WHEN dealing with violent protests on the streets, it is no good
getting things half right. After several nights of trouble on the
streets of Ferguson, a district of St Louis, in Missouri, the
authorities put a new man in charge of policing, a Highway Patrol
Captain, Ron Johnson. Key among his credentials was that he was
black. The protests were triggered by the fatal shooting of a black
teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.
In Ferguson, 65 per cent of the population is black, but only six
per cent of its police force is. Captain Johnson's appointment is
not going to change that ratio, but at least he can appeal to the
protesters from within their own ranks: "When this is over, I'm
going to go into my son's room. My black son. Who wears his pants
saggy, his hat cocked to the side, got tattoos on his arms. But
that is my baby." The appeal, made in the Greater Grace Church,
lacked finesse, but it won over the congregation.
Not so the crowds outside. Another policing decision last
weekend was to bring in the National Guard, the first time they
have been deployed to deal with unrest in the United States since
1992. The presence on the streets of a highly militarised force was
never likely to calm the situation. The protests now are as much
about the authorities' reaction as about the original shooting.
The existence of a black President has had a remarkable effect
on racial politics in the US, though this cannot be quantified. The
black population remains far poorer, on average, than the white.
During the latest financial crisis, the average net worth of a
white household has fallen from $135,000 to $113,000. Before the
crisis, the average worth of a black household was $12,000. Now it
is just $5700. In Ferguson, the unemployment rate is nine per cent.
Given the town's racial mix, it is likely to follow the national
pattern: 5.4 per cent of whites are unemployed, 11.5 per cent of
blacks. In such circumstances, the difference between reluctant
acceptance of social conditions and angry protest is aspiration.
Religion is still strong, but where it failed, materialism filled
the void, creating a dangerously unsatisfying set of desires. With
the arrival of President Obama came a new political aspiration, but
his second term has been troubled and, thanks to the internal
battles with obdurate Republicans in the Senate and House of
Representatives, much less impressive.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Michael Brown will
not be known for certain for some time - though having a police
force that is routinely armed was an obvious factor. It is hard to
imagine circumstances that will mollify his neighbours, who have
interpreted his death as a sign of a lack of respect for people
from his background. The presence of pastors and congregation
members among the protesters is welcomed, but the authorities must
make creative use of them. It should be acknowledged as a positive
thing when a community's members stand in solidarity with one of
their number. By contrast, TV images of heavily armed troops
battling with looters will send the wrong message, and might
escalate the violence.