ALMOST NOTHING IS MORE DANGEROUS than interrupting a teenager while she’s in mid Snapchat. Still I took the risk because this was important. This was a current event barreling toward history, and I wanted her to be aware, if just for a moment.
“We just entered Ferguson,” I said, leaning toward her in the back of my in-laws’ car as they drove my wife, daughter and I to the family Christmas Eve celebration.
She looked up from her phone and took in the intensely normal Midwest scene. I expected a shrug and a return to her online conversation. Like I said, I wasn’t anticipating an editorial commentary, just an acknowledgement.
What I got was far more interesting.
“I don’t see any burning buildings,” she said. “There aren’t any broken windows. It looks normal.”
Of course she was right – everything was normal. All of St. Louis looked as normal as always. Just another Christmas Eve in this quintessential Midwest metropolis.
But while St. Louis may not have changed, the perception of it has. Maybe forever.
Ferguson sparked the recent flame of protest and conversation about race relations, after a Grand Jury cleared a police officer in the shooting death of an unarmed African American. Another officer-involved shooting this week in nearby Berkeley fanned the flames yet again and left residents of this proud Gateway City wondering what was going to happen next.
A Tale of Two Gunmen
The Christmas Eve party began as expected, with family reconnecting and kids banishing themselves to the basement playroom, much to the delight of the adults. But as the night wore on, the topic kept shifting to Ferguson and Berkeley, to rules of engagement and, most of all, to convincing each other that it’s all going to go back to normal soon.
What it came down to was a tale of two gunmen.
In the Ferguson case, the gunman was the cop. Some at the party had no problem with the officer shooting an unarmed Michael Brown, mostly because of what he did in the past than what he allegedly did in that moment. Another person wondered why non-lethal force wasn’t used, while yet another, a former FBI agent, said the officer should have followed smarter protocol, such as calling for backup and following Brown in his patrol car.
In Berkeley, the gunman was the suspect, 18-year-old Antonio Martin. And in this case there was video evidence to support the story – Martin pulled a gun on the police officer. The officer responded by shooting Martin while falling backward, in fear or self-preservation, likely a bit of both.
Albeit more clear in terms of blame, Berkeley still sparked outrage and uncertainty. The FBI agent had no problems with this one – you pull a gun on a cop, training dictates a lethal response.
“That’s how we’re taught,” he said. “You don’t shoot to harm or maim, you shoot to kill, and you keep shooting until the person is on the ground and no longer a threat.”
No argument from most. Still, a few rumbled about whether there were any other options. And the more I listened, the more I realized why.
Justified or not, people in St. Louis want these images to go away. They don’t want to be defined by incidents like these, don’t want people driving through their city wondering why it’s not on fire. This may be the St. Louis of today, but it’s not the St. Louis they want as their future.
Cardinals’ baseball and thin-crust pizza. Forest Park, The Landing and Washington University. Friendly people and safe communities. This is how they want people to think of St. Louis.
But there are shadows here now.
Two different gunmen, two different circumstances are casting their shadows over a City. There is a darkness here that didn’t exist before – and now the people of St. Louis, and the entire country, must try to find their way back to the light.