UPDATE: Not very long after I posted this, a sad excuse of a warped individual bent the moral arc in the wrong direction, firing shots from a hillside that wounded two police officers. Violence never solves anything -- it sets back all society and it undermined the work of the many who've protested peacefully and supported the principles of non-violence all these months. I pray for a speedy recovery for the officers, peace of mind for their loved one, and that the perpetrator of this violence is brought to justice swiftly.
I'm sure there were many nights why they wondered why they were out there -- the die-hards who've protested outside City Hall and the police department in Ferguson, Mo., over the seven months since unarmed 18-year-old Mike Brown was shot and killed by a police officer. On the first night, the protesters were met with police dogs in a scene that, were it not in living color, looked like a Bull Connor newsreel outtake from 1963. Then came the arrests, the curfews, the stinging tear gas, and the men atop armed vehicles pointing weapons in the direction of those who chanted for justice.
The solid core of Ferguson citizens and their hardiest supporters seeking social change were denigrated on the right as "thugs" and "hoodlums" -- much as their ancestors in the civil rights movement were a half-century ago -- but also dragged down by a small minority, many from outside the town limits, who used the protests as an excuse to commit arson and to loot stores. Eventually, the bright lights of the TV cameras were turned off, but the movement kept coming. The hot endless nights of summer gave way to snow and sub-freezing temperatures, and they kept at it. A kangaroo-court investigation by a district attorney who admittedly put a lying witness before the grand jury only hardened their resolve.
The citizens of Ferguson demanded to be heard -- and eventually they were, not so much by their local officials but by Washington. The investigative work by the U.S. Justice Department offered the first real transparent attempt at getting to the truth of Mike Brown's death, but it also uncovered widespread abuses by the police, by the court system, and by city leaders in the St. Louis suburb. It documented a systematic scheme, a kind of extortion racket, to raise millions in fines from Ferguson's poor, often for inconsequential violations, to finance city government. Its report showed that blacks were stopped and arrested in Ferguson out of proportion to their population (including the mind-boggling fact that the only documented bites by police dogs involved African-Americans), and that blacks were stopped and sometimes roughed up during routine innocent moments, like waiting for a bus. Ferguson court officials and cops shared emails that reveled in the worst stereotypes about minority groups.
And since those findings, those sounds you may have heard have been the other shoes dropping in Ferguson -- again and again and again. Last week, two members of the Ferguson police force -- Capt. Rick Henke and Sgt. William Mudd -- quit because of the racist emails. The influential clerk of the court, Mary Ann Twitty, linked to the emails and accused of fixing tickets for colleagues, is out, too. The influential city manager stepped down hours after the Justice report was made public.
Late yesterday fell the biggest shoe yet, Police Chief Thomas Jackson. Jackson, who oversaw the overwhelmingly white force in the period of rampant abuse -- and who lied at the height of the Mike Brown uproar about media seeking a video that was detrimental to the dead young man -- also resigned. The bottom line is this: The corrupt and abusive governing practices of Ferguson could not stand exposure to sunlight. And that light was only shone because citizens, under great trauma, exercised their right to air their grievances. What a remarkable achievement.
Fifty years ago this month, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered one of his greatest speeches at the conclusion of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. He said told his audience that "I know you are asking today, 'How long will it take?' Somebody's asking, 'How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?'" King aired the grievances of 1965 -- some of them all too familiar today -- to a call-and-response of "How long? Not long"...before this kicker: "How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Tonight there is an understandable half-empty, half-full feeling among the activists of Ferguson. Some remain unhappy at the apparent outcome of the Mike Brown investigation, and feel shell-shocked as the killing of unarmed young black men by police continues, from Madison to Atlanta. But at the same time there's a sense that while it's been a long time, that real, meaningful change is coming to Ferguson, from the bottom up. One can feel a glimmer of hope for the citizens in other places where their own City Hall operates too much like the one in Ferguson. People must change, laws must change, and attitudes must change, but we can finally see the arc of the moral universe bending right before our eyes.
How long? Not long.