“The tear gas canisters clanking through the streets, flash-bang grenades, military Humvees and cops in riot gear facing off with angry protesters.” Taken out of context, this sounds like a quote straight from a history textbook, from a chapter on the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. It sounds like it should be from the era of Rosa Parks and Malcolm X and of course Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, it’s actually from a CNN News article published just a few months ago.
If you have a pulse and live anywhere besides under a rock, chances are you’ve heard of Ferguson, Missouri. The once normal Mid-western suburb has created media frenzy ever since the police shooting and death of Michael Brown in August. The incident has become a major race issue and attracted national attention because the officer was Caucasian and Brown was African American. When our assigned reading this week was Martin Luther King, I couldn’t help but wonder what he would make of the situation.
For those who don’t know, the story of what happened is very unclear. Brown and a friend, Dorian Johnson, shoplifted from a local liquor store and Wilson, the patrolling officer, responded to the call. He told the two to get out of the street and they refused, saying that they were almost at their destination. After this, the accounts of what happened become very different. Johnson and other witnesses say Brown cooperated and even tried to surrender, while Wilson and the police department say Brown viciously attacked Wilson. But the end of the story remains the same: with Brown dead. Rioting and violent protests immediately followed the shooting. Things eventually calmed down, but not for long. On November 24th, a grand jury ruled not to indict Wilson, and the riots returned, worse than before. They spread from Ferguson across the entire country.
Now, with many people injured and businesses destroyed, tensions remain high, Brown remains dead, and questions remained unanswered. Was this an incident of unjust racial profiling? Or was Wilson just doing what he thought was his duty as a police officer? And what would the great civil rights activists of the past think of the present?
Martin Luther King was an advocate for nonviolent protest. He did not believe in using violence to make a point or in answering violence with more violence. Instead, King encouraged his followers to fight with acts of civil disobedience, such as sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and accepting jail sentences. And he would be very upset with the events taking place in Ferguson and across the country. The shooting of Michael Brown was a tragedy, whether or not it was an act of racial profiling and prejudice. However, violence is not the answer to violence. In his Letter From Birmingham Jail, King says “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So while he would agree with the spread of protest, he would be troubled by the nature of it. Looting businesses and assaulting police officers and journalists will not change what happened to Brown and they will not ease the tension between law enforcement and angry civilians.
If King were still alive, he would call for protestors to stop their violence and use other methods to get their message across. Hopefully in time, the injustice will stop and scenes like the one described in Ferguson will truly be something found only in textbooks.