What will happen to Ferguson after the press and the feds are gone?

This is the most frightening question about the Ferguson episode.

August 20, 2014
Steven Gray writes widely on society, politics and business. His work has appeared in Time, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Ebony, and Le Monde.

A police officer raises his weapon at a car speeding in his general direction as a group of demonstrators stands on the sidewalk during protests in Ferguson, Mo. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

Nearly everyone, it seems, is commenting on the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed Missouri teenager shot by a police officer 11 days ago. President Obama called the death a “tragedy,” and has dispatched federal authorities to Ferguson, Mo. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon described the surreal scene of protesters, tear gas and armored vehicles rolling through the streets as “more like a war zone.”

But one of the most noteworthy comments came from a Ferguson resident, who told MSNBC host Chris Hayes this on Friday:

That is one of the most profoundly honest, frightening and least explored questions to come out of the Ferguson episode so far. Any day now, the out-of-town protesters —including the Tibetan monks — will leave Ferguson. The network television cameras and news correspondents will fly back to Washington and New York. Another crisis will pop up somewhere in the world, and the cycle will repeat: Journalists will swoop in, tell a bundle of stories, and drive a short-lived national conversation. Politicians will head to a gaggle of microphones and deliver statements that may or may not lead to substantive change.

Ferguson will be left behind. What will happen there when the cameras, politicians, tech executives – and our attention—are gone?

For Michael Brown’s family, there will be silence, and a sense of peace to finally grieve privately. In the spotlight, they have attracted protectors and, probably, dubious profiteers. But as the public glare recedes, multiple intrusive investigations will continue. The family will grapple with balancing its need for private healing with the desire to keep their son’s memory in the public conscious in order to push for justice. It’s an unfortunate responsibility.

For the city of Ferguson, the tensions fueling the protests will continue. Ferguson police will regain full authority, free from the watchful eyes of the National Guard and the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Residents are right to be fearful.

To understand Ferguson’s fear, it helps to remember certain key facts. Nearly 70 percent of the city’s 21,000 residents are black, and yet, Ferguson remains governed mostly by white politicians and law enforcement. History is filled with painful examples of what happens when marginalized groups are isolated, do not exercise their own power, and are made to feel there is no equitable path to upward mobility. Aspirations — the belief in the American Dream — get lost and turn to anger. These are the universal ingredients for social unrest. In those conditions, it only takes one incident — whether it’s the shooting of an unarmed teenager in the United States or the deaths of North African youth in Parisian suburbs — for emotions to boil over. There can be disturbing costs to standing up for one’s rights, calling out wrongs—perceived, or tangible—and simply having the audacity to expect to be treated like a citizen in our own country.

When the cameras leave Ferguson, there may not be armored vehicles and men in gas masks rolling through the streets. But the folks who protested there will be scrutinized by police and, probably, the owners and cashiers of the beauty shops, restaurants and convenience stores. It’s safe to say that much of whatever trust existed between Ferguson’s residents and other community stakeholders has been broken. We know this because the Ferguson experience isn’t unique. The narrative of what happens after public unrest is familiar to communities and institutions across America, from Detroit to Los Angeles. The lingering distrust in Ferguson – between citizens and police, between business owners and residents – threatens to leave the city in a perpetual state of instability.

The truth is many of us will move on from Ferguson. Another boy will be shot somewhere — New Orleans, Chicago, or two miles from the White House, in Northeast Washington — and there will be another public outcry. (Or maybe not, given how many deaths of young black men go unacknowledged.) There will be attempts to bully the Ferguson episode into silence, to the back of our memory, with the argument: It’s divisive, so let’s stick to polite conversation.

But when the cameras leave Ferguson, we shouldn’t just move on. This should be a key moment for policy entrepreneurs to drive shifts — in Congress and state legislatures, city council and corporate offices — on the malignant issues that afflict Ferguson and every American. The most obvious policy question is how to reverse the militarization of local law enforcement agencies. That there is now broad public awareness of this issue is one silver lining of the Ferguson episode. Beyond this, there must be safe spaces to acknowledge and positively address the cocktail of issues facing young men of color. At the White House on Monday, President Obama acknowledged some of these issues, including racial profiling, unequal criminal sentencing, and disproportionate discipline in schools. As a result, he said, young black men “are left behind and seen only as objects of fear.”

The root of these conversations must be restoring citizen trust in law enforcement and government, giving confidence that everyone can be full participants in shaping their communities’ futures. But there must be a public reckoning of the issues we’ve created. It will be a long process, one we all should watch closely. When the cameras leave Ferguson, we can’t be silent, and we can’t forget.

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Diana Liverman · August 20, 2014