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Editor's Weekly: Six Half-Truths About #Ferguson = Three True Things

Capt. Ron Johnson
Wiley Price | St. Louis American

Having trouble understanding what’s going on in Ferguson? That may be because #Ferguson is a new kind of protest. In #Ferguson, leadership is self-designated. Divisions — by race, age and motivation — are complicated. And Twitter gives everyone an instant international audience.

In the last couple weeks, I’ve heard #Ferguson explained in simple terms. They’re not entirely wrong. But they’re not completely right. Here are six common half-truths and what they reveal about what’s really going on:

1. It’s about race. True, race is at the heart of this issue. #Ferguson began when a white police officer killed a young black man — the latest in a chain of controversies over police treatment of African Americans. The death of Michael Brown raised immediate outrage and underlying issues. Why are young black men disproportionately likely to be arrested, jailed and killed by police? Why are African Americans disproportionately unlikely to succeed in school, earn a middle class income and lead long, healthy lives?

Still, you can’t explain #Ferguson with a simple narrative of black-white division. While protest crowds have been predominantly African American, condolences and concerns have been expressed across racial lines — from Gov. Jay Nixon to the throngs on the streets. And the Highway Patrol captain in charge is Ron Johnson, an African American who grew up and still lives nearby.

2. It’s not about race. Actually, this is less than half true. (See above.) Yet it’s important to come to grips with this point of view. A caller to St. Louis Public Radio’s comment line put it this way:  Brown’s death is tragic. But reporters shouldn’t conclude that race has anything to do with it until we know the motivation of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him.

In fact, you don’t have to know anything about Wilson to see that there is a pattern of problems between police and young African-American men. To solve these problems, we have to address systemic issues that exist regardless of the motivation of the individuals involved.

3. There’s hostility between police and African Americans. The tension is undeniable and longstanding. That’s why African-American parents have “The Talk” — warning their sons that they will face suspicion and counseling them on how to handle it.

Yet African Americans were leading the efforts this week to keep protesters from attacking police. The plea came from all corners — religious leaders, elected officials, rap artists, Ferguson residents and the Brown family.

Peace keeper ferguson 81914
Credit Lawrence Bryant | St. Louis American
Peace keeper

Each night, peacekeepers literally pushed back against hotheads in the crowd. An indelible image from recent days is Johnson, whose calm presence provided a constant reminder that race is only one factor in this complex situation.

4. There’s a generational split. By night the angry faces bent on looting and confrontation were mostly young. They seemed indifferent to pleas to stop — from their elders or anyone else. But those advocating peaceful protest were multi-generational. And young people were among the volunteers eager to sweep up the shattered glass and repair the fractured community.

5. It’s the media’s fault. The convergence of cameras from across the globe created a worldwide stage, and some people were intent on being stars. This dynamic has no doubt complicated finding an end to the cycle we’re in. Still, the media spotlight has shone this week on real problems -- problems that should be in the spotlight. A free press is far from perfect, yet it remains our best guarantee that hidden issues and the abuse of authority will come to light.

And let’s be honest. While news organizations still play a crucial role in reaching large audiences, it only takes a smartphone and Twitter to attract worldwide attention.

6. It’s about the First Amendment. Dramatic images of riot gear, armored vehicles, tear gas and rubber bullets raised concerns about the militarization of police. The arrest of some reporters fueled an outcry that First Amendment rights of assembly and press were being trampled. Those issues are important. But it would be unfortunate if they overshadowed the issue of day-to-day police interactions with African Americans.

Having trouble understanding what’s going on in Ferguson? These half-truths lead to three truths:

Creating protests in the digital age is easy. They can be leaderless, emotionally intense and instantly visible to the world.

Solving problems involving race is still hard.

After the international media spotlight dims, our focus on the underlying issues should not. Not if we want to move beyond #Ferguson. Not if we want to redeem the anguish of the last two weeks with progress for Ferguson and for the sake of all.

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Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.