Beneath the ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, are deep-rooted societal conflicts that are boiling over, say local leaders, and the Church has an opportunity to be at the forefront of reconciliation.
“This has been a long time in the making, especially the St. Louis area,” said Dr. Norm White, a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at St. Louis University.
White spoke with CNA on the recent violence in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, leading up to a grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, for the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, in August.
Wilson shot Brown multiple times following a confrontation with Brown and his friend. The incident has elevated racial tensions amid allegations of police brutality and excessive force, with contradictory claims about the facts, including whether Brown had his arms up in a gesture of surrender when he was shot, and whether Wilson acted in self-defense.
The grand jury had considered whether to indict Wilson on first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter, as well as a charge of armed criminal action.
The town of Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, along with other communities in the area, had erupted in demonstrations and protests following the shooting. In the days after the shooting, some protesters engaged in looting and other crimes against property, including the burning of a convenience store.
Riots followed the grand jury decision, stores and cars were set on fire, police were pelted with objects, and 61 arrests were made overnight with at least 14 injuries reported, according to local media.
Protests sprouted up across the country as well, some peaceful and some erupting in violence.
Dr. White pointed to two major problems as the source of the uproar in Ferguson: inequality and a law enforcement system where young African-American males feel targeted and are ready to lash out in response.
To combat local crime and gang problems in the early 1990s, he explained, authorities in the area turned to the “broken window” model of policing every minor infraction in order to stop the bigger problems of gang violence.
This led to a myriad of traffic stops for minor infractions and sidewalk stops where young men had to provide identification or explain where they were walking. “It’s given rise to ‘we will stop young people routinely for the most minor thing’,” White said.
“When every young black male is cause to stop them and ask them for information about where they’re going, who they are, what are they up to — that’s just creating an antagonism that doesn’t need to exist,” he said.
Many of the individuals cited for minor traffic violations might not be able to afford court fees or fines, and if they could not show up in court, a warrant would be issued for their arrest, the professor continued. If they were pulled over a second time in Ferguson, they could go to jail.
This “antagonism” exists prior to police shootings of young black males, he said. When shootings occur, it simply throws gasoline on the already smoldering tensions in the community.
“The young people that I listen to and I hear and I talk to are tired of that. That’s the bottom line,” White emphasized.
Another source of the tensions in Ferguson is the fact that “economic and social inequality, disadvantage, injustice kind of reside in these parts of town,” White said, describing it as an “extraordinarily hyper-segregated” place.
It’s a “middle-class community,” so any destitution there might not be noticeable right away to outsiders, he said. Nonetheless a significant portion of the population lives in poverty and the situation is grim for young men born into the cycle.
For example, White cited the high homeless rate among elementary school children in one after-school program. Children often call their mothers to see where they will sleep that night.
“They do this every day,” he said. “This is elementary school. 70 percent of the kids in that elementary school are functionally homeless. If we don’t get our hands around that, we don’t fix larger problems.”
With such deep-rooted problems, where does the solution lie? The starting point must be face-to-face dialogue, Dr. White insisted, explaining that “when you don’t have social interactions with people routinely, you really don’t get to know them as people.”
Americans are intent upon traveling to other continents to help the poor but ignore the marginalized right in their own communities, he added. “We don’t do it here in the way that I think is meaningful.”
“I think the churches could be very instrumental in fostering and stimulating that conversation,” the scholar said, insisting that people of faith need to go “outside the comfort of boundaries” and invite members of other congregations and ethnicities into their churches for dialogue.
This insistence upon dialogue and conversation has also been raised by Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis, who outlined in an Oct. 10 letter to the archdiocese several issues that he sees as being at the heart of racial tension today.
“We need to come together in prayer and dialogue to address the deeper underlying issues — family breakdown, racial profiling, quality education, abuses of authority, lack of gainful employment, fear of one another, mistrust of authority, black on black violence, and white flight,” the archbishop wrote.
In an August 20 homily at the Mass for Peace in response to the summer unrest in Ferguson, Archbishop Carlson outlined a five-step plan to respond to the deep-seated problems of race and called on Catholics to get ready for change.
“The time has come for us to acknowledge decades of hurt and mistrust and suspicion and prejudices and, yes, even a tragic death,” he said. “Like the first disciples, we need to leave our ordinary way of doing things behind and follow Jesus, a journey that is never easy.”
Archbishop Carlson re-established the archdiocese’s Human Rights Commission and requested that a study on how to decrease violence in communities and at home be undertaken by the St. Charles Lwanga Center, which serves the archdiocese’s African-American community.
The study began immediately, the chaplain of the center, Fr. Arthur Cavitt, confirmed, but it is still in its initial stages. The archdiocese has also “escalated” its response to racial problems since the Ferguson unrest, the priest said, explaining that the local Church is “very active in working for justice.”
For instance, since the Michael Brown shooting, the Catholic parish in Ferguson — Blessed Theresa of Calcutta — has hosted prayer gatherings at its outdoor grotto, worked together with an Episcopal parish in outreach to the community, partnered with other food pantries in town to serve the needy, and sponsored an ecumenical prayer march to the city hall.
The Church is “being hopeful in faith and the goodness of human character. We’re still relying on it,” Fr. Cavitt said.