Some impressions from last night’s Ferguson forum at Eau Claire

Mayor Steve Benjamin addresses the assembly.

Mayor Steve Benjamin addresses the assembly.

First, a disclaimer: The community meeting to talk about issues related to events in Ferguson, MO, held last night at Eau Claire High School, was organized by the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, with heavy involvement by the office of Mayor Steve Benjamin. I am a member of the Council, and co-chair of the Community Affairs Committee. Despite that, I was not involved in organizing this event. I will, however, likely be involved in any followup activities undertaken by the Council.

Whew, I’m out of breath after typing all of that.

Anyway, you probably saw coverage of the event in The State today. I have little to add to that coverage, beyond a few subjective impressions.

In general, the event was what you might expect it to be — a venue for people in positions authority to carefully state their concern and show their willingness to listen, and for folks whose passions are stirred by events in Ferguson to vent. On those bases, I judge it a success. I particularly commend CRC Executive Director Henri Baskins, who acted as MC with poise, fairness and calm confidence.

On the first part of that equation, I was impressed by the panelists, but most of all by new police Chief Skip Holbrook. It was the first chance I’ve had to observe him in such an environment, and he did well. Better than that — I think he may well be the steady hand that the city has needed in that job.

Chief Holbrook addresses the meeting.

Chief Holbrook addresses the meeting.

As the one white man on the stage, and the only panelist in a police uniform, he was a natural object of scrutiny, given the topic. He did an excellent job of explaining the ways that his department works to prevent situations such as those in Ferguson, and I think it went over well. His demeanor was perfect — he stood up for his department, but did so in a disarming manner. His high point: When he told the assembly, near the end, that he was a better police chief for having been there. That sort of thing could come across as corny or manipulative, but it didn’t from him.

There was some tension in the room, which I’ll encapsulate with this anecdote: At one point former U.S. Attorney and SLED director Reggie Lloyd made the observation that after the fatal shooting in Ferguson, the local officials did exactly “the right thing.” Immediately, a woman’s voice pierced the calm with a high-piping “What?!?!” He went on to explain that the right thing Ferguson officials did was turn the investigation over to outside authorities. He noted that there is an FBI investigation under way, and said approvingly that no one should expect to hear a word about that investigation until it is completed. His implication was that ours is a society with processes for dealing with such situations, even though they may not be satisfying to everyone’s emotions. In fact, he expressly urged people to separate their emotions from their own processing of the event.

Similarly, Municipal Judge Carl Solomon spoke of the importance of young people knowing their rights… but used that as a segue to say they needed to understand their responsibilities as well (I was hearing a lot of good communitarian stuff like that). Among one’s responsibilities, in interactions with police, is to remain “calm and be polite.” He suggested that a respectful demeanor gets you a lot farther than an aggressive assertion of “I know my rights!” in an interaction with the law.

Against those evocations of reason, the event included some venting of emotions. One could expect nothing else from the woman whose son was shot multiple times by police last year. And there were the usual would-be revolutionaries, such as the red-shirted young man who kept going on about how slavery still existed in these United States (because the 13th Amendment, as we all know, allows for involuntary servitude “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”), and asserted how proud he was of the protesters in Ferguson, because he believed otherwise this discussion would not have taken place. 

Then there was the young lady who protested that there were only two “young people” on the panel, suggesting that it was somehow illegitimate for the panel to consist mostly of accomplished people with positions of responsibility in the community. This drew a few cheers from like-minded folks in the crowd.

But everyone involved deserves credit for exhibiting their emotions, as well as their reasoning, in a calm, civilized and constructive manner.

And on that basis, as I said before, I regard the event as a success. Because the ultimate goal is to learn to deal with each other and resolve our differences with civility rather than violence — is it not?

Even as the crowd thinned, folks were still lined up for a turn at the microphones.

Even as the crowd thinned, folks were still lined up for a turn at the microphone.

31 thoughts on “Some impressions from last night’s Ferguson forum at Eau Claire

  1. Doug Ross

    Were there any specific action items assigned to people as a result of the meeting? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to schedule this type of meeting frequently?

    I can sort of understand the young woman who commented on the older makeup of the panel. It’s all the so-called experienced people who establish the policies and standards that end up with situations like Ferguson happening. Experience typically also comes with a certain close-mindedness as well as a detachment from events outside one’s comfort zone. Elders don’t have a monopoly on intelligence.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      They do, however, have a monopoly on experience. Which is a factor one is wise not to disregard.

      And let me turn around something that you just said: “It’s all the so-called experienced people who establish the policies and standards that end up with situations like Ferguson happening.”

      Exactly. And the opposite is also true: It’s the experienced people, or at least the people in positions of authority and leadership, who establish the policies and standards that prevent and avoid situations like Ferguson’s.

      That is precisely why anyone who actually CARES about what happened and is happening in Ferguson should be grateful, should celebrate, that people in such positions of responsibility will give up their evening to attend such a gathering, to participate in it, to express their views and to listen to the views of others. THAT is a priceless opportunity, if you are a young person who has a passionate response to the Ferguson situation. If you are logical, you embrace it, and would not want a single authority figure on that stage to be replaced by some young person who holds no position of responsibility, but shares your emotions on the subject.

      As for action items — the person keeping track of that was Henri Baskins. She sees this as the start of a process, and made note from the podium when something was a good item to follow up on.

      My fellow committee chairman Roscoe Wilson and I will be talking with Henri, perhaps as early as this evening, about what our next steps will be. I anticipate (although I don’t know for sure) that my committee will be involved in that process, even though we weren’t involved in arranging the thing last night.

      Reply
      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        As for youth involvement — last night’s event was instigated, and planned, by a separate committee that deals with youth affairs (I forget the actual name of it). Daniel Coble is one of the co-chairs of that committee…

        Reply
  2. Bryan Caskey

    Sounds like a productive start to hopefully avoid problems before they happen. Not too caught up in the young vs. old thing here. Anyone (or group) willing to address the thorny issue of race relations is to be commended.

    Was there any discussion of the militarization of the police?

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Not while I was there, Bryan. But I showed up about an hour late. One of those situations in which I had it right in my calendar, but I didn’t LOOK at my calendar, because I “knew” it started at 6:30. Well, it had started at 5:30.

      But based on the coverage I saw, I didn’t miss much. Mostly just opening remarks from panelists, I think, little of which got written about…

      Reply
      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        It was supposed to end at 7:30, but lasted past 8. I got back to my car at about 8:30.

        By the way, Eau Claire is a BIG school. I parked in what I took to be the front of the school, assuming that was where the auditorium was, but it was a long and winding way away from that…

        Reply
  3. Silence

    Columbia is a lot different than Ferguson. We’ve got a lot of local African-American elected officials including Mayor Benjamin, Councilmen Davis and Newman, and Councilwoman Devine. That’s the majority of council. The current police chief happens to be white, but several of the previous chiefs were black. We have an African-American city manager, and some of the assistant city managers too. The fire chief and a lot of the leadership of the police department and other city departments are African-American as well. 64% of Richland County Council is African-American. State Senator Jackson represents a large portion of the city and county, and many of our state representatives are African American as well. I don’t see how anyone would reasonably expect that a city like Columbia would engage in the types of behavior alleged to have happened in Ferguson.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Absolutely.

      One hesitates to say “It can’t happen here,” because anything can happen pretty much anywhere.

      There were people at the meeting whose personal movie casts them, and people they perceive to be like them, in the role of downtrodden protagonists striving under the heel of The Man (defined as white people, powerful people, older people, people in some way different from themselves). That, to them, is a very important narrative.

      But it was a hard one to square with the facts in the room…

      Reply
      1. Doug Ross

        This is why it would be interesting to hear the stories from those who feel oppressed or targeted in some way by those in power in Columbia. Were there people claiming to be profiled, harassed, under-represented?

        Reply
        1. Barry

          Since Columbia- and Richland County is essentially 50/50 white/black – with MANY elected leaders- and management officials being black

          I’d think a discussion on police tactics without regard to race would be just as – if not more appropriate.

          For example, when I was at USC, it was common for Columbia officers to target college students on campus with driving violations. They finally got me once- and I learned the hard way that a common spot for an officer to sit parked was at the bottom of a hill coming down Pickens Street. To avoid breaking the speed limit of 25, you had to ride your brakes the entire way. If you eased up on them, you’d be going about 32 – and the cops would nail you. Happened to hundreds of students- getting pulled going 5-7 mph hour over the speed limit.

          Happened to me.

          I thought it was a waste of resources – and the cops were known to me smart mouths -and would quickly threaten students with more violations.

          Reply
      2. Barry

        But many of those people are not able to accept reality.

        As I say below, many of those folks are the same ones that think their child is nothing but an innocent angel, all the while their child has a rap sheet several pages long, has been kicked out of school, and has been a discipline issues for years.

        For them, it’s always someone else’s fault.

        Reply
    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      There’s an interesting dynamic that perpetuates such worldviews.

      When people who in the past might have been out of power gain power, and exercise it for a time, and learn what the exercise of power entails, they start sounding like… The Man. They sound more and more like those old white fogies who used to keep them down…

      That’s not because power corrupts, although that’s the explanation you’ll hear from the disaffected. No, it’s because the reality of being in charge and having to DEAL with issues rather than just talk about them causes you to understand certain things — things that actually happen to be true.

      People who seem born to be disaffected, who embrace that as their natural role — Tea Partiers, Occupy Wall Streeters, folks who like to proclaim that slavery is alive in America — call the change that comes over people when they gain power “corruption,” or at least, “co-option.” And so they rail against people they elect who fail to do what they want them to do. But often, it’s a matter of having one’s eyes opened and seeing the holes in one’s previous viewpoint.

      Not that the people out of power don’t have truths to share of their own. People on each side of the divide, of any divide, need to do their best to understand each others’ respective truths, and not dismiss them as illegitimate.

      One nice thing about having those black men in positions of authority on the stage is that no one can say those men don’t know what it’s like to, for instance, be stopped for Driving While Black. And yet you’ll hear them say such common-sense, paternalistic things as “Don’t be confrontational with a cop. Stay calm; be polite…”

      And now, my mind takes a veering turn…

      I see that Ricky Gervais has been castigated for Tweeting, “Celebrities, make it harder for hackers to get nude pics of you from the computer by not putting nude pics of yourself on your computer.”

      Something that, you know, should hold a permanent and honored place in the annals of “duh.”

      And yet he’s being castigated for… wait for it… “blaming the victim.” Which is possibly the most preposterous thing I’ve heard today…

      Reply
      1. Barry

        I agree with this Brad.

        and sometimes- someone in power- maybe someone black (or not) needs to say to parents that allow their kids roam the streets at all hours-

        that if your son or daughter is out walking the streets at midnight- hanging with their buddies- with no real place to go- chances are – “little johnny” is doing some things that might get him/her arrested. In fact, you as a parent should assume they are up to no good because chances are that’s exactly what is happening.

        Reply
  4. Kathryn Braun Fenner

    I just came back from a friend’s mother’s funeral. A bunch of my old high school friends were remarking on how when we told our parents we were going to be at Donna’s house in the wee hours, we actually were there. I could reasonably drive safely in Aiken in the mid-seventies, as a white girl. Certainly I had nothing to.fear from the police. Why shouldn’t an innocent black boy be able to be about without fear of the police as well?
    Even if he shoplifted, that isn’t a capital offense, yet.

    Reply
    1. Silence

      was it the shoplifting that was the problem, or the resisting arrest? Also, I don’t know how they did it in Aiken in the 70’s, but I don’t think the term “black boy” is acceptable anymore. It’s “young African-American male”.

      Reply
      1. Kathryn Braun Fenner

        When I say white girl, black boy is an equivalent term. In fact, African-American is not the term many blacks prefer any more, fwiw. A girl or boy is someone under 18. What is offensive is using the terms for adults.

        Reply
        1. Barry

          You don’t want to ever call a young black male “a boy”

          Just take it for what it’s worth- unless you want to be called a racist- I’d avoid that term at all costs.

          This isn’t some secret. It’s well known. Just a word of advice- don’t do it.

          Reply
        1. Silence

          I don’t think anyone was convicted and executed for resisting arrest, but occasionally suspects are restrained, subdued, incapacitated or even killed while resisting arrest or trying to escape.

          Reply
        2. Barry

          It’s not – unless during the resisting you assault an officer- or try to reach for his weapon.

          I’m not saying that is what happened- but the general theme on tv is that the officer killed someone just because they wanted to kill someone

          That can happen I guess- but usually there is a lot more to the story than that.

          Reply
    2. Barry

      The police isn’t the concern being at in he wee hours- it’s the trouble one is likely to get in – when you are 16 – and out at 2am with nothing but friends- hanging around – doing nothing.

      Reply
        1. Barry

          I’ve been there myself as a white guy.

          But that wasn’t what I was talking about.

          Cops hassle a lot of people.

          and a lot of young people are roaming around with no much else to do – late at night- and they often encounter problems that ruin them for life.

          Reply
    1. Brad Warthen

      Once in my life, I was armed, and accosted by a cop who could see I was armed, and was not happy about the fact. All I could think of was, how do I get through this without anyone making a stupid, deadly mistake. It’s impossible for me to imagine anyone being so stupid as to be in such a situation and think, “This is a good time for me to be a pain in the a__, and make this cop’s job harder…”

      Reply

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