By Donna Brazile, NEA Columnist
I've never thought of myself as having any special wisdom. But they say wisdom comes from experience, and sadly, I've had enough experience with flare-ups like Ferguson, Missouri, that wisdom has come unbidden.
I say "flare-up" because, like an ill-placed match, one event can ignite others, causing responses of outrage. Too often, though, the media spin rages out of control, fanning the flames and turning a flare-up into a firestorm.
In such cases, it helps to create what we might call a "rhetorical firewall": identifying the questions without presuming (often arrogantly) to know the answers beforehand.
So what questions are raised by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, black and unarmed, by police officer Darren Wilson?
The first question is, was there an improper use of deadly force? Michael Brown was unarmed and, according to the reports, his arms were raised in surrender.
This question can only be answered after an investigation by local, state and federal law enforcement officials. The focus must be on Wilson's actions, not Brown's status prior to the incident. (Had he been using marijuana? Had he stolen some cigars? Irrelevant -- particularly because the police officer had no apparent knowledge of Brown's past actions.)
There are procedures to insure transparency and accountability, and the citizens of Ferguson have a right to expect them to be followed. But an investigation, especially one that moves up the levels of government, may take time.
The second question is, unfortunately, racial: Were Michael Brown's civil rights violated because of his race?
Many in the media don't want to confront the fundamental disparity in our criminal justice system. But the evidence is overwhelming: There is a racial bias. Differences in clothing, language, culture or skin color should not affect the constitutional principle of "equal treatment under the law."
The racial divide -- and the continuing relevance of the question of race -- can be seen in the contrast between the government of Ferguson, Missouri, and the citizens it serves. The New York Times reports that Ferguson, though 67 percent black, has a white mayor, a school board of six white members and one Hispanic member, one black member on the City Council, and a police force that is only 6 percent black. That's not representative democracy.
The aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown raises three questions of national significance, each of which raise larger social and political issues.
One: Should we militarize the local police? Two men who rarely concur agree the answer is no. President Obama said, "There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don't want those lines blurred."
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said: "Soldiers and police are supposed to be different ... It's the difference between Audie Murphy and Andy Griffith. But nowadays, police are looking, and acting, more like soldiers than cops, with bad consequences." (Audie Murphy was the most decorated soldier in WWII; TV actor Andy Griffith played an even-tempered small town sheriff).
Policies and legislation need to be revised. Attitudes need to be examined. (Why does a small suburban community need a military-style tank?)
Two: What are the parameters, or limits, of the First Amendment? It guarantees "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
The people in Ferguson feel they have a valid petition to present to the government. They feel the use of deadly force was wrong. They want an open, fair and transparent investigation, and they want a guarantee the authorities will not do a cover-up or whitewash of Brown's death.
The protests in Ferguson have been boisterous but mostly peaceful. Yet hundreds of media reports from around the world have documented Ferguson citizens who are peacefully exercising their rights being jailed or tear-gassed. Ninety-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, petitioning for justice, was arrested.
Three: another First Amendment issue, freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation has documented 16 arrests of reporters who were just doing their job. In one instance, reporter Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of Huffington Post were eating in McDonald's when arrested.
Professional journalists from Germany, Russia and Turkey were among those detained or arrested. The bad press is worldwide. In Ferguson, we are not living up to our principles, and everyone sees it.
When asking questions, root causes are important. This all came about because a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed young black man. Why does that matter? A colleague said he was asked: "When was the last time you read or heard about a black police officer shooting dead an unarmed white teenager?" That's why.
Still, I believe there has been a turning point in Ferguson. The visit by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder let the citizens know the government has their back on liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. And something else that gave me a quiet hope: a picture in Newsweek of a young black male, John West, handing a rose to a broadly smiling police officer in Ferguson.
Yes, if we ask the right questions, and search for the answers together, there is hope. There's always hope.