on protesters. The small businesses of the neighborhood knew what was coming and had started to board over windows and doors days earlier. One writer compared it to a coastal community anticipating a hurricane.
Stealing a big-screen TV or setting fire to a local woman's bakery does what to help a dead teenager? For some, I fear, it was just an excuse to behave like animals. And I doubt that just any one ethnic group is to blame.
President Obama himself respond to the incidents, if only to stress that there is never an excuse for violence, and in that regard, he is right. It does nothing to help a group of people, when some of them act to tear their own community apart and prey on their own. You don't protest a violent act with more violence and lawlessness. That's only going to get more people hurt.
We have come so far in dealing with racial strife and injustice. Storm Lake is an excellent example of how multiple races can live, study and work together in an equitable atmosphere, with avenues to address concerns without insanity in the streets.
Fire doesn't bring social change, and it doesn't matter what race they are - those who are taking the law into their own hands in Ferguson should be held fully responsible or their violence.
Yet I can't help but think that what the community needed at a volatile moment was validation that black lives mattered, that every life matters, and that justice exists for all. All races, those empowered and their citizens, should be able to share sorrow for a young person lost, no matter the circumstances. Could this all have been prevented? I don't know, but it does seem like we could have tried harder.