Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Police violence occurs against an unarmed black man. The black community is outraged. The anger leads to more violence, except this is self-mutilation: local businesses get smashed and looted. The city tensely awaits the next act in the play.
Of course, the headlines can’t give you the backstory – that narrative that drives this cycle of violence – partly because it’s assumed we know that story already but partly because knowing the story – and how it keeps repeating, doesn’t change the facts.
The latest installment in our refusal to overcome violence, racism, or police brutality occurred Sunday in Ferguson, Missouri.
A candlelight vigil was being held for Michael Brown, an 18-year old who had been slain in an altercation with police the night before.
While many were there for a peaceful vigil, some used the excuse of grief to cause mayhem, smashing windows and breaking into local stores around the area. No injuries or deaths were reported in the violence. Some of the stores affected included AutoZone, Family Dollar, Walgreens, Taco Bell, QuikTrip, and a Phillips 66 station, among others.
Details of the incident which led to Brown’s death are unclear, with eyewitness reports varying greatly from the accounts of the police.
The police say that Brown, while unarmed, had been struggling for one of the police officer’s guns prior to the shooting. Witnesses to the scene say that the youth had his hands in the air while fleeing from the police car and was shot in the back.
Showing just how much things have changed in the media landscape since the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, another example of community violence following perceived injustice behind police violence, the St. Louis County Police Department put out a message on Facebook yesterday, the day after the shootings and the same day they held a press conference.
The message read: “The FBI will be contacted today and notified of the incident. If they choose, they may conduct a separate use-of-force investigation on this incident directly with the Ferguson Police Department.”
Such a message seems designed to pre-empt the implications laid out by Lesley McSpadden, the mother of the slain boy. She reminded reporters that her son was due to start college next week and wondered aloud why police didn’t use Tasers or clubs to subdue her son. Her remedy to the situation was clear:
I would like to see him [the officer in question] fired. I would like to see him go to jail with the death penalty.
Twenty-two years ago, Rodney King tearfully asked why we couldn’t all just get along. The question is a fair one and implies its own short-term solution: a peace without understanding.
Whether the verdict of a potential case that follows this incident pleases either side in this tragedy is unclear. What is clear is that we still have to confront the realities of our shared history together, namely the ongoing problem of confrontations between young black men and the police and the corresponding deficit of leadership among the black communities in which violence occurs as a response to injustice, perceived or actual.
Until cooler heads encourage and lead, we will continue to have senseless reactions like those we saw last night in Ferguson.
We can only hope there will not be more riots and violence in the days to come and that the community can start to come together and try to heal, even as it vigorously seeks justice and truth.