We’ve had plenty of rhetorical villains since the fatal police shooting of a black teen in Ferguson, Missouri, grandstanders stirring up fear in vengeful tones, and we’ve ha violence and looting, mostly by nonresidents taking advantage of a tragedy to enrich themselves. But we’ve had heroes, too, and, at the young man’s funeral, we had calls for engaged citizenship and a stop to community disruption.
Healing may be on the way.
“Show up at the voting booths,” said Eric Davis, a cousin of the slain Michael Brown, addressing Ferguson blacks at the service. While he said more voting would thus let others know “we have had enough,” there is another way of looking at it, namely that it is a mode of self-governance, not just observer-governance, of assuming responsibility, of cooperatively sharing in decisions that matter.
It hasn’t been happening. While blacks constitute 67 percent of Ferguson’s population, just 7 percent bother to vote in local elections, and so it’s no wonder that the mayor and most members of the city council and school board are white. A funeral oration is not enough to change that. There need to be numerous energetic organizers out there, and some note it would help as well to have the local elections coincide with national elections when the turnout is many times higher.
Even with all of that, it’s the quality of candidates that counts, and there’s the never-ending needto hold them accountable by paying attention to what they do and speaking up when there’s good reason. If the police department needs changing, you can then make it happen.
Another topic at the funeral was the looting and rioting. Bishop Edwin Bass of the Church of God in Christ has been quoted as saying it was “imperative” to avoid it, powerfully explaining that now was a time “to immerse the family in the warm affection and abiding peace of the beloved community.”
What ought to be mentioned, too, is that the Ferguson riots afflicted blacks themselves. African-American poverty activist Robert Woodson has pointed out that the damage has included lost equity in homes, closed businesses, interruptions in bus services and thousands of children missing school for two weeks.
It could have been worse. Someone who has kept the situation more in hand than it might have been is Capt. Ronald Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, a black commander assigned by Gov. Jay Nixon to strive for Ferguson orderliness after the shooting. He has done such an impressive job that a New York Times story says “he has redefined leadership in crisis: equal parts police official, preacher, mediator and neighbor, unafraid to convey his inner conflict, unafraid to cry.” Just seeing him interviewed on TV makes you understand that the Ferguson story has brought us heroes others should do their best to learn from.
For still another heroic healer, look to Gail Babcock, a retired white Ferguson resident who in one sense is not retired at all. Mentioned in several news accounts, she is hard at work with a nonprofit organization that serves young people of all groups by teaching them, helping them have fun, involving them in community life and assisting with such issues as paying off court fines. She is especially concerned at the moment with locating counselors to assist them in coping with the shock of recent events that she herself finds disturbing.
It is through such factors as all of these — political awakening, spiritual calm, character showing itself and civic responsibility — that communities cohere and ultimately thrive. Ferguson and similar communities may need still more, such as increased family stability, improved education and poverty programs empowering the poor to self-rescue, but it is worth our attention that something dreadful has already been followed by signs of hope.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.