As the Cloud Lifts

Jewish Light Editorial

Things get mushed together in the media and public eye.

This was especially true of the events of last summer in Ferguson and their aftermath. Many members of the public acted as though sides must be chosen – a declaration of support for the deceased Michael Brown symbolically represented social justice and advocacy for change, while those who spoke up in defense of police Officer Darren Wilson were tagged with a law and order agenda.

We now know that the landscape is far more complex than that.

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We’ve seen the U.S. Department of Justice determine, as did a St. Louis County grand jury, that there was insufficient evidence for criminal charges against Wilson. But the same DOJ also came out with a scathing report documenting what appear to be utterly offensive practices and conduct by members of the Ferguson Police Department.

Moreover, the public spotlight has finally been placed on the disgusting practice of revenue-generation-by-arrest, a too common protocol by which less affluent communities fill their operational coffers. The question is a particularly challenging one: How do we help cash-challenged cities support their necessary services in a way that avoids the kind of petty and discriminatory ways that surfaced in Ferguson?

But then there’s also the issue of a lack of respect for public authority and property rights. While the facts of recent shootings of St. Louis County and Webster Groves policemen in Ferguson are still unfolding, they follow months of protest during which there have been vile generalizations about how all police are evil. And fires set last summer destroyed the businesses of ordinary folks who had not committed any unlawful acts; their places happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So how to unpack and make sense of it all with the benefit of the passage of time? Well, a few principles should be obvious by now to all but those who seek and sustain the most intransigent of views:

• Criminal court cases should not be decided by treating them as a microcosm of society’s ills. The rule of law and due process, not our opinion about public policy, must govern criminal jurisprudence absent a clear indication that the legal system has been compromised. In this instance, two jurisdictions, county and federal, declined to prosecute the police officer in question. This is no guarantee that the right decision was reached, but it’s an important reminder not to confuse judicial remedies with more global ones.

• Criminal cases, on the other hand, can and sometimes do point to glaring deficiencies in social justice. In the case of Ferguson, had there been no Michael Brown case, traffic-stop revenue and shoddy treatment of the city’s citizens might not have come out from behind the shadows.

• Anyone who deploys common sense realizes that the problems Ferguson is facing are not isolated. In fact, there are jurisdictions in St. Louis County and beyond with higher poverty rates, greater segregation and a paucity of revenue to support their residents. Whatever our collective approach is to ensuring safe, secure and livable communities for all, it isn’t working.

• Just because a police department is fraught with issues does not mean we should disrespect individual police unless and until they give us reason to do so. Of course, we ought to work for and promote the kind of law enforcement that will make us all proud and ensure the most professional policing we can; that’s a given. But showing distaste for all police, when they perform tasks for which most of us would never enlist, is anathema to us. It’s no different from  taking military personnel to task for serving our country.

The fallout from Ferguson, once disaggregated into more meaningful lessons, shows we can’t hide, even in a fractured metro area like St. Louis. It’s so easy to be ostrich-like for those who live in our area, many of whom are rarely affected by the kinds of pain and suffering experienced by those on the lower socioeconomic rungs. 

But once the evidence of a seriously damaged structure is exposed, then it’s on all of us if we don’t do what we can to end the cycle of poverty, discrimination, violence and suffering that falls disproportionately on just some of us.