Ferguson exposes a crisis in the US

The US government has failed its citizens in Ferguson.

Police guard the Ferguson police department as rioting erupts [Getty Images]

Americans are used to turning on the nightly news to see violence, unrest and angry protesters in some far away land. We like to pretend that those kinds of problems happen in “other” nations and that Americans would never feel so angry, trapped or disenfranchised that violence would seem like the only option for expression.

However, after tonight’s ruling by the St Louis County grand jury to not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, those images of violence, burning buildings and protests are again coming from the United States and not some “other” nation. And without some serious work on the broken and dysfunctional government in the US events like Ferguson will be more frequent in the future.

In the US there are three levels of government that overlap in the lives of most citizens, local government, state government and federal government. In most cases these levels of governance operate independently of each other, only interacting in the event of a crisis or a project too big to be handled by any one entity. A huge summer hurricane can’t be handled by the state alone, so the federal government offers aid and assistance. The federal government seeks to fight Ebola, but needs local hospitals and cities to implement healthcare standards.

In other words, when these levels of government work together the nation moves smoothly, concerns and crises are mitigated, and citizens feel both respected and invested in their community. None of that happened in Ferguson, Missouri, which is why riots and social unrest have rocked the town and as a consequence the nation for months.

Conflict of interest

When Michael Brown was first shot, the response of the local government was so inept, so tone deaf and so over the top that the initial riots were all but guaranteed. Initially, the Ferguson police department allowed Michael Brown’s body to lie in the middle of a residential neighbourhood uncovered, for hours, which both disturbed and enraged the local community.

Fault Lines – Ferguson: City under siege

Rather than respond or engage the concerns of the mostly African American Third Ward of Ferguson, police showed up in riot gear, with machine guns and armoured tanks. This, in the absence of any explanation for the shooting, only perpetuated the idea that the government didn’t serve the local community.

To make matters worse, the mayor of Ferguson never required the local police to release a written police report to the public, despite that being standard practice, and the mayor spent more time on national television and radio programmes than he did talking to local activists who may have given some real insight into why Ferguson residents felt the way that they did.

Had the problems with government action begun and ended with local incompetence perhaps some of the tragedies in Ferguson could have been prevented. The state or perhaps federal government could have stepped in and corrected local mistakes. Unfortunately, poor oversight, lack of consistency, and gross negligence continued up the chain of government. The county prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, assigned to the Darren Wilson case had a clear conflict of interest; so despite the fact that getting an indictment is a fairly easy task many questioned if he would properly perform his duties.

Officer Wilson shot an unarmed teenager and there was conflicting eyewitness testimony, and under US law, an indictment is a jury simply saying there is enough ambiguity in a story that a trial is necessary to determine the truth. Given the clear conflict of interest and the stakes being an indictment not a verdict on innocence or guilt, Governor Nixon should have assigned another prosecutor to the case.

However, he refused to do so, not only bringing the entire trial into question but symbolically telling the citizens of Ferguson concerned over the Brown shooting that their concerns were irrelevant.

Crisis of faith

Unfortunately, the problems don’t stop with the governor, President Barack Obama can be held accountable for what happened in Ferguson after the grand jury decision as well. After seeing the overly aggressive behaviour of Ferguson police against protesters and the press back in August, the president suggested a review of the federal political militarisation of the police known as Program 1033. But the president did not follow up, and the review died in the corridors of Washington.

So is it any surprise that after the grand jury verdict, the local Ferguson police force was right back to shooting smoke bombs and tear gas, using armoured tanks and arbitrarily changing protest routes and restrictions, all but provoking a new conflict?

On the ground in Ferguson I witnessed hundreds of protesters of all colours and ages marching through the streets of the town and in surrounding areas. The true tragedy was not that they were upset about the grand jury decision to not even indict Darren Wilson.

The vast majority of the men and women that I spoke to were not surprised by the grand jury decision, even if they disagreed with it. The real tragedy is that so few Americans, of all colours, believed that the local police, mayor, prosecutor, governor or president of the United States, were actually interested in or capable of delivering any sort of justice in the shooting of Michael Brown.

There is a crisis of faith in the US government, from Washington to main street US. When a people lack faith, lack hope in the men and women they’ve elected to power to actually represent their interests, violence and open conflict are not far behind.

Unless there is a fundamental change in how Americans view their government, unless government accountability becomes more than an election year slogan or an excuse to cut programmes, government abuses like Ferguson will continue. And the Americans’ distanced view of “other” nations’ problems will come crashing through TV screens from far more cities than just Ferguson.

Dr Jason Johnson is a professor of political science at Hiram College. He is the author of “Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell”.