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Demonstrations in Ferguson raise critical questions

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by Donna Brazile

I’ve never thought of myself as having any special wisdom. But they say wisdom comes from experience, and sadly, I’ve had enough experience with flare-ups like Ferguson, Missouri, that wisdom has come unbidden.

I say “flare-up” because, like an ill-placed match, one event can ignite others, causing responses of outrage. Too often, though, the media spin rages out of control, fanning the flames and turning a flare-up into a firestorm.

In such cases, it helps to create what we might call a “rhetorical firewall”: identifying the questions without presuming (often arrogantly) to know the answers beforehand.

So what questions are raised by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, black and unarmed, by police officer Darren Wilson?

The first question is, was there an improper use of deadly force? Michael Brown was unarmed and, according to the reports, his arms were raised in surrender.

This question can only be answered after an investigation by local, state and federal law enforcement officials. The focus must be on Wilson’s actions, not Brown’s status prior to the incident. (Had he been using marijuana? Had he stolen some cigars? Irrelevant — particularly because the police officer had no apparent knowledge of Brown’s past actions.)

There are procedures to insure transparency and accountability, and the citizens of Ferguson have a right to expect them to be followed. But an investigation, especially one that moves up the levels of government, may take time.

The second question is, unfortunately, racial: Were Michael Brown’s civil rights violated because of his race?

Many in the media don’t want to confront the fundamental disparity in our criminal justice system. But the evidence is overwhelming: There is a racial bias. Differences in clothing, language, culture or skin color should not affect the constitutional principle of “equal treatment under the law.”

The racial divide — and the continuing relevance of the question of race — can be seen in the contrast between the government of Ferguson, Missouri, and the citizens it serves. The New York Times reports that Ferguson, though 67 percent black, has a white mayor, a school board of six white members and one Hispanic member, one black member on the City Council, and a police force that is only 6 percent black. That’s not representative democracy.

The aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown raises three questions of national significance, each of which raise larger social and political issues.

One: Should we militarize the local police? Two men who rarely concur agree the answer is no. President Obama said, “There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred.”

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said: “Soldiers and police are supposed to be different ... It’s the difference between Audie Murphy and Andy Griffith. But nowadays, police are looking, and acting, more like soldiers than cops, with bad consequences.” (Audie Murphy was the most decorated soldier in WWII; TV actor Andy Griffith played an even-tempered small town sheriff).

Yes, if we ask the right questions, and search for the answers together, there is hope. There’s always hope.

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