(RNS) Left to their own devices, residents and officials of Ferguson, Mo., probably could have sorted out the shooting of an unarmed teenager for the apparent crime of “walking while black” on their own.
I know from my years there as a pastor that Ferguson is a strong community — racially divided, yes, and angry at changes in American life that have left them behind. But the town has rootedness, civic pride, strong churches, and a fervent desire to make an integrated community work.
Of course, Ferguson wasn’t left alone. The town’s nearly all-white police force was clearly over its head. The county police, when invited in, stormed the town in military gear and shock-and-awe tactics and made matters worse. Now Missouri National Guard troops are coming.
Media descended on the small city, as well, and the story grew because it reveals so much about who we are as a nation.
That emerging narrative makes grim copy. Young black men across the country tell us the police hound them. Citizens talk about local police forces that seem grounded in white rage. Now, thanks to ill-considered investments in military equipment, those police bring assault rifles, military gear and armored vehicles to police work that can only be done by nurturing trust and mutual respect.
We see also the impact of income inequality, which has drained employment opportunities from former industrial communities and left large groups of young men and women, of all races, but especially black, who have no hope for the future and, thus, no stake in it.
Conservatives cry, “class warfare!” whenever anyone questions income inequality. They suggest ragged mobs rising up against the elegant 1 percent. What would “class warfare” actually look like? It would look like Ferguson: Frustrated citizens wanting respect and a place at the table but being shown instead the business end of an assault rifle.
It is a story seen time and again: Have-nots fighting each other for scraps, while the moneyed set vacations in expensive places.
Ferguson captures our attention because this is the nation we have become: Divided by race; denying opportunity to the many so that the few can live large; politicians spouting ideology and not knowing how to govern; police forces behaving like an occupation army; extremists exploiting a community’s suffering for their political gain.
There is another narrative, however, and it is more hopeful. The Ferguson community has drawn together. Blacks and whites march side by side. Church members put aside their bickering to stand for justice. Town leaders look earnestly for a solution other than brute force. A state highway patrol captain defuses the situation by walking with the protesters.
Local leaders are starting to look forward. A majority black town has white officials and a white police force because blacks haven’t been voting. OK, get out the vote.
An overbearing police presence undoes decades of effort to integrate. OK, change the racial profile of local police and do a better job of training them.
Don’t get lost in nostalgia for what Ferguson was a half-century ago; celebrate the majority’s yearning to integrate successfully.
When the national spotlight goes away, Ferguson will be left to its own devices. Friends there tell me the community is strong enough to move forward and, thanks to this unfortunate wake-up call, more keenly aware of what moving forward will entail.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
YS/AMB END EHRICH