Why you should care

Ferguson raised questions that go to the heart of what it means to be an American.

The story line is too familiar: A black person is killed by a white man, sometimes under the color of authority. A grand jury fails to indict the white man. There comes a public uproar, sometimes with violence and/or Al Sharpton. The uproar subsides and then, a month or two or 20 later, another innocent is killed.

Those elements recur through American history like a motif, and even in 2014 — 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act — it can seem like we’ll never escape them. “So the roll call rolls on,” our Eugene S. Robinson wrote in August, after the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; he invoked Eric Garner and Oscar Grant and Amadou Diallo too. Of course it goes back further, decades and even centuries. In 1965, Ruby Sales watched her white seminarian friend, down in Alabama to register voters, take the bullet for her in a Lowndes County convenience store. Later that decade, when New York City Mayor John Lindsay tried to show solidarity with civil rights protesters, he alienated another constituency he badly needed: the police. Reading his story, some might think of New York’s current mayor, Bill de Blasio, still between the police and the protest.

police in riot gear observe protesters

Police in riot gear observe protesters on the street near the Ferguson police station on Nov. 23, 2014.

Source Ting Shen/ZUMApress

Will things be different this time around? In November, after a grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, famed defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz warned us not to lump everything all together. Brown was not Trayvon Martin, or Rodney King. The law resides in specifics — ballistics, testimonies and evidence of motives — and though, he says, the case for indictment was likely close, the no-bill was likely the right decision. Experts on police psychology took us into Wilson’s head and reminded us that a police cruiser can often become a coffin. The narrative might yet swerve. Civil suits are likely in the case of both Brown and Garner. A growing movement to incorporate technology into policing could improve relationships between citizens and the police, and help “de-escalate” thorny confrontations. But who’s going to monitor all that cop-cam footage?

What gives us at OZY some hope are some of our fellow citizens. It’s worth remembering that we are less and less a black and white nation than ever before, and that the cause of civil rights is everyone’s. Who knows: The next civil rights leader could well be an Asian-American. And back in August, CEO and co-founder Carlos Watson told us about the “Ferguson Four,” Americans of color who are leading the charge for equal opportunity: California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, educator Geoffrey Canada and economist Roland Fryer. They may not be in the mold of traditional leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the Rev. Jesse Jackson, but they’re leading on justice and equal opportunity — and their work could help us achieve a more perfect union.

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