What U.S. protesters can learn from Ferguson

The Missouri city’s long-term response to a 2014 police killing shows a different way to confront racial inequities.

Police officers from Ferguson, Missouri, join protesters to remember George Floyd by taking a knee in the parking lot of the police station May 30, 2020.

The protests in U.S. cities demanding justice for George Floyd, a black man who died under the knee of a white police officer, have not spared Ferguson, Missouri. This city in St. Louis County first sparked a movement nearly six years ago after a similar police killing, turning it into a global symbol of racial inequities. On May 30, Ferguson again saw demonstrations. Only this time they were different in one key aspect. The city’s police chief, Jason Armstrong, greeted the protesters and condemned the killing in Minneapolis.

His gesture, while small, is an example of the lessons that Ferguson can offer to the rest of the United States. The city’s limited reforms since the 2014 killing of Michael Brown show that progress in even discussing inequalities may help prevent police brutality toward minorities. They also build on the continuum of good that has unfolded in America’s consistent, if imperfect, pursuit of a more compassionate and just society.

In a report last year on police reform in the St. Louis area, the watchdog group Forward Through Ferguson found that a mix of vision, persistence, and pressure has brought a measure of change to the region. Tangible progress included the election of a black prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County and the creation of a civilian review board for the regional police department. These days, a political candidate doesn’t run for office without addressing racial inequities – even though the region remains one of the most racially segregated metro areas in the U.S. In numerical terms, the St. Louis region has seen progress in 46 out of 100 “equity indicators” set down by the Ferguson Commission, a panel set up after the 2014 killing.

“There is a huge opportunity for St. Louis to be a national model for how to confront these issues and come out stronger for it,” David Dwight of Forward Through Ferguson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last year.

Yet for all the attention on “systemic” reform, perhaps the most important insight is that acts of change require acts of new relationships. “We need to take care of each other to do this work,” stated the 2019 report on police reform. “Finding common ground and understanding perspectives thought to be oppositional are often instrumental to building the trust needed to try new things.”

In unexpected ways, the response to the Michael Brown killing brought people together in St. Louis. “People in communities all across the region not only wanted to talk about these issues,” concluded the Ferguson Commission in 2015, “they also wanted to do something about these issues.” People listened with patience and respect that carried with it a sense of purpose, obligation, and resolve.

In other words, they acted much like Ferguson’s police chief last Saturday in greeting the protesters. The divisive perception that people are naturally unequal begins to quickly fall away with simple acts of love and empathy. They are the highest form of protest.

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