Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Assessing the damage -- and lessons -- of Ferguson

The good news from the initial protests and rioting in Ferguson was that no one died or was seriously injured Monday night, and that while protests occurred nationwide, violence was confined to the St. Louis area.

However, I don’t think we’re through it yet, and the violence that did occur should not be minimized. Those who engaged in looting and other criminal acts ought to be prosecuted . There’s no excuse for what they did, and the truth is that most of them acted more out of rank opportunism than sincere anger.

It’s also important to draw distinctions: St. Louis County is home to roughly a million people, a quarter of whom are black. And of the small fraction of the county population that showed up to protest the grand jury findings, only a fraction of that small fraction turned to violence, looting and arson. (The crowds also contained a lot of people drawn from all over the country; many had good intentions, others did not.)

Some have already used the actions of that criminal few to characterize an entire community or racial group — as in “look what ‘they’ did” — which perpetuates the lazy way of thinking that contributed to this problem in the first place. And that caution applies to people on every side of the dispute: White people didn’t do X; black people didn’t do Y. Individuals did and do, and individuals should be judged accordingly.

In fact, if you’re so inclined, you can second-guess every figure in this tragedy, from the two principles, Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, through the protesters and law enforcement to the district attorney and media. You can second-guess it from Brown’s decision to steal a pack of cigarillos and the initial 90-second confrontation with Wilson through to the bizarre way the grand jury’s decision was announced Monday night. It is a case defined by its ambiguity, offering enough evidence to support almost any inclination that you bring to it.

You could also second-guess the decision by the St. Louis County prosecutor to present an entire case to the grand jury, with hours of testimony and reams of evidence, rather than push a more bare-bones case that might be more likely to produce an indictment. I think it was a reasonable decision, made for the right reasons, and until we have a chance to go through the mountain of evidence as the grand jury did, the outcome should be accepted as reasonable as well.

However, it’s also true that an indictment followed by a trial would have meant that all the evidence that the grand jury saw in secret, as legally required, would have been presented in public, with the country hearing the testimony and learning along with the jury what happened in those fateful 90 seconds. Such a public process might have produced something closer to a consensus about the case.

But maybe not. What we’re seeing in the Ferguson controversy is yet another expression of a general loss of faith in the public and private institutions of this country, and in each other. That loss of faith takes different forms among different communities, brought to the forefront by different issues, but the essential problem is the same.

Those institutions, from the local police force to Congress, are our creation. If they are inadequate and no longer trustworthy, we have the obligation to remake them. And to do so peacefully.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.