Why is Conflict in #Ferguson Still Happening?
Obviously the situation in Ferguson is currently complicated and historically complex, and there are many conversations that need to be had (and luckily, are now being had) about all of the issues in play (which have been covered very well by people far more informed than me). But a byproduct of this needed discourse, however tense and difficult it has been and will continue to be, has been the nightly conflicts in Ferguson, and their depiction and dissection the next day by news outlets and on social media.
As an admittedly outside observer watching events play out on the live streams and backfilling with accounts from social media, it’s become clear (from my distant vantage point) that there are a few opposing factors at play in the nightly Ferguson conflicts right now. I think it’s important to realize that there are a handful of different groups (with some overlap) that are all striving toward their own goals:
- The (Peaceful) Protestors - They want justice, peace, and to be heard. For some, this would entail criminal charges being brought against Officer Darren Wilson, as unlikely as that might be. But many are also lamenting and elevating the broader issues in play in the region (and across the nation, for that matter): police/citizen tension, racial and socioeconomic divisions, struggling schools, lack of employment, all of which stem from systemic injustices that have been interwoven in our societal fabric for centuries.
- The Instigators & Agitators - They want to fight back. Some are young local residents who see this as a culmination of their ongoing conflict with local police’s allegedly ongoing racial profiling practices and abuse of power. This is their chance to band together and fight back for the whole world to see - it’s their revolutionary war. Others are flocking in from surrounding areas to join the fight, whether as sympathizers with the cause (or possibly just for an opportunity to shoot at police). And then there are outsiders with ulterior motives for escalating the conflict, who may even be sourcing things like Molotov cocktails in order to provoke police into engaging.
- The “Press” - They want to tell the(ir) story. The number of “media” running around in Ferguson right now is mind-blowing (and if you’re a cop, maddening). The initial goal was to cover the Michael Brown shooting and document the protest. Then it was to document the heavy-handed police response, and the infringement of rights - initially, the rights of the protestors, and then, their own rights as journalists (police ordering cameras to be turned off, and even dismantling them, on the first two nights certainly drew scrutiny). Now it has devolved to everyone with a camera running around trying to get a Pulitzer-worthy shot, often ignoring police orders to clear the street, or embedding themselves nearby Group #2 (where the “action” often starts), putting themselves in the middle of the conflict. Their response to being gassed or forcibly removed has mostly been righteous indignation. At this point, the most compelling story for them seems to be the perceived suppression of media coverage, and documentation of the “police state”. Conveniently, the current atmosphere is such that they can easily inject their own presence to create their own content, like a soccer player taking a dive to earn a penalty kick. I don’t mean to diminish the value of a journalistic presence - far from it. But the over-saturation of media has seemed to become counterproductive, as their stories have started to become about their own involvement and experience (lots of reporters interviewing reporters).
- The Police - They want things to go back to “normal”. Ultimately, I’m guessing they just want the whole ordeal to be over. But specifically, on every night since Capt. Johnson took control of operations, I think their wishes have been pretty basic: They want people to stay out of the street. They want people to keep moving. They want press to separate themselves from (non-peaceful) protestors. And they would love it if the peaceful protestors limited their presence to daytime hours. Instead, they get to deal with Groups 1-3 mixed into a maelstrom planted in the middle of a major thoroughfare with no intentions of dispersing any earlier than midnight, leaving hours of the static presences of all four groups to build, and eventually boil over, every night. All of that said, it’s also worth noting that to say “The Police” is to group together both the “good” cops and “bad” cops that make up Ferguson PD, St. Louis County PD, the Highway Patrol, officers from municipalities both near (St. Louis City PD) and far (Wildwood, Fenton, etc.), and now the National Guard. One random cop macing a little girl (bogus) or threatening a reporter (real) doesn’t reflect the personality or action of an entire force.
- The Looters - They want to act out their frustration, and maybe get some free stuff, too. Only really making appearances on the nights when the police presence has been dialed back, some are simply opportunists, while others are likely members of Group #2 who, in the absence of conflict, are acting out frustration and aggression in a destructive manner (though, it’s worth noting that there may be other members of Group #2 who attempted to prevent looting, as it isn’t their main goal or focus). The byproduct of this group’s presence has been the need for a return of police presence at the behest of local residents and businesses.
So when considering all of these groups and their individual goals, it would seem that Group #1 is seeking an end to the conflict through justice (albeit with an ongoing attention to and dialogue about larger issues), and Group #4 is seeking an end by cessation of any kind (though “not showing up” doesn’t seem to be an option they’re considering viable). But Group #2 could be seen as perpetuating the situation as a means of having continued opportunity to lash out, and you could make the case that, while obviously a dangerous situation for them, Group #3 does stand to benefit from the ongoing conflict, both personally and corporately. And Group #5 seems to be mostly peripheral, as they are only able to take advantage of the opportunities presented them.
Also in play is power. Group #1 wants the power of the people to assemble in the name of justice and be heard. Group #2 wants to feel powerful against a group who has so often made them feel powerless. Group #3 wants to exercise their powerful voice to tell a powerful story. Group #4 wants to exert only their powerful presence, but is willing and able to exert powerful force if provoked into doing so. And Group #5 wants the power to take what they want, often in anger.
It’s the power that each group wants and wields that continues to clash, and as long as the tension between the groups working towards resolution and the groups pushing for exacerbation exists, I fear that the nightly tumult will likely continue.