"I JUST SAW SOMEONE DIE OMFG,” wrote Emanuel Freeman, a teenage rap aficionado who lives in the Canfield Green housing project in Ferguson, Missouri. It was about noon on Saturday, August 9, when Michael Brown, a hulking 18-year-old recently graduated from a failing high school and 10 minutes removed from committing a strong-arm robbery, was shot dead by Ferguson policeman Darren Wilson in the street outside Freeman’s window. Freeman appears not to have seen the fusillade that killed Brown, and no uncontested account of it has emerged. But we can see from the tweets Freeman posted in the following minutes that people drew their own conclusions almost immediately: “Im about to hyperventilate,” Freeman wrote. “F—k f—kf—k. . . . Its blood all over the street, niggas protesting nsh—t. There is police tape all over my building. I am stuck in here omg. . . . I am not a gangsta man lmaooo.”
Many of Freeman’s neighbors suspected Brown was the victim of a racist cop. They have found company. Brown’s family has hired Benjamin Crump, a firebrand lawyer who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen killed in a confrontation with a neighborhood watchman in 2012. Attorney General Eric Holder has traveled to the scene to comfort Brown’s family and launched a civil rights investigation. Jesse Jackson has called the killing of Brown a “state execution.” Missouri’s Democratic governor has said his state is “reeling from what feels like an old wound that has been torn open fresh.” And yet, two weeks into a series of nightly protest marches in Ferguson, the facts in this case remain almost wholly opaque. By moving so aggressively to take a stand, the White House risks exposing itself to disapproval, the people of Ferguson to disappointment, and the rest of the country to disorder.
Missouri has a checkered racial history. It fought the Civil War as France did World War II: valiantly, for both sides. St. Louis has been a watchword for dismal urban renewal projects—the vast Pruitt-Igoe blocks downtown, completed in 1956 and dynamited starting in 1972, were the biggest failure in the history of U.S. low-income housing. Yet Ferguson has until quite recently been one of the more racially integrated places in the state and perhaps the country. Ferguson was three-quarters white in 1990. It is now two-thirds black. Parts of the city seemed to have managed the transition well. In the heart of “old” Ferguson, near Florissant Road, black- and white-owned houses alternate on the same block. Whether the people of Ferguson were tolerant enough to embrace postracial America or too poor to flee it, the city has been for most of the past half-century a prosperous and pleasant middle-class place for people of all races. The Wabash Cannonball of song used to stop in Ferguson, and the broad-lawned summer retreats built for Wabash executives on hilly Elizabeth Street still stand. The $25-billion multinational Emerson Electric keeps its headquarters here.
But it may be that the Ferguson we see now is just a snapshot midway through a process of decline. The eastern part of the city, the part where Michael Brown got killed and where the looting and burning and marching have been taking place, looks different. There, along a road that is confusingly called West Florissant, are a half-dozen St. Louis County townships, including one six-block finger of Ferguson. The Canfield Green project, where Brown had moved in with his grandmother, was mostly white at the turn of the century but today is overwhelmingly black. The larger West Florissant strip is depressing. It includes nail shops, multiple payday loan outlets, and the Springwood Plaza, which contains a dialysis service but is otherwise almost wholly abandoned. There is an excellent barbecue joint—Red’s—where the 300-pound Brown was a regular. It survived the protests and looting, barely.
Small-town police departments maintain a special, sinister role in civil rights mythology, and a Justice Department source told the New York Times that the administration does not trust the one in Ferguson. The police force, it is true, has not changed as quickly as its citizenry. Fifty of its 53 officers are white. Of course, that is not prima-facie evidence of racism. The chief, Thomas Jackson, has for the most part been complaisant, even as MSNBC has sought to cast him as some kind of postmodern Bull Connor. He has offered diversity training. He has told the press, correctly, that competition among police departments is stiff for qualified police officers of all races and told the Justice Department (this according to the New York Times): “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” He has been criticized for being slow to release Officer Wilson’s name (citing his safety). He has been criticized by Attorney General Holder for releasing a store security videotape showing Mike Brown involved in a violent shoplifting incident minutes before he was shot (the people of Canfield Green knew about this incident within minutes of Brown’s death). Crucially—and this is the single grievance most often raised by protesters, even if it is seldom mentioned in the press accounts—his police force is accused of disrespecting Brown’s body by leaving it in the street for hours after he was shot. Police have claimed that gunfire in the vicinity made it unsafe to move it. Freeman’s account of the incident seems to bear this out.
It is hard to understand anything about the politics of St. Louis County—and about Ferguson’s police force—without understanding the “Great Divorce.” In an 1876 vote, the people of St. Louis made the shortsighted decision to slough off their rural precincts. The county now has 90 municipalities, some of them with as few as a couple hundred people, and a real small-town mentality. Describing the killing of Brown, former Ferguson mayor Brian Fletcher said, “Another block over and it would have been in Jennings.” This is the equivalent of saying that if that incident of drunkenness last night had taken place 20 yards west, it would have been my neighbor who was hitting the sauce, not me. All of these towns have their own rinky-dink police forces. Ferguson’s was overmatched by the crowds of demonstrators until reinforced from neighboring jurisdictions and ultimately replaced by the Missouri highway patrol at the order of Democratic governor Jay Nixon. The purpose of that rather arbitrary action was to install Ron Johnson—not a particularly high-ranking highway patrolman, but a Ferguson native and a black man—as the public face of the forces of order.
But there were other reasons for the change. The nightly crowd has been big. It can run into the thousands. Some individuals in it are armed. The demonstrators’ chant was “Hands up, don’t shoot!” after a common local account of Michael Brown’s last words, but 30 shots were fired by the mobs on August 17, and three handguns were confiscated two nights later. This is also a crowd that can get thrown into a passion by the craziest and least plausible rumor. Talking on the street with a half dozen neighborhood kids, the atmosphere is not one that favors the Socratic method. On Wednesday, in the parking lot of Andy Wurm Tire and Wheel on South Florissant Road, a woman was complaining to me about the media treatment of the surveillance video that showed Brown shoplifting. “They got a whole ’nother tape,” she said, “that shows him paying for those cigars. Yeah! But they won’t show that. It’s crazy. You wonder why nobody wants to believe the media, why the media are getting cussed out, look what you’re putting out. Tell the truth—that’s what your job is.” On more than one occasion, I was told that authorities were releasing criminals from prison to wreak havoc in the demonstrations.
Perhaps the most common media complaint about the Ferguson police—that they were overly “militarized” and even “off the rails”—was wrong. This complaint was, in the end, sartorial. “Tell them to remove the damn tanks,” said Holder in the early days of the unrest, but he seemed to have no objection to the rows of armored vehicles that the National Guard was keeping in the Northland Shopping Center when he visited. Columnist Thomas Byrne Edsall described the complaint about militarization as a moment of “rare right-left convergence.” It is better thought of as a moment of p.c. terror, as conservatives sought to find some grounds for lining up against the police without violating their principles.
It was in this context that Holder made his bizarre visit to St. Louis. Bizarre in the sense that he intervened, in the name of the federal Justice Department, in a case already before a grand jury, without making even a feint at blind justice. The Los Angeles Times reported that Justice Department officials attributed Holder’s concern to “the continuing violence and apparent mishandling of the case by local officials.” Without making any judgment about whether the local officials mishandled the case, it is worth noting that the federal intervention has taken the side of those committing the continuing violence.
Other reports indicate that the administration has sent to Ferguson dozens of FBI agents who have already conducted hundreds of interviews, along with personnel from the civil rights division of the Department of Justice and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). On Florissant Road I met a man in a tie who claimed to be a St. Louis-based employee of the Justice Department. Holder said after the visit that “few things have affected me as greatly” as the trip to Ferguson, and he had a special message about Brown’s family. “I spoke to them not just as attorney general but as a father,” he said. He called for a third autopsy of Brown, following an official one (which found marijuana in his system) and one ordered by Brown’s parents (which found he had been shot six times, with all bullets entering through the front). As Holder puts it, “History simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson.”
It is difficult not to see a political strategy in the combination of Holder’s activism and, until recently, President Obama’s distance. A tricky electoral landscape awaits the Democratic party this fall. Avoiding losses will require a black vote running at maximum level, as it seldom does in midterm elections. The evenings of unrest are not riots, even if they have violent elements in them. They are protests. The protesters have a number of highly specific demands—and those who back them will be watching carefully to see if the administration helps the protesters realize them. First, they want Darren Wilson arrested. “Arrest Wilson and we can all go home!” people yell after night falls. Whatever the facts of the case—facts no one can yet make any pretense to know—this is a demand for “mob justice,” to use the mildest applicable expression.
Second, they want elected St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch, a Democrat, removed from the case. Activist groups trying to move the protests to the county seat in Clayton are doing so largely for this purpose. This is an interesting demand because it reflects a larger national dynamic. McCulloch is popular—he has been elected seven times since 1991. He is accused by detractors of favoring police, largely on biographical grounds. Many in his family are police officers. When he was 12, in 1964, his father was shot in the head and killed in Pruitt-Igoe by a kidnapper, who was black. This, too, is the history simmering beneath the surface that Holder spoke of. State senator Jamilah Nasheed has warned McCulloch, “If you should decide to not indict this police officer, the rioting we witnessed this past week will seem like a picnic.”
The dynamic is a political nightmare for Governor Nixon. Ordinarily a prosecutor can be removed only for a conflict of interest, but Nixon, having declared a state of emergency, might be authorized to appoint a special prosecutor. McCulloch believes he is, but seems confident that Nixon wouldn’t dare. At any rate, McCulloch has been taunting the governor on the radio. “Stand up, man up,” he said in mid-August. Nixon’s trepidation is striking. It is a sign that Missourians are looking at this episode differently than they have other racial explosions over the years. They are right to. Although there have been protests, riots, demonstrations, and uprisings throughout the half-century since Civil Rights legislation was passed, there has been one constant. The government has always been at the side of those seeking to restore public order. Now Obama and Holder have placed the government on the side of the uprising—or, to put it more neutrally, on the side of those who would restore order on the terms demanded by the uprising.
That changes the calculation of moderate and conservative voters. When people are assured the authorities will act to protect them from unrest, they can be extraordinarily generous. If they lose that assurance, they may respond differently. A recent Pew poll asks simply whether the unrest in Ferguson “raises important issues about race.” Eighty percent of blacks say it does, but only 37 percent of whites. That is extraordinary. To say something “raises important issues” is mush. Almost anything involving race “raises important issues.” To deny, as 63 percent of whites did, that a slaying that causes weeks of demonstrations tells us anything is evidence of truculence. The administration is pursuing a reckless strategy, hoping that it can present the barn-burning Holder as its face to the black community and the conciliatory Obama as its face to the white community, exploiting the very divisions it promises to heal.
About the only thing agreed on by the people of Missouri, the forces of order and the forces of revolution alike, is that motley outsiders have brought much of this unrest to St. Louis. There are the social-media journalists who seem to have formed their understanding of politics from after-school specials about Gandhi, the guy from Huffington Post who mistook earplugs for rubber bullets, the veterans of various Occupy movements who have come to teach protesters how to treat tear gas burns with a solution of half-Maalox and half-water, the Communists from Chicago trying to incite riots. There is even the Ku Klux Klan, according to one rumor circulating among the people protesting across from the Ferguson police station. And there are, of course, “race hustlers,” from Al Sharpton to Jesse Jackson, who exploit tragedy to build their constituencies.
But really, the situation in Ferguson is more tragic than that. Anyone who wishes the mostly decent, hardworking, neighborly people of Ferguson well has an incentive to tell himself that only some malevolent outside force could account for this failure of the good-hearted system we have thrown all the country’s energies into building for half a century. Some in St. Louis are beginning to doubt. “The ‘look at us, we are on our way back’ slogans boasted by chambers of commerce say nothing about those who have been treated as invisible or dispensable,” wrote the black weekly, St. Louis American, in an article about Normandy High School. It is a facility you pass when you head to Ferguson from downtown St. Louis, turning from Martin Luther King Boulevard onto Lucas-Hunt Road. It has been lavishly funded over the years, and it looks like a grand hotel. It has everything—everything, that is, but its accreditation, which it lost shortly before sending Michael Brown out into a grown-up life that would last 80 days.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.