Here is what is happening in Ferguson, Mo. Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, was shot and killed by a police officer, whose name and race are as yet unconfirmed by the police. St. Louis County police confirm that Mr. Brown was unarmed; police say he accosted the officer and tried to take his gun, and others have cast doubt on that story. A shot was fired in the car, and several more outside it. The police said that they would release the details about Mr. Brown’s shooter, and then reversed themselves. Confrontational and rowdy protests were met with an inept police response, journalists were arrested, and television crews were tear-gassed. The protests were accompanied by riots, and a Foot Locker and several beauty-supply stores were looted. A convenience store was set afire.
We have seen similar, racially charged situations before: From Rodney King to Trayvon Martin, this is, unhappily, not new. The right method of proceeding is not new, either.
A young man is dead, and a police officer is accused of deadly misconduct. What is needed, to begin with, is a full, fair, transparent, and non-politicized investigation of the shooting. By suppressing not only the identity of the officer in question but practically all of the relevant details of the investigation, and by reversing itself on the matter of releasing information, the police department is doing itself a disservice, and probably making matters worse. The mayor is a former employee of the police department and is regarded with some skepticism. Governor Jay Nixon is expected to remove the St. Louis County Police Department from the investigation, which is probably wise. The department does not enjoy the public credibility necessary for it to be in charge of investigating itself in this matter.
While it is necessary that the police do their job and protect life and property, the sight of men in quasi-military uniforms training sniper scopes across crowds of protesters is an unseemly one. Cops should be peace officers, not combat troops.
Other unseemly presences include the hearse-chasing representatives of the racial-grievance industry. Al Sharpton, an old hand at inciting riots, is on the scene. As if matters weren’t bad enough, Sharpton et al. probably will find a way to make them worse.
Prudence counsels taking a step back. But prudence rarely prevails in these situations.
The police must maintain the physical security of the city’s people and property. A convenience store may be a modest thing, but that was somebody’s livelihood, as is the Foot Locker, the beauty-supply stores, and other victimized businesses. Ferguson can ill afford the destruction of property and public disorder.
Community leaders with any influence and investment in Ferguson’s future should do what they can to ensure that the protests are peaceful. Hurling accusations is one thing; hurling rocks is another.
The federal government already has poked its snout into the matter, with the Justice Department exploring a possible civil-rights case. There are few situations materially improved by the involvement of Eric Holder.
We do not know precisely what happened in the case of Michael Brown. Finding out will take time. But even if the police officer is found to have acted with textbook probity, the situation suggests that deep reform, from police matters to economic matters, is needed in Ferguson, as in so many similar cities.