Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. The unarmed 18-year-old’s body laid in the street for more than four hours. Ever since that fateful Saturday afternoon, there have been protests about the way Brown was treated and the way African Americans in general have been treated in the St. Louis suburb. The most dramatic and revealing were those that erupted the evening of Aug. 13. Demonstrators were met with a militarized police force that lobbed tear gas at them, shot rubber bullets at them and arrested journalists. But in the chaotic nighttime scene three people were missing: Gov. Jay Nixon (D), Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III and Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson.
As their city and state and their police forces ran roughshod over the First Amendment rights of demonstrators with the entire world watching, those three public officials were nowhere to be seen. Their inexcusable absence that night, the lack of leadership it exposed and the subsequent bumbling efforts to show control might explain why there was so much hysteria leading up to tonight’s announcement that Wilson will not be charged in Brown’s death.
My view of their actions is certainly colored by my 16 years in New York City. Whenever anything big happened or was about to happen in the Big Apple or the Empire State (from snow storm to terrorist attack), you were guaranteed to see the mayor, the governor, the police commissioner and every relevant city and state commissioner squeezed behind a podium to give anxious New Yorkers an update. Both in word and presence, those public officials at least gave the impression that someone was in charge. Someone was accountable. Someone was speaking for them. Nixon, Knowles and Jackson (especially Jackson) have consistently failed that basic test of leadership. The leaks from other local law enforcement agencies throughout the various investigations served to exacerbate tensions.
In the three months since Brown’s killing we have come to learn that their collective failures are just the tip of the iceberg of problems in Ferguson. My colleague Radley Balko reported extensively on how municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty. “If you were tasked with designing a regional system of government guaranteed to produce racial conflict, anger, and resentment,” he wrote, “you’d be hard pressed to do better than St. Louis County.” The inherent mistrust of police, the grand jury process and the motives of elected and law enforcement officials that we have seen from blacks in Ferguson can be traced back to the Balko’s observation.
The Post’s Wesley Lowery is back on the ground in Ferguson just as he was on that tumultuous night in August. When I asked him whether Nixon, Knowles and Jackson had a local presence now that wasn’t being captured at the national level, his reply came quickly. “Not at all. There is no leadership from electeds on the ground. None,” he said, explaining his assessment came from “dozens of interviews” and his personal observations. “This is a disenfranchised populace – they don’t vote for their elected leadership, and don’t feel represented by them, so why would they turn to them for leadership now?”
After his 20-minute presentation of the grand jury decision and the evidence supporting it, St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCollouch acknowledged that the killing of Brown opened old wounds and urged protesters to “continue the demonstrations, continue the discussions” to ensure this doesn’t happen again — soothing words from a public official that are of no comfort to a community that was hurting long before Wilson shot and killed Brown on a hot summer day.
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