The decision by Gov. Jay Nixon to have the Missouri Highway Patrol take over the oversight of the protesters in Ferguson looks pretty good in the light of the day after it was made.
After four days of tense and sometimes violent clashes with law enforcement officers, Thursday evening’s protests were comparatively calm and peaceful.
A situation that was deteriorating seems to have turned around. Now let’s see if the calm holds.
Nixon’s call Thursday for a change in tactics came after the tide of public opinion had started to shift against law enforcement due to a perceived heavy-handed approach with protesters and members of the press.
The wailing by critics of law enforcement in handling the demonstrators escalated after Wednesday night’s protests where tear gas was used to disperse crowds and several reporters were detained. Critics said the response by police was starting to resemble a military action.
Sen. Claire McCaskill was one of the critics. “This kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution,” she said. The senator demonstrated a lack of understanding of the threat to property and lives in this kind of rioting.
Yes, law enforcement officers used military-type equipment. Most of it comes from the federal government. Yes, tear gas was used on the threatening crowds. Some arrests were made. Yes, some media people were roughed up while in the line of fire.
It’s easy to second-guess the police response to the demonstrations in Ferguson. When the dust settles, the decision to change tactics may be heralded as the right move to change the course of events in Ferguson.
But perhaps the smartest move was the decision by Nixon to bring in Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is black, to lead the police effort. Johnson grew up near Ferguson and has deep connections to the area and local leaders.
Johnson marched alongside protesters Thursday evening and his presence was clearly a calming influence with demonstrators.
Nixon, who was harshly criticized for not getting involved sooner in the unrest that followed the shooting death of an unarmed, 18-year-old, black student last Saturday, may be credited as the person who turned things around in Ferguson.
But we would have preferred he give a little more deference to the law enforcement officers who have been serving on the front lines during the unrest over the past week in his remarks Wednesday.
Gov. Jay Nixon said we must safeguard the rights of Missourians to peaceably assemble. Nothing wrong with that, but we also must safeguard innocent people and their property. That’s what police were trying to do under very difficult circumstances this past week.
We can debate police tactics all day. It’s clear a softer, gentler approach is making an initial impact. But we aren’t ready to condemn the way law enforcement handled the protesters in Ferguson.
The police critics should trade places with the officers on the front lines of the riots. They may come away with a different view. President Obama summed it up best when he said Thursday that there was “no excuse for violence either against the police or by officers against peaceful protestors.” We appreciate the fact that he included “police officers” in his statement because that can’t be forgot in this discussion.
The point we are making is that there is another side to what happened in Ferguson. The police may not have been 100 percent perfect in handling the unruly crowds, but they tried to protect people and property, and put themselves in danger to do so.
To condemn the police in this tragic incident is to ignore their side in the protests.