As a newspaper publisher in a city the size of Ferguson, Mo., during the civil rights movement, I have a sympathetic understanding of their problems, and a bit of advice their leaders might find helpful.
The storyline is familiar: a police officer fatally shoots an unarmed black teenager in a majority black city where tensions were already taut and where only a sprinkling of black faces could be seen in the local police force.
Shocked citizens vent their anger in street demonstrations that inevitably trigger a mini-Watts situation:
When a serious local controversy goes national, it becomes like a giant ocean liner sailing into a small town, its giant propellers roiling customary normality, its decks lined with the paraphernalia of national networks, print reporters and cameramen, professional demonstrators from both sides.
The task for local leaders then becomes how to put Humpty Dumpty back together.
“The only way to stop these situations is before they happen, not after they happen,” said Chuck Wexler, a well-known expert in police-community relations. “Its particularly important to establish credibility with the community, and particularly with the black community, because there isn’t a built-up reservoir of trust.”
I experienced this canyon of distrust between the black community and police as a summer intern for The Star in the 1950s when I was seeking the “excitement” of riding with local police on night patrols.
The drive was uneventful until we stopped at the house of a woman in the Westside black community. I followed the cops as they entered — without knocking — and went straight to her bedroom where she lay in a rumpled bed.
We were there for maybe five minutes. My intense discomfort I explained away, “They seemed to know each other because the cops addressed her by her first name and, it must be all right because, after all, they are the Law.” I was a kid then; I later realized that mistrust is created by just that kind of situation.
By the mid-’60s, Anniston was making strides by erasing all racial signs and waiting rooms. It had even established a biracial Human Relations Committee, lauded in a letter from President Kennedy.
A fog of complacency in 1971 covered latent racial stresses when 190 “new” students were suddenly integrated into a previously all-white and closely knit Wellborn High School, beloved by the working-class and middle-income neighborhood.
Stresses ruptured when a shotgun blast was fired into the home of a civil rights leader, the late Rev. John Nettles, missing his wife by inches. Armed black men began roaming their neighborhood.
An undisciplined police force took that opportunity to stage a sit-down strike, objecting to the city manager’s judgment that police with shotguns, night sticks and riot gear would be provocative.
The police force was beyond accountability because the civil service board, the judicial arm of city government, was appointed from police nominees. The city was a virtual military junta.
The immediate crisis was averted by the appointment of a respected state trooper, Maj. Bill Jones, as police administrator. He reformed the department, requiring training at the police academy and sending senior officers to FBI school.
Shaken, senior leaders from black and white communities created a weekly, off-the-record summit called COUL, Committee of Unified Leadership, which began each meeting with “are there any crisis problems?”
Years later, a new black member of COUL raised a possibility of police abuse. Before the evident anger of whites could break out, the senior committee diplomat, the late James Tinsley, made Dr. Wexler’s point in parable form.
“I want you to know I say this with love, but you white folks never been black and seen the police comin’. It puts me in mind of the day the dogs declared a moratorium on chasing rabbits. During that time, a couple of rabbits was sitting down by the side of the road when a pack of dogs come over the hill, running and yelping. One rabbit turned to the other and said, ‘Brother, I think we better move out into the woods.’
“‘Naw, brother,’ answered the second rabbit, ‘you know about the moratorium,’ The first rabbit responded. ‘Yes, brother, I know about the moratorium, but from the looks of them dogs, they don’t.’”
Nothing in the cable reportage about reforms in Ferguson could be as effective as members of that community who would come together as strangers but who, with calm, good-natured discussion, would become friends and allies when their community is in trouble.
From the crowded deck of the great ship “Crisis” it may be hard to see that the top of the list of truly effective antidotes to community crises is a local institution, which Ferguson lacks — a strong, credible daily newspaper.
The point missed by learned talking heads on the cable is that no president or attorney general or National Commission on Demilitarizing Police can be as effective as strong, inclusive, fair-minded local institutions.