Ferguson situation demands cool heads, perspective

I’m a bit of a news hound.

I get it honestly, as my parents have always been fervent followers of current events, and my mother’s parents used to sort through three or four papers a day. My grandfather, a longtime journalist and publisher in New York, once told me the reason he read so many newspapers was so he could take pieces from every article on a particular subject and make up his own mind as to what really happened.

He really was a smart man.

Those words have been ringing loudly through my mind recently as I have watched the events unfold in Ferguson, Mo. The footage from the protests and law enforcement actions have seemed surreal to me, as if they were born from another time, not just a different location. Substitute grainy black-and-white images for high-def color, and this could have been Oxford, Ms., or Little Rock, Ark., or Chicago.

For those of you who have not been following the events, a white police officer in the suburb of St. Louis shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown on Aug. 9. That much is unquestioned.

However, the circumstances of the shooting are very much in question. Some witnesses have said that Brown was charging the officer and the shooting was a means of self-defense. Some reports claim that the two got into a physical confrontation and there was a fight over the officer’s gun and that is how the first shots were fired. And some say that Brown was innocent throughout the ordeal and was simply gunned down in cold blood because of the color of his skin.

Here is the problem with witnesses and theories: human beings.

We all see things differently based on exactly where we were at the time in relation to the incident, how scared or confused we might be with something like this taking place in a setting that does not involve a television screen and, honestly, based on our own predispositions. If someone is pro-cop, they tend to see things in a way that puts the officer in a positive light, and likewise for someone who might be anti-police. I’m not calling any of the witnesses liars, mind you — just human beings.

So, basically what I’m saying is we don’t really know precisely what happened during the shooting that triggered the other events in the town, but I’m guessing we will get more information as the investigation continues, and that information will be embraced or ridiculed — based on the personal beliefs of people disseminating that information.

What I can say with some certainty is that people on both sides of this issue have contributed to the mess that has unfolded in the aftermath of the shooting.

The police would not reveal the name of the officer (Darren Wilson) involved in the shooting for several days, citing concerns for his personal safety, and that got the disenfranchised feeling more angry, saying that if it was a young black male accused of shooting someone, the police would have released his name and photo to the press immediately.

On this one, I have to say, “Not true.”

I came up through this business as a police reporter, and I can tell you that the only time police willingly release a name of a suspect before charges are filed is when they are actively looking for that individual and can’t find him or her. Trust me on this one, as I have butted heads with departments across these fruited plains, and have been stonewalled time and time again with the frustrating “active investigation” response.

However, Ferguson police have done significant harm to relations (both racial and authority-citizen relations) throughout this process. They released a video of Brown allegedly robbing a liquor store moments before the shooting, but that was completely irrelevant as police have said that Wilson did not know Brown was a suspect at the time of the incident. This is classic “besmirching” to minimalize an individual, and all it did was incite people.

Also, showing up in riot gear and heavy weaponry pointed at citizens often doesn’t go over very well, particularly when people are upset in the first place for what they perceive as heavy-handedness by law enforcement. They have also tear-gassed and arrested several credentialed members of the media — not a good idea if you want a positive message relayed to the world.

As for the protestors, they are not entirely without blame, either. Though the vast majority of them have been peaceful and apparently responsive to police directives, there have been groups taking advantage of the situation to loot and cause violence, casting a pall over the rest of the group’s efforts. If everyone involved in this public action stayed on course, their complaints and concerns would be more-widely listened to, but the bad apples have spoiled the proverbial bunch.

It’s also important that the protestors demand a fair and impartial investigation, and not just a witch hunt. If Wilson only used deadly force to protect himself, as many argue, sacrificing him to satisfy perceived racial and class injustices does nothing but harm for the greater good. If you truly want justice, then demand justice — not a pound of flesh.

Ferguson is a ticking time bomb right now, and the entire world is watching. Let’s all keep our heads about us.