The unrest in Ferguson began one week ago, on the quiet side street of Canfield Drive, when residents were startled by a series of gunshots and poured out of their homes. They watched and wept as the police stood guard for hours over the body of 18-year-old Michael Brown, splayed face down in the street.
But over time, the demonstrations have changed to become an amalgam of peaceful protesters — some furious about what they say is endemic abuse of African-Americans by the police — and separate groups that have carried out acts of violence and looting.
Early Saturday morning, the divisions became even more evident during a four-hour standoff with the police. One group, some of its members wearing bandannas, broke into a liquor store and left clutching bottles of alcohol. But at other retail outlets, like a beauty supply store, demonstrators blocked the looters’ way.
Night after night the streets have attracted disparate groups, some from within Ferguson, and some from hundreds of miles away.
Many of those on the street say they have shrugged off guidance from elders in the African-American establishment, and even from the Brown family, which has repeatedly pleaded for calm.
One protester, DeVone Cruesoe, of the St. Louis area, standing on Canfield Drive last week said, “Do we have a leader? No.” Pointing to the spot where Mr. Brown was killed, he said, “You want to know who our leader is? Mike Brown.”
Many African-American civic leaders in St. Louis said they were frustrated by their inability to guide the protesters.
Some people have suggested that there is a generational divide. George Richardson, who works for the building department in East St. Louis, said the younger protesters were acting independently, ignoring advice from their parents.
“There is a gulf between the leadership and the boots on the ground,” Mr. Richardson said. “These kids do not understand why the nonviolence movement is the best way to get done what we need to get done. They don’t really know what to do.”
Violence and destruction lend legitimacy to strong handed responses by the authorities (I am not saying I necessarily agree these actions are just or proportionate, but rather stating the stance many policy makers take). It is extremely unlikely that anything justified the killing of Michael Brown, but more information must be released through independent investigation before anything can be said beyond speculation. Certainly nothing justifies the violence against, and the imprisoning of, peaceful protesters and members of the press.
However, when violent protesters and looters–opportunists who use the legitimate grievances underpinning the Micheal Brown murder and the murder itself for illegitimate ends–become indistinguishable from peaceful protesters, the indefensible becomes defensible. Suddenly, states of emergency and curfews seem not only justifiable, but indeed necessary to protect the general public.
What happened in Ferguson is not a generational issue, but an issue of social justice and accountability for those in power. Getting the protests back on track requires strong youth leadership in Ferguson; only youth leaders who stand for legitimate causes can end the perceived generational rift and expose it for what it truly is.
Young people tend to be passionate, impulsive and impressionable–not a mix of traits naturally lends itself to peaceful protest. However, young people are also likely to be pragmatic, have long term goals, and listen to other young people. Youth leaders must emerge and denounce the violence / destruction, however instantly gratifying it may seem to some misguided youths. Failure to do so risks having legitimate grievances overshadowed by opportunist, and is a betrayal to both the legacy of Michael Brown, as well as broader Civil Rights and social justice movements.
I am sure these youth leaders exist; they must be empowered by those with the resources and desire to see social justice served. There is a reason Martin Luther King is remembered as an American hero, and Malcolm X as a polarizing figure. The argument between whether “hard” and “soft” power is the better avenue for change, at least in America, was decided decades ago.