The Long, Hot Summer

There was rioting in Baltimore Saturday night.  Demonstrators protesting the death of Freddie Gray broke windows, smashed storefronts, threw rocks, and vandalized cars.  Gray died from spinal injuries a week after being arrested by police, and his funeral is today.  The Baltimore protests follow protests last year in Ferguson, Missouri.

Gray’s death, the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police, and other recent incidents involving African-Americans and police have raised tensions in our urban communities.  One incident follows on the heels of another, and the barrage seems to be having a cascading effect.  Many African-Americans feel that they are being racially targeted and, at times, brutally mistreated by the police, and the police in turn feel that they are under siege and unfairly maligned for a handful of incidents out of thousands of uneventful apprehensions and arrests.

Those of us who lived during the ’60s remember summers where rioting and violent clashes with police seemed to be routine and block after block of inner cities in America were looted, vandalized, and left gutted and smoking by arson.  Many neighborhoods that were destroyed never recovered and are still haunted ruins even now, decades later.  The ’60s were an especially turbulent time for many reasons, but that doesn’t mean what happened then could never happen now.  Simple protests can turn into riots when people feel sufficiently desperate and hopeless.

At this point, many of us are holding our breath and hoping that we can avoid another high-profile incident that might prove to be the tipping point.  Having lived through the ’60s, I have no desire to see another long, hot summer.

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Eroding Trust On Both Sides Now

There was rioting in Ferguson, Missouri last night after a prosecuting attorney announced that a grand jury had declined to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager.

The prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, said that the racially mixed grand jury had met on more than two dozen occasions over three months to hear the testimony of more than 60 witnesses.  He said the members of the grand jury were the only people to have heard all of the evidence and to have weighed the credibility of every witness, and added that they took their job seriously and “poured their hearts and soul into this process.” 

Shortly after the verdict was announced the police officer’s grand jury testimony was released.  According to the Associated Press report, Wilson said he had seen Brown walking with a handful of cigars, which he connected to an earlier report of a convenience store robbery.  Wilson testified to an escalating confrontation in which Brown punched Wilson while Wilson sat in his patrol car, Wilson drew his gun, the two struggled, Brown ran away, Wilson gave chase, Brown turned to face the policeman, and ultimately Wilson fired the fatal shots.

Rioting began almost immediately after the no-indictment decision was announced, with crowds setting fire to vehicles and buildings and looting local businesses.  Police fired tear gas and made numerous arrests.  President Obama quite properly appealed for calm and noted that the United States is a nation of laws and the grand jury was the institution charged with deciding whether the officer should be charged with a state-law crime.

Of course, both the prosecutor and the President are right:  only the members of the grand jury heard all of the evidence and its decision must inevitably be accepted.  Similarly, no rational person doubts that serving as a police officer is a difficult, dangerous job that requires split-second decision-making in moments of great stress.  Still, we can fairly question why so many deadly police shootings happen in our country — in Cleveland, for example, on this past Saturday afternoon, a rookie police officer fatally shot a 12-year-old African-American boy who was holding a pellet gun — and whether officers are too quick to use deadly force.  In too many of our communities, there seems to be an us versus them mentality on both sides of the police-civilian divide that makes these fatal confrontations much, much too likely to occur.