It is time to stop protesting in Ferguson. Protesters should have suspended their demonstrations before Wednesday night’s brutal shooting of two police officers. Those who desire peaceful change may still be able to prevent the more violent among them from hijacking their cause. But they have to amend their tactics quickly, by reaching out to join the very system they believe has been oppressive.
Public protests are a useful tool, just as important today as they were in 1968 when political scientist Michael Lipsky described them as a political act by relatively powerless individuals — such as minorities and the poor to address an uneven power balance in the community. The activist group Black Lives Matter, started in 2012 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin, has brought worldwide attention to the disturbing pattern of what it calls “extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes.” The group has supported Ferguson activists Hands Up United in demanding an end to police brutality and a systemic review of police practices, in addition to a list of long term social and economic changes.
These protesters were vindicated when the Department of Justice’s “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department” was made public. The report concluded that the city’s “law enforcement actions impose a disparate impact on African Americans that violates federal law,” and that the police department’s “failure to respond to complaints of officer misconduct further erodes community trust.” The report confirmed what many citizens had reported; allegations of unconstitutional stops, arrests, and a pattern of using excessive force.
Most importantly, the report specified detailed steps be taken by the police department and the court to repair and improve their procedures. It was a clear victory — when residents failed to get meaningful response or change from local authorities, their protests caused the feds to intervene and order a sweeping over hall to the status quo.
More dramatic changes took place Wednesday, when the city manager John Shaw and police chief Thomas Jackson, who are both white, resigned. Two symbols — and, some might claim, tools of the city’s racial dysfunction — were gone. Their departures open the way for new leadership. The activists had succeeded.
Yet, instead of strategizing for the next phase, influencing leadership from the inside by becoming more involved in city politics or joining the police force, protesters were again chanting outside of the police station when shots rang out. Witnesses said the gunfire had come from behind the protesters just after midnight, suggesting that the assailant had used the peaceful demonstrators to shield his identity.
But there was no good reason to be demonstrating at all that evening. If the protesters had decreased pressure on the police with just one silent night, two police officers probably would not have been wounded. The peaceful protesters would not have been used by a violent criminal, whose act gives police the right to fear the people they are charged with protecting, straining any thread of trust and respect that might have been left. And the demonstrators would not have risked losing the approval they had earned from distant observers who had been impressed by their accomplishments.
Protests are useful, but limited, especially when they dissolve into violence. John Lewis was beaten as he led the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma 50 years ago, and he later became a congressman so he could work toward long term change. Julian Bond went from being a protester to a politician who served 20 years in the Georgia state legislature. These men realized they had to adapt just as they expected the system they rejected to change. Both had to move forward.
One Ferguson protester said the demonstrations would continue until there was wholesale change. That attitude will make them outsiders forever. Now that the city has signified its openness to reform, albeit under pressure, it is time for protesters to help shape the new system. Instead of dancing on a grave, they should offer a hand to the new leadership, capitalizing on their activist connections to create a group of trusted advisers to help law enforcement and the judicial system understand the community’s needs and imagine the future. It is time to move from protest to power.
Susan E. Reed is the author of “The Diversity Index: The Alarming Truth About Diversity in Corporate America . . . and What Can Be Done About It.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.