This week marks the third anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.
The civil unrest that followed, the looting, the destruction of property, the mayhem that shook the Ferguson community was a dark streak that continues to reverberate in the St. Louis region, the state and indeed the country.
It laid bare the systemic racism that has exerted a strong grip on the St. Louis region for decades and that people of goodwill are still trying to break today.
The incident gave birth to the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” movement, which spread to other cities in the wake of police violence.
It fueled protests on college campuses, including the University of Missouri in Columbia, where a handful of students were able to topple a dawdling president and severely damage the reputation of the school.
It also trained a light on municipal court abuses where poor people were treated as ATMs by some predatory, cash-strapped municipalities. That prompted a series of statewide municipal court reforms, which caused some towns, like Washington, to abandon their courts altogether. Some of those reforms are being challenged in court.
A lot has happened in the three years since Michael Brown was killed. But a difficult question that should be asked is, has anything really changed?
Has any real progress been made in addressing the uncomfortable realities of racism that spawned the tragic and ugly aftermath of Brown’s death? The answer, like the shooting itself, is complicated and hard to know. The short answer is yes and no.
That is due in large part to the fact that the shooting of Brown, however tragic, was justified. Three years after the fact, that point is still lost or ignored by too many in the Ferguson debate.
Anyone who has taken the time to review the facts of the shooting knows this.
We recently heard a presentation by the lawyers who conducted the criminal investigation of the officer who shot Brown on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice. It was a clinical dissection of the physical and forensic evidence in the case which made it stunningly clear that Officer Darren Wilson acted in self-defense.
The Hands Up, Don’t Shoot movement is based on a false narrative. Brown was no hero and certainly not the freedom fighter some have tried to make him. He foolishly attacked a police officer and tried to take his gun and payed for the transgression with his life. Had he lived, he would have gone to jail.
This, and other aspects of the Ferguson unrest, like the fact that most of the protesters were not from Ferguson, has served to undermine the impetus for transformational change on a number of vexing racial disparity fronts.
Unfortunately, it has hardened many hearts when it comes to the uncomfortable issue of racism and fanned the flames of mistrust.
That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been progress. The Ferguson Commission, appointed by Gov. Nixon, has produced a thorough and thoughtful report on the larger issues that were brought to light by the events in Ferguson.
The study identified opportunities for collaboration, cooperation and creative problem solving that could remedy the racial disparities in the St. Louis region. It is a blueprint for change, action and progress. Sadly, while some of the recommendations in the report have been implemented, most have not. They require money and a will that is beyond the reach of too many government leaders.
But as the report acknowledges, many of the problems that face our region have developed over several generations and will take time to solve. It is unrealistic to think a legacy of racism can be overcome in a few years.
Progress also has been achieved by the faith and business communities, which have shown the real leadership in bringing people of common cause together to confront racism. They deserve credit for being catalysts for change. They have provided the energy and inspiration that give rise to hope.
Still, three years after the death of Michael Brown and the ugly aftermath, there are no easy answers when it comes to overcoming racial inequities and the mistrust that goes along with it.
Just last week, the NAACP issued its first-ever travel advisory warning people of color to use caution when traveling through Missouri. Largely symbolic, the warning is related to a discrimination bill recently passed by the state Legislature that the organization says will make it easier to discriminate against people of color.
The advisory, misguided and ill-advised, is another indication of just how far we have to go to overcome the deep racial divide inherent in our region.