The scenes and reports coming out of Ferguson and some of the other hardscrabble parts of north St. Louis County are ugly and surreal, like something happening in another time or a different part of the world.
This urban swath of Missouri has suddenly come to resemble a military zone, as heavily armed riot police face off against civilians, many of whom stand their ground with hands in the air and rage on their faces.
The fury that began when a Ferguson police officer shot an unarmed teenager, 18-year-old Michael Brown, has manifested itself in demonstrations in the days since.
Some looting and vandalism have occurred, which only serve to detract from the urgent need to find out what happened.
But police must not make a bad situation worse. Reports of officers using tear gas and rubber bullets on citizens who were doing nothing more than trying to make their way home are extremely concerning. Police in Ferguson and north St. Louis County have a lot of hard work ahead to repair relations with citizens. They need to keep the peace and protect people’s property but with the least show of force required.
Also very worrisome are continued demands to name the police officer who shot Brown. An Internet vigilante group on Tuesday threatened to release information about the whereabouts of family members of the Ferguson police chief if the name of the officer continued to be withheld.
It is true that Michael Brown had no choice but to be named as the latest unarmed young black man to be killed by a law enforcement officer. But the quest for justice in his name will not be served by further violence. The identity of the police officer will come out in due course; right now the volatility of the situation justifies the decision to withhold it.
Brown, a recent high school graduate, is being described by his teachers at Normandy High School as a “gentle giant.” He was to have started classes at a technical college on Monday.
Based on reflections by people who knew him, there is little in Brown’s background to square with the accusation offered by Ferguson police that he reached into a police cruiser and struggled for the officer’s gun. Brown’s companion has offered a disturbing version of events that portrays the officer as the aggressor. Whatever the truth, it is safe to say that Brown should not have died on Saturday.
There is little reason now for Brown’s family or many people anguishing over his death to express faith in the rule of law. But it is the best hope for recourse that we have in America. Attorneys with the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department are working with the FBI on an investigation separate from a probe underway by the St. Louis County police. If Brown’s death was as unprovoked as his companion’s account suggests, the officer involved must be brought to trial.
Meanwhile, we must listen to the people who have raised their hands in solidarity with Michael Brown. He is not an isolated incident but yet another symbol of the indignities and dangers that black people continue to face in America. The nation ignores those voices at its peril.