What My Dad, a Detroit Riot Cop, Might Think About Ferguson

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The casket is removed from the church following the funeral services of Michael Brown inside Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church on August 25, 2014 in St. Louis Missouri.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
Aug. 25, 2014, 1:46 p.m.

On va­ca­tion in north­ern Michigan, I drove to town Monday morn­ing for fresh eggs and a day-old De­troit Free Press, where I found an op-ed by the CEO of New De­troit, a co­ali­tion of busi­ness, labor, and civil-rights or­gan­iz­a­tions forged from the fires of the 1967 ri­ots. She wrote, “A num­ber of people view­ing re­cent events in Fer­guson, Mo., have asked me, ‘Could it hap­pen here?’ My an­swer: It did.”

The au­thor, an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an busi­ness­wo­man named Shir­ley Stan­cato, urged people to re­cog­nize that nearly five dec­ades of pro­gress in De­troit and else­where hasn’t erad­ic­ated ra­cial in­equity and an­im­us. “In Fer­guson,” Stan­cato wrote, “the myth that Amer­ica has entered in­to some sort of idyll­ic post-ra­cial so­ci­ety has once again been shown to be just that””a myth.”

Great column. Read it here. No­tice the two pic­tures that ac­com­pan­ied her piece. One is of a po­lice of­ficer dressed like a sol­dier in the streets of Fer­guson, his fin­ger on the trig­ger of a mil­it­ary as­sault rifle. The oth­er, 47 years older, shows a frightened Na­tion­al Guards­man squint­ing in­to the sky, with De­troit burn­ing be­hind him.

That second pic­ture re­minded me of Dad. My fath­er was a De­troit po­lice of­ficer, a ri­ot cop in 1967. I wish I could ask him what he thinks of Mi­chael Brown and Dar­ren Wilson; of the Fer­guson pro­test­ers, the Fer­guson Po­lice De­part­ment, the Mis­souri State High­way Patrol, and Cap­tain Ron John­son; of Mis­souri Gov. Jay Nix­on, Pres­id­ent Obama, and the orgy of out­rage from the pro­fes­sion­al Left and Right. But I can’t; Dad passed away this spring.

I sus­pect he’d be in­sul­ted by the rush to judg­ment against Wilson, the of­ficer who shot an un­armed Brown. There are people””power­ful people””de­mand­ing his ar­rest and con­vic­tion without full know­ledge of the facts.

I sus­pect he’d ques­tion why the Fer­guson Po­lice De­part­ment re­spon­ded to the ini­tial protests like an in­vad­ing army. Also, I don’t think he’d want any­body be­smirch­ing an 18-year-old shoot­ing vic­tim for polit­ic­al gain. There were few things Dad hated worse than polit­ics and bad po­lice work.

If I could talk to Dad about Fer­guson it would be over a beer””or two””and we would start with the things we know (or think we know):

1. Brown was un­armed and shot by a po­lice of­ficer six times from the front.

2. One of the shots hit him in the top of the head.

3. Some wit­nesses say his hands were raised in sur­render.

4. Due largely to Re­pub­lic­an policies (the Ir­aq War, the drug war, and a tough-on-crime plat­form), loc­al po­lice de­part­ments are far more heav­ily armed than they were in Dad’s day.

5. Many black Amer­ic­ans fear cops.

    Then, we’d de­bate the things we don’t know, in­clud­ing:

      1. Brown threaten or at­tack Wilson in a man­ner that gave the of­ficer a reas­on to fear for his life, or for the lives of oth­ers?

      2. Does the bul­let to the top of Brown’s head sug­gest that he was bow­ing in sur­render? Or char­ging?

      3. Are there wit­nesses whose ac­counts would counter the pre­vail­ing nar­rat­ives?

      4. Is it rel­ev­ant that Brown robbed a con­veni­ence store shortly be­fore the shoot­ing? The Fer­guson po­lice have said Wilson didn’t know that Brown was a sus­pect when he first en­countered him, so we know the rob­bery was not dir­ectly rel­ev­ant to the of­ficer’s ac­tions, at least ini­tially. But what about Brown’s state of mind? He knew he had just com­mit­ted a crime and might be held ac­count­able. Did it af­fect his ap­proach to the cop?

      5. Will there be a fair in­quiry? The pro­sec­utor over­see­ing the in­vest­ig­a­tion has roots in law en­force­ment: His fath­er, moth­er, broth­er, uncle, and cous­in all worked for St. Louis’s po­lice de­part­ment, and his fath­er was killed while re­spond­ing to a call in­volving a black sus­pect. What about his state of mind?

      Dad would say a few bad cops hurt the repu­ta­tion of a great pro­fes­sion. Many Amer­ic­ans be­lieve the prob­lem is more sys­tem­ic. Well, this is in­dis­put­able: Po­lice de­part­ments na­tion­wide don’t re­flect the ra­cial makeup of their com­munit­ies””a dis­con­nect that causes and in­flames con­flict.

      The De­troit ri­ots were the sub­ject of one of the last con­ver­sa­tions I had with Dad be­fore he got sick. We were at the Ger­ald R. Ford Pres­id­en­tial Mu­seum with my son, stand­ing in front of a 1960s ex­hib­it that in­cluded a life-sized pic­ture of the De­troit ri­ots. “We fought in the bad neigh­bor­hoods,” Dad said, “all the while won­der­ing wheth­er the bad guys were burn­ing down our homes, too.”

      Our neigh­bor­hood and their neigh­bor­hood. Good guys and bad guys. Pin­ning a badge on your chest tends to make the world bin­ary, even when you’re a cop, like my fath­er, whom oth­er cops emu­late for their abil­ity to de­fuse tense situ­ations with hu­mor, em­pathy, and street smarts. Not their guns.

      Here’s where I think Dad and I would agree: We don’t know enough to either con­demn or ex­on­er­ate Wilson. Not yet. I can al­most hear Dad, Why do you think you’ve got all the an­swers? Who made you judge and jury?

      Per­son­ally, I think Obama has struck the right tone. The pres­id­ent says he un­der­stands why people are angry, but he has avoided tak­ing sides. His warn­ings against vi­ol­ent clashes have been dir­ec­ted equally at the pro­test­ers and the po­lice.

      “Ours is a na­tion of laws for the cit­izens who live un­der them and for the cit­izens who en­force them,” Obama said, an­ger­ing left- and right-wing par­tis­ans whose minds are closed to any evid­ence that coun­ters their ce­men­ted views.

      One blog­ger called the pres­id­ent “al­most ri­dicu­lously tent­at­ive and even-handed“”as if it’s a polit­ic­al crime to be fair. Even-handed­ness is not the hall­mark of mod­ern polit­ics, a pro­fes­sion that in­creas­ingly re­wards hard-headed politi­cians and journ­al­ists.

      Later this week, I will be in my ho­met­own to help scat­ter Dad’s ashes in the De­troit River, with­in sight of his 1967 battle­ground. That is one reas­on why Stan­cato rocked me with her column, and these words: “While we have come a long way in a num­ber of areas since 1967, many of the in­equit­ies that ex­is­ted in our na­tion, state, re­gion and city still per­sist today.”

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