Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Are we all Ferguson?

Photo by Devon Sayers for CNN; swiped from kcra.com
So much insight has already been offered on the recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the lengthy confrontation that followed between protestors and police, that it is redundant to add more words to the pile. I nonetheless presume to add some thoughts on a relatively uncommented aspect of the situation, that being the looting of area stores during the protest. I have spent relatively little time in St. Louis, and have never been to Ferguson, so I'm nobody's expert on this specific series of incidents. (Neither, of course, are a lot of others who have offered opinions.) But I think there may be a broader, or at least potentially broader, phenomenon at work.

I will allow three things by way of disclaimer: [a] By most accounts, Ferguson's city government and particularly its police department have handled all this exceptionally badly from the start (so in all probability your police department would not have so energetically contributed to the unfolding disaster); [b] Much of the looting likely was done by a few bad apples, the sorts of thugs who prey on disorder wherever they happen to be (including Cedar Rapids after the flood); and [c] it is the habit of commentators to interpret situations through their own lens, however tenuous the actual connection.

I began this blog 16 months ago to discuss how places throughout (mostly) America were addressing three core challenges: economic opportunity, accommodation of diversity, and environmental sustainability. Environmental issues don't come into play here, and while the diversity connection is obvious, there are also effects of  the evolving economy, which for decades has been leaving a lot of people behind. Their discouragement is palpable. There has been little overt unrest, and most of what there has been was the genteel sort of "Occupy" stuff. Yet there is, understandably, discouragement, despair, and fraying nerves. Imagine a pile of brush, soaked in gasoline. The pile is just a wet and ugly nuisance, unless a spark occurs.

The shooting of Michael Brown was such a spark. So was the striking of a black child by a white motorist in a poor neighborhood some months ago. You may remember that when the driver got out to check on the child, he was assaulted by several onlookers, and might have been killed but for other people in the area who ran them off. Different cities, different situations, common element of race, but also the common element of widespread latent frustration that needed one spark to explode, in all its destructiveness and irrationality.

As the article by Kneebone cited below points out, areas of concentrated poverty are becoming more widespread (yes, counter-intuitive) in many metropolitan areas in the US. Gasoline-soaked piles of brush are everywhere around us. We need to design our metropolises in ways that connect people, not separate them (see the Capps article, cited below, on blatant efforts by Grosse Point Park, Michigan, to keep poor residents of Detroit out). Along with that, it is crucial to come to grips with the future of economic opportunity. That will require concerted effort by both government and the private sector, but the private sector is cutting positions and is sure it will die if the minimum wage is increased. Government's best ideas seem to involve shoveling public money into the hands of well-connected developers and peripatetic businesses. Can we do better? We simply must.


Kriston Capps, "There Are Echoes of Ferguson in Detroit," CityLab, 22 August 2014, http://www.citylab.com/politics/2014/08/there-are-echoes-of-ferguson-in-detroit/378922/

Rachel Kaufman, "Do Militarized Police Forces Actually Make Us Safer?," Urbanful, 14 August 2014, http://urbanful.org/2014/08/14/fergusons-paramilitary-response-crowd-control-isolated-incident

Elizabeth Kneebone, "Ferguson, Mo. Emblematic of Growing Suburban Poverty," The Avenue: Rethinking Metropolitan America, 15 August 2014, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/the-avenue/posts/2014/08/15-ferguson-suburban-poverty

Jeff Smith, ""In Ferguson, Black Town, White Power," New York Times, 18 August 2014, A19, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/18/opinion/in-ferguson-black-town-white-power.html?ref=opinion&_r=0

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