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Editor's Weekly: When Will The Protests End?

Demonstrators calling for justice for Eric Garner and Michael Brown held a moment of silence outside the Fox Theatre on Sunday, December 7, 2014.
Camille Phillips/St. Louis Public Radio

The grand jury has made its decision. Thanksgiving is over. Christmas is approaching. And still, Ferguson-related protests continue.

This week, they materialized outside “Annie” at the Fox, in Jennings and in several other cities. Many St. Louisans are wondering when the unrest will end.

You can’t answer that question without asking others. What do protesters want? Who speaks for them? Who holds the power to solve the problems they raise? None of these perfectly logical questions has an easy answer.

What do protesters want? The protest has many participants with many goals and motivations. No wonder the cacophony of voices since August has been confusing. Still, dominant themes have emerged amidst the variations.

A series of recent fliers answers the question in all caps: WE WANT A NEW NORMAL.

That means police who “do not stop or harass people without just cause,” one flier says -- no more racial profiling, more body cameras for police and stronger civilian oversight. Another flier says police should be “color-blind, humane and skilled in using non-lethal means to stop a perceived threat.”

For demonstrators, police practices have been a core issue since Day 1 -- August 9, when Ferguson officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown. More recently, the Ferguson Commission also zeroed in on police community relations. Because police procedures can be clearly defined and directly addressed, they could be a good starting point for change.

Still, there’s more to creating a new normal than police reforms. Events in Ferguson raise issues of fairness and opportunity in many aspects of life: education, health, economic security and more. Police reforms alone won't solve these problems, nor will reform in only one area likely be sustained unless broader issues are addressed.

Who speaks for protesters?

Check Twitter, and you’ll see thousands of people speaking for themselves. Instant, worldwide visibility through social media makes protesting easy. Translating protest into actual improvement in policy and people’s lives -- that’s complicated.

Creating a new normal will require careful thought and sustained effort to manage goals, means and consequences, intended or not. To participate effectively, protesters may need more cohesion and commonly recognized leadership than they currently display. They will also need to build widespread support for a new normal, including support from some St. Louisans who at this point just want to get back to normal.

Who holds the power to solve problems?

In a democracy, elected officials are supposed to lead, enacting laws and setting policy in accordance with voters' wishes and constitutional principles. But there’s been precious little leadership from our region’s key politicians so far. Their timidity reinforces the conviction -- among protesters and their critics alike – that nothing will happen unless citizens keep up the pressure.

The vacuum of political leadership is unconscionable. Yet it's also true that many issues raised in Ferguson can’t be resolved by government alone. That's unlike an earlier era, when the immediate civil rights goal was to dismantle overtly discriminatory laws.

Now, the challenge includes the unfinished business of achieving more justice in the reality of people's everyday lives. That requires bridging the gulfs of experience that still separate blacks and whites. It can't be accomplished by legal mandate alone.

When will the protests end?

The anger that erupted on Canfield Drive has spread far beyond Ferguson. Those who've been protesting against police now aspire to become a movement for justice. Perhaps the protests will end if we obsess less about the disruption and focus more on deeper questions.

How can the unrest we're experiencing lead to greater fairness rather than more frustration? What will ensure that it gives rise to justice rather than backlash? How can we, who live at the heart of unrest, find the wisdom and tenacity to address problems that existed long before protests began and that won’t be resolved simply by ending their disruption?

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.