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Ferguson Represents Failure at All Levels

Protester in Ferguson


Mark Gordon - published on 08/20/14

We don't even know what happened yet.

The particulars of the situation in Ferguson, MO, are still in doubt. On Saturday, August 9, a white police officer stopped two young, African Americans who were walking in the street.  A confrontation ensued between the patrolman, Darren Wilson, and one of the young men, 18-year-old Michael Brown. Witnesses disagree about what happened next.  One version stresses that Brown pushed Officer Wilson back into his car, struck him, and grabbed for his gun.  Another that Brown had his hands raised in surrender when the encounter ended. The unarmed Brown was shot six times, twice in the head, and he died at the scene.

The next evening, a candlelight vigil for Brown deteriorated into looting and vandalism. Thirty people were arrested. On Monday, August 11, the FBI announced that it would open a parallel investigation into Brown’s death. Brown’s parents renounced the violence and demanded justice for their son. Still, there was more unrest on Monday evening. On Tuesday, President Obama weighed in and called for calm. Brown’s companion at the time he was shot said Brown wasn’t resisting and had his hands in the air. By Wednesday, the unfolding events had attracted national and international media attention. Reporters for Huffington Post and The Washington Post were detained. Police lobbed teargas at a crew from Al Jazeera America and arrested a St. Louis alderman.

On Thursday, August 14, the governor of Missouri announced that the Missouri Highway Patrol would take over for the local police, and he appointed an African-American captain to lead the effort. For the first evening that week there was no violence. Vigils were held in cities across the United States. Then, on Friday, the name of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, was released. That night, the violence resumed. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. The next day, the governor declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew as evidence mounted that agitators from outside Ferguson – notably Chicago – were responsible for much of the violence. On Monday, August 18, the governor sent in the National Guard, but lifted the curfew as ineffective.

On the 18th, Robert J. Carlson, Archbishop of St. Louis, issued a letter on the Ferguson situation. “I have personally visited Ferguson and Michael Brown’s memorial to offer my prayers for everyone affected by this tragedy,” wrote Archbishop Carlson. “In all circumstances, but especially in these difficult times, we are all called to be instruments of peace through our words and actions. Pope Francis recently stated that, ‘All men and women of good will are bound by the task of pursuing peace.’”

The archbishop went on to announce that he would celebrate a Mass for Peace and Justice at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis on Wednesday, August 20. He concluded his letter by asking “all the faithful in the Archdiocese of St. Louis to join me in praying to Our Blessed Mother and to her son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, for peace and justice in our community.”

The preamble of the Constitution of the United States summarizes the purposes of government this way: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

These purposes are interlocking and mutually dependent. A more perfect union, for instance, cannot be achieved without equal justice under the law. Justice, in turn, can’t be established without domestic tranquility, and vice versa. Viewed through this lens, the ongoing turmoil in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, represents a systemic failure of government at all levels to fulfill these purposes.

Ferguson has become the intersection point of several social vectors that have plagued the United States for some time. These include the reality of a permanent American underclass characterized by despair and lawlessness; the militarization of policing, encouraged by the federal government; an omnipresent media that routinely inflame passions in pursuit of profit; the widespread practice of business redlining, which adds to the isolation of minority communities; and the ongoing issue of race, especially with regard to the criminal justice system.

From a Catholic point of view, police are invested with the authority necessary to maintain public order, which contributes to, and even enables, the common good. This authority even extends to the use of arms: “The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.” (CCC #2265)

At the same time, police must exercise their authority justly, with a view toward restoring the tranquility of order within society: “Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse. It is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. This is the principle of the ‘rule of law,’ in which the law is sovereign and not the arbitrary will of men." (CCC #1903,1904)

Citizens, too, have a responsibility to act in accordance with the common good, even when the authorities behave unjustly: “When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the law of the gospel.” (CCC #2242)

What we don’t know about the Ferguson situation is whether officer, Darren Wilson, acted unjustly toward Michael Brown. The simple array of characters—white policeman, black victim—doesn’t tell us that. What is needed is a thorough investigation into Wilson’s actions, taking into account all evidence and testimony. But that can’t happen until public order is restored. What we do know about the Ferguson situation is that looting, vandalism and assaults are manifest injustices committed against both their immediate victims and the community at large. In order for justice to be done, domestic tranquility must be restored.

In 1968, while American cities were erupting in violence, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech in which he defended his commitment to nonviolence. His words are worth recalling as we watch the situation in Ferguson unfold:

“I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. That in a real sense it is impractical for the Negro to even think of mounting a violent revolution in the United States. So I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.

“But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard."

Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.

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