TOPICS > Nation

Is Ferguson a bellwether for racial and economic tensions nationwide?

August 14, 2014 at 6:32 PM EDT
The killing of Michael Brown -- and the subsequent police response to protests and riots sparked by the lack of transparency -- has provoked reflection around the country about some of the deeper social and economic issues. Gwen Ifill gets reaction from Eric Liu of Citizen University and Jelani Cobb of the University of Connecticut.


GWEN IFILL: Today’s pleas for restraint, safety, peaceful protests, and justice rippled far beyond Missouri. As one official put it this afternoon, “The eyes of the world are on us.”

We explore how some of these issues and images are resonating around the country.

Eric Liu is an author, educator, former White House speechwriter, and founder of Citizen University, which promotes civic activism. And Jelani Cobb is an associate professor of history and director of the Institute for African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is also a contributor to “The New Yorker.” He joins us from Saint Louis.

Jelani Cobb, I want to pick up from something that the former mayor of Ferguson told Judy a few moments ago, which is, this could happen anywhere.

You have been on the streets of Ferguson for the last few days. Do you agree with that?

JELANI COBB, University of Connecticut: Well, I think recent history shows that not only that it could happen anywhere, that it has happened in several other places.

There are some really terrible overlaps here, one of which is a striking irony that Tracy Martin, the father of Trayvon Martin, who was slain two years ago under circumstances I think we’re all familiar with, he was scheduled to actually be in this area for an event that will take place on August 24 promoting nonviolence called Peace Fest.

And he agreed to attend this program weeks before Michael Brown was killed. He’s now entering — coming here under very different circumstances. So we have seen all these things happen before.

That notwithstanding, I think it’s very troubling to say, in the context of a community that’s grieving, that’s devastated and that certainly feels a great deal of resentment about the way in which it’s being policed, that there is nothing atypical about what’s going on here, that this is just something that could have alighted anywhere, but it just happened to be here.

GWEN IFILL: Eric Liu, I want you to pick up on that. Why would it not be atypical? And does that explain some of the depth of the anger we’re seeing?

ERIC LIU, Co-Author, “The Gardens of Democracy”: Well, I think one of the questions that protesters have been chanting in Ferguson is very simple: What if it was your town?

And I think a lot of people all across the country watching things unfold over the last few days are beginning to really reckon with the fact that this is not only the product of the extraordinarily segregated and charged circumstances that you might find in Ferguson, but that in every town in this country right now, there is alienation.

In every town in this country, there are young people who, because of the color of their skin, are receiving brutal mistreatment by law enforcement. And there are communities all across this country right now where people across lines of race and class simply do not see each other, do not — they may pass each other, but they don’t really see one another.

And I think, in that sense, we’re all reckoning with the possibility or the reality that in every town in the United States right now, the potential for this kind of understanding and this kind of tragedy exists. And part of our responsibility, I think, is to figure out what we can do, whatever town we live in, to ensure that what’s unfolded in Ferguson doesn’t unfold again where we live.

GWEN IFILL: Jelani Cobb, it seems almost like that, in the last 24 to 48 hours, this has gone beyond the simple question of what happened to Michael Brown to something else. It seems to have touched another cord.

And I wonder whether it feels that way to you too, or whether the anger seems very, very focused around that singular event?

JELANI COBB: No, no doubt this became a very different story just even in the 48 hours that I have been here.

Initially, this was very much focused on the circumstances around the death of Michael Brown. But now it’s expanded into, you know, bigger questions about policing, questions about militarization of police, as you talked about in your early segment — earlier segment.

I had a conversation with community activists and people who live in the area where Mr. Brown was killed, and they talked about economic disenfranchisement and a whole array of other things that touch upon what’s really going on in this community.

And, if I can, I will say one thing in addition to this. One of the things that I have heard over and over again when I talked to people out in this community, and I said, you know, what exactly do you want in the short-term, what do you want immediately, what do you think would pacify some of the anger that you see happening in these communities?

And they said, we would like for the officer to be named, and we would like for there to be transparency in the process in which he is being investigated. And I have heard that again and again.

And so I think what the police department may not have recognized or maybe recognized too late was the steadfast insistence that they wouldn’t name the officer was going to fuel another set of problems that, based upon what I have heard, even people who are activists and people who are police officers have all been taken by surprise at the extent to which there has been a kind of durable anger, that people were not satisfied just to go out and protest for one day, but they came out the next day and the next day and the next day, and have pledged to continue to do so for the amount of time the officer remains anonymous.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about this idea of durable anger, Eric Liu.

One of the things that has been making the rounds of social media is pictures of people putting their hands up in the air and saying, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” We heard a gentleman say that in one of our earlier pieces tonight.

Does that speak to people beyond who is in the street, this idea that you can be — say, I cede all my power to you, and still become a victim?

ERIC LIU: I want to be specific.

That image that is circulating on the Internet is of African-Americans with their hands up. “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

And I look at that picture and I am both stirred and shamed. I’m stirred because I feel a deep sense of connection that, in the United States in 2014, this is happening. But I feel shamed as well that we’re not able to have a conversation about this and about the conditions of unequal justice that unfold without it becoming quickly polarized and quickly partisan.

And the reality that’s interesting right now and part of why this has become a national story and a national phenomenon is that, as Jelani Cobb was just saying, the response of the police in Ferguson to the protesters, the ways in they have, in heavy-handed manner, run roughshod over freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, over the right simply of young people to be African-American and out in public has been shocking to the conscience.

And it raises a very simple question of, what country is this? There is something deeply striking about how un-American these images seem. And I think one of the challenges that we face right now is that it’s only un-American if we stand up and do something and say something about it. If we just turn away, avert our gaze and say, wow, that’s something awful that is happening in that part of the country or that weird community, then, in fact, norms set in where we tolerate this.

And I just want to take a moment. That image of people saying, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” today, 50 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act into law, 49 years after the Voting Rights Act, the fact that this is still happening is an abomination. And I say that, of course, as an American. You don’t have to be an American to say that, just as an American.

GWEN IFILL: Jelani Cobb, where does — where does political leadership come in, in this? We have waited and saw the governor speak today. The mayor has spoken, the attorney general, the president.

Has it been sufficient, and does it matter?

JELANI COBB: I think, you know, again, I don’t live in this community, but based upon what I have heard from people in the interviews, I have talked to a couple of dozen people at this point, and, you know, the thing that I heard very frequently is that they felt that the political leadership was ineffectual, that people had come too — it had been too little, too late.

There were questions yesterday about whether or not the governor would be involved, whether or not they would bring the National Guard in. There were all kinds of things people were wondering about how this would be handled.

And it also seemed that, you know, on the ground, there was a kind of ad hoc quality. So, out there, people kind of saw the kind of line of defense, where there were lots of officers who were blocking the area where the QuikTrip stood. But what you couldn’t see unless you were up close was that there were officers from different municipalities.

There were state people. There were local people. And it seemed as if there was a kind of overlap. You could kind of wonder what the central command was, who was calling the shots and what the real strategy was.

Now, that said, I think there is another thing to be added, two quick things.

GWEN IFILL: Briefly.

JELANI COBB: One, this has not solely been black. There have been people of — black and white people who have been out there protesting about what happened. And people are very for them — it was very important to them to convey that.

The other is that the people who were in riot gear, I don’t think that was what incensed people. People were — and there were many people in the community who didn’t want to see more rioting. But the idea that there were police officers who were on top of armored vehicles with assault rifles mounted on tripods and pointed at the crowd did nothing to convey that this was a group of people who were interested in preserving law and order. It seemed much more like a group of people who were there to intimidate.

GWEN IFILL: Jelani Cobb and Eric Liu, thank you both for your observations.

JELANI COBB: Thank you.

ERIC LIU: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: We continue our coverage on Ferguson, Missouri, online.

How does race affect how we portray victims like Michael Brown? Historian Craig Steven Wilder offers his take on the national significance of Brown’s death. Plus, we look at the way social media has helped shape the story.