Speaking on National Public Radio Thursday, Rev. Willis Johnson, a young pastor from Ferguson, Mo., became tearful as he attempted to describe his feelings as an African-American male about police.
“When I get pulled over ... I revert back to that 18-year-old and the things my father told me about what to do when the police stop you,” he said in the interview on All Things Considered. “It’s an intergenerational thing to know my father fears for me at 39 the same way he feared for me at 18. He texts me every morning and says, I’m praying for you, do what you got to do — but you know, be careful.”
It is a fear civil rights advocates have long described.
Here in Louisville, Metro Council member Attica Scott, in a Courier-Journal opinion piece Tuesday, described her fears for her teenage son and the “talk” so many African-American parents must give their children about interaction with police.
Such comments are met with skepticism or outright disbelief in a country where most of us have no reason to fear law enforcement.
But the explosion of outrage and violence in the predominantly black St. Louis suburb of Ferguson following the fatal police shooting on Aug. 9 of Michael Brown, 18, an unarmed youth, demand that the nation examine the tensions between law enforcement and African-American communities.
In time, investigators will establish the details — did the youth have his hands up, as some witnesses claim, or did the youth strike the officer and go for his gun, as police have said?
But the event has rekindled fears and provided an astonishing glimpse of policing in a town of 21,000 where 70 percent of residents are black but all but three of the 53 police officers are white. For example:
• Police met protests with a stunning display of military might — armored vehicles, body armor, assault rifles — firing rubber bullets and saturating neighborhoods with tear gas. Much of the gear came from federal anti-terrorism money that flowed to communities after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“Lately, it’s looked a little bit more like a war zone and that’s not acceptable,” said Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who Thursday relieved local police and put state police in charge of security.
• Local police further ignited public outrage by arresting two national reporters Wednesday working at a McDonald’s restaurant, apparently for not exiting fast enough when officers burst in and ordered everyone out. Also arrested Wednesday was St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, whose offense appeared to be covering the protests on social media.
“A heavy-handed police approach is actually making the situation worse,” Mr. French told USA Today.
• Ferguson police deepened suspicion by withholding information, including the name of the officer who shot Mr. Brown. Friday, they released the officer’s name and limited details —alleging Mr. Brown shoved a store clerk and stole a $50 box of cigars before police stopped him on the street.
Calm appears to have returned under the influence of Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, an African- American from the community leading the state highway patrol.
But the events raise critical questions about policing and civil rights. And it shows that the fears of African-American parents and their children are real and must be addressed. As Rev. Johnson said of his father’s daily warning to be careful:
“He shouldn’t have to say that. I shouldn’t have to say that ...We want the cycle to stop.”