Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself by writing a presumptuous summation of the turmoil roiling the streets of suburban St. Louis. After all, it’s been less than a fortnight since the fateful moment when a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. How can I be certain this event and its immediate aftermath will yield historical significance?
Well, I can’t. Yet I’m compelled to look ahead, hoping there is greater meaning in the death, destruction, and despair of today’s news. The future has to be better. So I trust that what’s happening in the street-level conflicts and clashes in Ferguson are the birthing pains of a new American social order, one that will be more inclusive of all voices and not defined exclusively by predominately white political, economic, or military wishes.
Instead, a swelling number of inchoate groups of Americans—disproportionately young, poor, and living in neglected communities—are challenging, confronting, and confounding the status quo. They are demanding to the point of violent protest to have their voices heard and their complaints addressed. This isn’t pretty or comfortable to witness or live through. Yet it is necessary to get us to a higher, better place as a nation.
As has happened so frequently in U.S. history when strong-armed policing has provoked outrage in black and other ethnic-minority communities, Ferguson has erupted nightly since the shooting into spasms of violent protests for a host of past and present, real and rumored community grievances. Late Tuesday and early Wednesday morning, which began and ended in relative calm compared to the previous nine nights, some 47 people were reported to have been arrested by police, who for the first night since the demonstrations began, didn’t fire tear gas to subdue protesters.
Additionally, a grand jury began hearing evidence yesterday to determine whether prosecutors will charge Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, with violating any laws in the shooting and whether he should face charges ranging from manslaughter to murder. Late last week, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson identified Wilson as the police officer who fired the fatal bullets, and a private autopsy performed by a federal investigator showed Brown was shot six times, including twice in the head.
It’s critical to understand that the protests in the streets are over something larger than yet another premature death of a teenager, despite the angering circumstances of a police officer shooting him. Those facts certainly ignited—and even escalated—the community’s outrage, but they didn’t produce it.
Like the nation itself, Ferguson has experienced radical racial transformation over the past two decades, and those changes are at the root of the uprisings that have been nightly occurrences for more than a week.
I feel confident enough to venture out onto the shaky limb of prognostication, supported by several ongoing trends that were in motion well before the horrible drama unfolded in Ferguson. Indeed, I find the only surprising thing about what’s happening in Ferguson is the location. The trouble in Missouri could have happened in any number of similar places.
Within the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, the number of suburban communities, such as Ferguson, where more than 20 percent of the residents live in poverty has more than doubled in the past two decades, according to a Brookings article by Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “Almost every major metro area saw suburban poverty not only grow during the 2000s but also become more concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods,” she wrote. “By 2008-2012, 38 percent of poor residents in the suburbs lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or higher. For poor black residents in those communities, the figure was 53 percent.”
Absent the unflattering attention it’s now receiving in the national and international media, Ferguson quietly transformed during the past 20 years from a predominantly white, affluent suburb into a majority black and impoverished one, Kneebone wrote, adding, “Amid these changes, poverty skyrocketed.”
There’s a second trend in the use of social media as an organizing tool among the protesters. Almost from the beginning, as I noted in last week’s column, the rage of Ferguson’s black community was documented in 140-character tweets and videos posted on Instagram.
But in communities suspicious of establishment institutions, including the police and traditional media, the person-to-person interactions of on-the-ground commentary and opinion carried elevated authority. With a hashtag and a camera phone, the protesters themselves were simultaneously the news event and reporters of it.
“Because of social media, the police don’t have control of this story,” David Karpf, assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, told USA Today. “It’s opened everything up, changed how the media decides what’s worthy of coverage—and who to trust.”
I think it goes deeper than that. Social media competes with authoritarian communication forms, allowing for alternative narratives to shape public awareness. In the past, highly edited news forms—whether newspapers, where I spent nearly three decades, or nightly television network broadcasts—created the “rough draft of history” model for how Americans made sense of current events. No longer. Social media has the ability to democratize our streams of communication, while atomizing our national cohesion.
A generation that depends upon tweets and video snippets to make meaning out of their surroundings will see issues and reality from a different perspective than others who view the world in more traditional modes. Not only do the two groups speak completely different languages, but they also construct vastly different narratives from the details of the events unfolding around them. In effect, social media is giving young, black, and poor people the vehicle to establish an independent and unfiltered narrative about power and how it’s used in 21st century America.
As these trends converge, the future of our nation lies in the balance. Is this an over-the-top assessment? I don’t think so. Nor is it unique. Former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now a TIME Magazine columnist, seems to share my view that what’s happening in Ferguson is a tip of something new and challenging in America. As Abdul-Jabbar put it:
I’m not saying the protests in Ferguson aren’t justified—they are. In fact, we need more protests across the country. Where’s our Kent State? What will it take to mobilize 4 million students in peaceful protest? Because that’s what it will take to evoke actual change. The middle class has to join the poor and whites have to join African-Americans in mass demonstrations, in ousting corrupt politicians, in boycotting exploitative businesses, in passing legislation that promotes economic equality and opportunity, and in punishing those who gamble with our financial future.
Despite the murky details that still linger, I confess this may be a silly quest to find premature meaning in the clouds of tear-gassed air over Ferguson. But I truly believe something revolutionary is occurring there that signals a pivot point for American society. What is happening today in the small community of 21,000 people outside of St. Louis may be the moment when this nation begins to release itself of ancient notions about race and power as it begins to embrace a modern vision of a society that can’t afford to allow economic inequality and racial injustice to continue.
Well, at the very least, that’s my hope.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.