WASHINGTON – My hometown of St. Louis has given up its sad secrets. Journalists – like tourists taking in the sights of social dysfunction – have explored its courthouses, its speed traps, its racial tensions and its redlined housing history. Cable television has carried images of burning cars and tear gas, which better qualify as “breaking news” than clergy-led marches and civic dialogue. From the coverage, one would think a whole city walks on broken glass. Perhaps it does.
There was a killing, everyone (at least) agrees. Was it permissible? A grand jury decided that under Missouri’s lethal-force law, it was. Was it preventable? We should hope and expect that police find other, less lethal options to restrain charging, unarmed teenagers. Was it meaningful? That depends on what comes next.
It is the task of the legal system to impose one narrow version of justice: guilt or innocence. The role of politics is different; it consists more of questions than verdicts. Why do circumstances such as this one reveal such dramatically different views of police, courts and the basic fairness of our society? Why do some citizens of our country feel so tenuously connected to its promise and protections?
The law requires disinterested rigor. Politics requires a measure of empathy. If I lived in a nation that had systematically oppressed people of my background for hundreds of years; that was utterly indifferent to the failure of the school my child attends; that disproportionately profiles, harasses and even jails people like me for minor legal offenses; that offers little realistic hope my children will be treated better than I am, then I might feel differently about the justice and compassion of my society.
This is not an excuse of violence – really community self-immolation – but it is an explanation for deeply rooted suspicion. Why should this theoretical me expect one portion of our civic infrastructure – the legal system – to be fair and level when the rest seems tilted at a steep, upward angle?
This makes the role of a public official – as opposed to a lawyer or a community activist – unavoidably complex. In his reaction to a grand jury’s Nov. 24 decision to not bring criminal charges against white police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, President Obama effectively summarized this difficult mandate: Social order is the first commitment of government, and police do essential work; but racially biased policing undermines social trust and we can’t paper over sources of community resentment. This is not a tension but a balance, which elected officials of both parties are called to display.
In St. Louis, a 16-member panel created by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon now walks that tightrope. Usually, commissions are formed as a substitute for action. The Ferguson Commission had better be different. It is charged by executive order with addressing the “social and economic conditions underscored by the unrest” – with reassuring people, really, that their legitimate concerns will not be forgotten after the cameras move on. Nixon has selected a diverse and representative group including clergy, businesspeople, academics, community members and protest figures. It may involve some drama for the head of the state Fraternal Order of Police to find agreement with a protest leader who had written that “racism killed” Michael Brown.
The Ferguson Commission has promised not simply a report or white paper but a series of proposals for legislative action. Possible objects of reform? Concentrated low-income housing, presenting layers of social challenge. A proliferation of small school districts without adequate tax bases. (Three local school systems have lost or are nearing the loss of accreditation.) A proliferation of police forces and municipal courts, funded largely through aggressive ticketing and prone to profiling. In other cities – Boston, to name one – police have built and banked some capital of community trust over the years, which can be expended during a crisis or tragedy. In St. Louis, on the hot August night when Michael Brown was shot by a policeman, the account was empty.
These are difficult, structural changes, scattered across dozens of municipalities and government entities. And placing trust in a commission may well be naïve. It is, however, also placing trust in the possibility of civic participation and self-government. If that is misplaced, it would dramatically compound the Ferguson tragedy.
What might national media and political figures do now to be genuinely helpful? Measure the results of the Ferguson Commission in 100 days, in a year. Press other communities to engage in urgent self-reflection and reform before tragedy forces their hand. Even more: Present the vision of a shared future in a common country – including rich and poor, black and white – instead of waiting to sweep up the broken glass.
Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.