FERGUSON, Mo. — The National Guard’s arrival may bring order to this troubled community. It probably won’t bring peace.
It didn’t in Newark and Detroit after race riots in 1967, nor in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict in 1992. However necessary, sending in the Guard — as Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon did in Ferguson early Monday — is typically an admission of failure that becomes as much a part of a community’s stigma as the violence it’s designed to stop.
“It’s the worst scenario,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “It’s an indictment of the political establishment, of civil society itself. It says there’s so much despair and alienation that you need a military occupation. It shames the country to see soldiers patrolling the streets.”
In Ferguson and across the nation, Americans debated what could bring peace here and, implicitly, maintain it in many similar cities and towns.
“What’s happening in Ferguson could happen in a lot of places,” said Thomas Reppetto, former president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City and once a commander of police detectives in Chicago. “Who ever heard of Ferguson before this?”
He and O’Donnell said the volatile intersection of poverty, racial tensions and policing can produce an explosion almost anywhere, anytime. And the damage lingers long after the tear gas has blown away.
The National Guard is the next-to-last resort before the Army (82nd Airborne Division, Detroit, ’67) and Marines (1st Division, L.A., ’92) for quelling a civil disturbance. Usually the Guard makes the situation better; sometimes (Newark, ’67) it arguably makes it worse.
And, in many cases, the Guard’s imposition of order eventually proved to be a hollow accomplishment. It couldn’t stop the flight of white residents and businesspeople from Detroit and Newark after 1967; after the 1965 riots, most whites left South-Central Los Angeles; after the 1992 ones, many blacks did, too. Many buildings that burned down still haven’t been rebuilt.
In Ferguson, the Guard’s deployment came nine days after the shooting of an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown, by a white policeman. The shooting touched off a week of bitter and sometimes violent protests in this racially mixed, working class suburb of St. Louis.
Nixon’s decision to call in the Guard followed a series of other moves designed to contain the situation. Command was shifted from the Ferguson Police Department, first to county police, then to the state Highway Patrol under the leadership of Capt. Ronald Johnson, a black officer with local ties. A midnight-to-dawn curfew was imposed (and then called off on Monday).
Bernard Melekian, the Justice Department’s former director of community policing, said the Guard can fill a need in Ferguson.
“There were steps that probably could have been taken in the first days, but here we are at Day 9, and now it is critical … to ensure the protection of lives and property,” said Melekian, former police chief of Pasadena, Calif. “It could help provide some breathing room — some space to put some faith back in the (investigative) process.”
The Guard’s presence alone will not ensure peace, he said, adding, “Trust is a valid question here.” Melekian said investigators should find a credible, independent party to oversee the inquiry into the fatal shooting.
“Now that everyone has chosen sides, anytime the local authorities release information that doesn’t jibe with the family’s understanding, there are going to be more questions,” Melekian said.
Joseph McNamara, a former Kansas City police chief and research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said local authorities in Ferguson “did everything wrong you could possibly do.”
“The way this has gotten away from them is a shocking kind of thing to see,” McNamara said. Going forward, the former chief said Ferguson police and other law enforcement officials “have to recalibrate their policies on the use of deadly force.”
One protester, Shirlissa Pruitt, 41, said the National Guard’s presence made her want to keep protesting: “It reassures me that now is not the time to rest … because the things they are doing are still unlawful. … It’s kind of like a jail for the neighborhood. You are going to have to get up at a certain time, go to the store at a certain time and move around at a certain time.”
Ben Mengis, 55, said action needs to come from the city, not the state. “Ferguson does not need the governor of Missouri coming in telling them the police department is not up to standards. I think the City Council needs to sit down and fire the police chief. Then you’re sending a signal that the police chief is not our chief, we’re his chief.”‘
President Obama himself sounded skeptical about the Guard’s use. He said at a news conference Monday afternoon that “I’ll be watching to see that it’s helping, not hindering, progress.”
All of which begged the question: How can peace be restored in Ferguson?
“With justice,” Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, said in an interview with ABC News. Asked what justice meant to her, she said, “Being fair. Arresting this man (Darren Wilson, the officer who shot her son) and making him accountable for his actions.”
Elsewhere in Ferguson, opinion varied among protesters as to what it would take to bring calm:
• “Barack Obama needs to do his damn job. He needs to get down here personally and give us federal protection, not state protection. He needs to stop dillying and dallying. The National Guard is here, but they live here. They grew up with the (police) troublemakers.” — Mauricelm-Lei Millere, chairman of the Black Nationalist Network of Washington, who has led marches, including one Sunday night at which marchers were tear gassed.
• “It’s not about black or white. It’s about making sure the law is executed properly.” — Bishop Larry Jones, pastor and founder of Greater Grace Church in St. Louis, who said people may be relieved if Wilson faces criminal charges.
• “The removal of all current leaders — Ferguson’s police chief, Ferguson’s mayor, and the county prosecutor. You can’t remove one without the others. They are a collective organization.” — Pruitt, a personal chef and law school student. That organization, she said, has encouraged unfair policing, use of military-style tactics on protestors and created schools that fail Ferguson’s children.
Martin Luther King III, son of the civil rights leader, told CNN that, based on his conversations with black community leaders, he thinks tensions could be eased by the appointment of a special criminal prosecutor in the shooting.
(The Associated Press reported that the official overseeing the investigation, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, has deep family roots among police: His father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin all worked for St. Louis’ police department, and his father was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect.)
There also was this suggestion from Obama: “Let’s seek to heal, rather than wound each other.” The solution, he said, was to “build, not tear down. Listen, and not just shout. That’s how we’re going to move forward.”
Not everyone agreed that the fault rested with Ferguson’s government, which is dominated by the city’s white minority, and police force, which is predominantly white. Mayor James Knowles, who is white, told KSDK-TV that the city wants to hire black cops, but that many young African Americans aren’t interested.
“We hire every (qualified African American) that we can get,” he said. But “a lot of young African-American people don’t want to go into law enforcement. They already have this disconnect with law enforcement, so if we find people who want to go into law enforcement who are African-American, we’re all over it because we want them to help us bridge the gap.”
Meanwhile, the fundraising site Gofundme.com had a Facebook page asking for money for Wilson. It reads: “We stand behind Officer Darren Wilson and his family during this trying time.”
Despite everything — from the arrival of a military unit hardened by what its commander described as “many overseas missions” to the looted storefronts on West Florissant Avenue — Bishop Jones said he was optimistic.
“I predict a great future for Ferguson,” he said, as long as its people “can gather around the table and keep talking and help with the healing.”
Talia Lowe, a 39-year-old protester who works at a rap studio, was of two minds.
On one hand, she said calm could return to Ferguson after Brown is buried and mourners can begin to process their pain and anger. But she said things also could get worse: “I think after the funeral, it’s going to be a riot. Everybody is going to be upset and emotional when that day actually comes.”
Hampson reported from New Jersey. Contributing: Kevin Johnson in Washington, D.C.; KSDK-TV in Ferguson, Mo.