A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Ferguson: emotions unleashed, tragedies go on

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Dec. 1, 2 or 3

Grief, frustration or fear can unleash emotions as raw as an open wound. Those can lead to bad decisions like shooting an unarmed person 20 yards away or stupid choices like destroying property.

After a St. Louis area grand jury last week found no probable cause to try for any crime a Ferguson, Mo., policeman who in August shot and killed an unarmed black youth, many people feel like screaming, weeping or both … and also like trying to comfort, understand or acknowledge the passions at hand.

Some also are upset by the extent of public uproar about property damage and looting compared to the outcry against violence against young African-American men.

Questions nag. What if the shooter would’ve been a black teen fearing for his life from some 20 feet away and the unarmed victim a 28-year-old public employee?

Did the criminal justice system communicate that it’s acceptable to shoot unarmed people if someone thinks they’re in danger? That a segment of U.S. society is a threat not worth saving, some sort of infection or infestation justifying lousy, lethal force?

“People take our anger and they try to make it violent, when the real violence is the AK-47s and the M16s that are pointed at us,” said young Ferguson activist Ashley Yates, speaking to National Catholic Reporter. But true violence is “when you see a sniper pop out of the top of a tank with a smile on his face, when all you have is your hands and your words and your anger.”

Missouri’s Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon didn’t help. His executive order days before mobilizing 2,000 National Guard troops and coordinating every law enforcement official above a mall security guard only antagonized people already suspicious of the proceedings, and the veiled threat gave the sense of imminent unrest an unnecessary inevitability.

Such social spasms of real feelings aren’t new, of course, but even destructive acts are rarely violent against people. And what response would’ve avoided confirming presumptions about grassroots reaction? No protests may have seemed like acceptance of the shooting. Lawlessness seems to justify police overreaction.

There must be an alternative to rioting beyond a stern letter.

Certainly, law enforcement can be dangerous. The United States has more guns and more murders than other industrialized nations. Also, police using nonviolent resolutions don’t make the news. We expect that.

Maybe that’s na├»ve. Statistics from Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s office show that blacks in Missouri last year were 66 percent more likely than whites to be stopped by police, and twice as likely to be searched. Interestingly, though, among people searched, whites are 30 percent more likely to be in possession of contraband.

“In Missouri, black people are killed by law enforcement twice as frequently as white people,” according to a report by the Sunlight Foundation, and “nationwide, the rate at which black people are killed by law enforcement is three times higher than white people.”

Last month, ProPublica, a respected investigative journalism service, concluded that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts.

Polls show minority groups have little confidence in law enforcement; many believe they’re likely to use excessive force. Further, a Pew/USA Today poll in August showed Americans of all races collectively “give relatively low marks to police departments around the country for holding officers accountable for misconduct, using the appropriate amount of force, and treating racial and ethnic groups equally.”

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said, “We cannot deny or marginalize the perception that the system itself is not yet color blind. We are dedicated to supporting organizing efforts that reinforce unity, healing and fairness.”

Meanwhile, federal charges are doubtful, and in similar situations, civil lawsuits can be more successful, but any monetary judgments are paid by cities. Individuals aren’t exactly accountable for their actions.

“I am OK with being angry,” said Yates, the Ferguson activist. “If you can see a dead black body lying in the street for four and a half hours and that doesn’t make you angry, then you lack humanity. When we neglect to see [our shared humanity], we end up where we are today.”

[PICTURED: Cartoon by Sean Mack from]

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