Note: The following is an open letter to the law-abiding residents of Ferguson, Mo., who will live with the aftermath of the violence that followed the tragic shooting death of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown — and, specifically, to Natasha Cornell, who lives two blocks from the site of the violence. Natasha vividly described her experience of the rioting in a newspaper interview: “Half of these protesters are not even from this area. We don’t have too many stores to go to anymore because they burned it all up. My 20-year-old son ran all the way home from work. He was terrified. It’s not a race issue at this point, people just want to vent and loot.”
You are right in your observation that very few of those who are leading the protests in Ferguson live within your community. You are also correct that many of those who are rioting just want to vent and loot. To act out their violence without blame, they want to convince the nation that the most important issue facing blacks in America is the racial injustice that is expressed in police abuse and in the unfairness of our criminal-justice system. In short, they are capitalizing on a tragedy for their own benefit.
This is a scenario that has been played out many times before. Always among the first to arrive in town are civil-rights “spokespersons” and other racial-grievance merchants. As television networks scramble to be the first to report their declarations, these celebrities of the race arena increase their visibility and, therefore, their speaking fees. Meanwhile, thugs take advantage of the opportunity to do in public what they had been doing in secret — stealing from others — while making it appear that they are taking part in a noble protest.
The real victims, Natasha, will be people like you and your son and your friends and neighbors, who are left behind. Stores where you used to shop are burned out, restaurants are closed. The local tire shop and the convenience store have been looted. Residents of your neighborhood will be put out of work. And worst of all is an issue that must be addressed immediately and that brings the danger of even more deaths and destruction: the possibility of “police nullification.”
Some years ago, citizens of Cincinnati experienced a similar tragedy when a young black man was shot by the police. Charges of police brutality and racism quickly escalated and flared into a protest and a boycott of the city. In response, the police conducted a boycott of their own and ceased to enforce the laws in low-income black neighborhoods to avoid being accused of racism. In the year that followed, the murder rate in those communities soared by more than 800 percent. The leaders of the protests, meanwhile, returned to their homes: None of the civil-rights leaders, pastors, or social activists lived in those neighborhoods, so none suffered the consequences of their actions.
It is, therefore, Natasha, for you and your neighbors to begin to make peace and connect with the authorities. Just as you do not want whites to judge law-abiding people like yourself because of the actions of some looting thugs, you have a responsibility not to judge all of the police by the actions of one officer. Failure to do so would invite even further destruction and death in your neighborhood, as, without fear of the law, the people who are looting and devastating stores will turn to robbing your homes and stealing your cars, because they know the police will not respond. Amid that ruin, the only winners will be, as you so wisely pointed out, those that came “to vent and loot.”
The tragic truth is that while establishing a relationship between the community and law enforcement can help alleviate violence and crime in the future, little can be done to repair the long-term social and economic devastation that your neighborhood has suffered. When social unrest, disruption, and damage occur in a larger city, by contrast, there tends to be more hope for recovery.
In Ferguson, the owners of the burned-out stores will have a difficult time obtaining the financing or the insurance to rebuild. Local residents like your son will have to travel out of the community to find work, increasing the cost of transportation. Homeowners who have equity in their homes will see it vanish. Those who have loans pending to make home improvements will be denied the funds they need. Public schools will suffer as well, as teachers will not want to work in such a hostile environment, and student performance will decline.
In summary, long after the camera crews go home and the megaphones are tossed aside, residents such as you and your family will be struggling to reclaim your lives and your neighborhood.
— Robert L. Woodson Sr. is president and founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.