The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the battle for America’s identity, Ferguson is Ground Zero

Police force protesters from the business district into nearby neighborhoods on Aug. 11 in Ferguson, Mo. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“Is this Baghdad or St. Louis?”

“This isn’t America.”

“I can’t believe this is happening in America, in 2014.”

These quotes from friends, and the sentiments they represent, were pretty common responses to the shocking events that unfolded in Ferguson, Mo., this week. After the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen last Saturday by a Missouri police officer, the community took to the streets to demand answers from authorities. The largely peaceful protests were met with police donned with military-style combat gear. Tear gas. Mine resistant land vehicles. Rubber bullets. LRAD sonic weapons blasting the crowd with noise. Even war veterans have said that they did not have as much access to the weapons that Ferguson police did. Fellow Post writer Michael Gerson encapsulated this view best when he said these “images from Ferguson don’t look like America.”

The reality, though,  is this is America. Ferguson is a mirror, and it represents exactly what America is and has been. What causes the discomfort is how far this falls short of the ideals we have for ourselves and project around the world.

The truth is America is a country where black people, especially men, face higher risks of brutality by the police. America is a country where “stop and frisk” exists.  Just this summer, Eric Garner, who died from an New York police officer’s chokehold, and Ezell Ford, killed on Monday by the Los Angeles Police Department, two highly disturbing cases of unarmed black men dying at the hands of police have made national news. In Ford’s case, family members and witnesses told local media that Ford was shot in the back while lying on the ground, complying with police orders.

America is a country where citizens of color live in economically isolated communities, where the police force tasked to “serve and protect” them are white and don’t live there. Ferguson, for example, is 67 percent black, but the police force is 94 percent white. Ninety-two percent of all arrests were of the black residents. Ferguson community residents were called “animals” and taunted by the same police who were sent to keep order. Reports on Twitter flowed from community members who claimed to call the police hotline and were met with racial insults or just flatly hung up on. America is a country where police are more likely to arrest and use force against black protesters.

And as we have seen now, America is a country where weaponry and tactics that were supposed to be used in the war of terror, to protect us at home and promote American ideals abroad, have been turned on its own citizens. America is a country where almost $450 million worth of equipment is sent from the Pentagon to local and state police, while we lag behind on the quality of our education systems. Elected officials were not spared from excessive force in Ferguson. A Missouri state senator was tear gassed. St. Louis Alderman Antonio French was arrested and detained. Members of the press were targeted, tear gassed, assaulted and arrested, including my Post colleague, Wesley Lowery, for just doing their jobs. While it is regrettable what happened to my fellow journalists, there are people in communities of color all across America who face excessive police conduct every day.

America is a place, as Ferguson has shown us, where those rights and freedoms that we commend our military personnel for fighting in faraway lands for can be taken away under questionable circumstances. We live in a country where the Westboro Baptist church can picket funerals and the Ku Klux Klan can organize rallies, but a grieving black community staging a protest to demand answers for the death of one of their sons is met with rubber bullets and tear gas.

So America, once the media and cameras leave Ferguson, which they will do, we must ask ourselves: Who do we want to be as a country? Because as uncomfortable as it is to admit, Ferguson is who we are right now.