Yet, none of these people, and none of the instances, were unalloyed examples of clarity, or without criticism in their day. There are no saints in their own time. No bright lines. No trumpets.
All too often, the significance of events isn't recognized until later. It's only distance, in both time and space, that lends the perspective required to spot that pivot point, that gleam of importance, that change in the wind.
And still ... and still ... this week, I think I felt the wind change.
Follow below the fold for more.
Jay Nixon's relationship with the African-American community can be charitably described as godawful. Nixon, possibly the most calculating, center-seeking politician in the nation, burned his bridges with black Missourians two decades ago, when he fought to end a court-ordered desegregation program that bused children from St. Louis schools to surrounding communities. It was an ugly bit of political calculus designed to make Nixon acceptable to rural, white voters—at the cost of generating exactly the kind of school district where Michael Brown was trapped.
For African-Americans in St. Louis to be put in the situation of waiting on Jay Nixon to do the right thing, was like waiting for Rush Limbaugh to be tactful. And for four days in Ferguson, as things spiraled toward disaster, Nixon satisfied every expectation. He was so aloof from the situation as to be invisible.
Seeing Ferguson sinking toward an image of Gaza didn't make Nixon act. Watching Missouri turned into an object of both mockery and horror didn't summon him from his hiding place. It took something more.
That something was a phone call from President Barack Obama.
Like Nixon, the president was also subject to criticism from those who wanted him to act more swiftly, and with more authority. There were short-lived rumors that the president had ordered in federal law enforcement, and plenty of disappointment when those rumors turned out to be unfounded. John Lewis, as respected a figure of the civil rights movement as you can imagine, argued that Obama should federalize the situation. Bring in the FBI. Declare martial law.
The president didn't do those things. Instead, he gave a brief speech, covering several topics, in which events in Ferguson, Missouri, earned a few paragraphs.
It’s important to remember how this started. We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances. He was 18 years old, and his family will never hold Michael in their arms again. And when something like this happens, the local authorities, including the police, have a responsibility to be open and transparent about how they are investigating that death and how they are protecting the people in their communities. There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. And here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.There's not a lot of zing there. No amount of rising background music is going to turn these words into Lincoln standing to mark the opening of a Pennsylvania cemetery. Still, Obama did the critical thing ….
Put simply, we all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority.
I’ve already tasked the Department of Justice and the FBI to independently investigate the death of Michael Brown, along with local officials on the ground. The Department of Justice is also consulting with local authorities about ways that they can maintain public safety without restricting the right of peaceful protest and while avoiding unnecessary escalation. I made clear to the attorney general that we should do what is necessary to help determine exactly what happened and to see that justice is done.When Jay Nixon at last spoke—clearly nervous about being anywhere near (even if not that near) the scene of Brown's murder, and speaking with a hurried uncertainty that might serve as an illustration for the term, "uncomfortable"—his words seemed about as bland as white bread dipped in skim milk. Even so, Nixon did take the critical step. He removed the overly militarized local police departments that had become invested in a narrative of rising hostility, and placed the situation under the control of the state police.
I also just spoke with Governor Jay Nixon of Missouri. I expressed my concern over the violent turn that events have taken on the ground, and underscored that now’s the time for all of us to reflect on what’s happened and to find a way to come together going forward.
Not only that, but Nixon displayed considerable tact in focusing the responsibility on Captain Ron Johnson, an African-American officer who grew up in the Ferguson area and immediately displayed the sort of reasonable leadership which had been so conspicuously lacking.
Ron Johnson turned out to be the man of the hour. A no-nonsense cop who understood that nonsense included acting like your own citizens are enemy combatants or dressing cops like extras in a Michael Bay movie. A man who understood that protecting the neighborhood could be done much more readily through words and handshakes than by directing machine guns from armored vehicles. A guy who simply got it.
When Johnson first appeared in the middle of Ferguson, you could almost feel your ears pop from the abrupt change in pressure.
The nation held it's breath, watched, and saw that treating people decently drew better results than treating them like animals. They witnessed the utter absurdity of how the Ferguson Police Department had approached the problem. They saw not just a disregard for the First Amendment, but for basic decency. Most of all, people were forced to see that the African-American community really was being treated in a way that was a horror on any scale. They were forced to see that everything they'd been told, but didn't want to believe, was true.
President Obama's brief words on Ferguson are unlikely to be repeated in history books as a shining example of his skills as an orator, but that doesn't mean they were not historic. Minor as they may have seemed, this insertion into an unfolding situation represents a time when the president demonstrated personal bravery—a willingness to subject himself to the same criticism he's experienced during every racially tinged incident of the last decade. He didn't do much, but he did infinitely more than any president who came before him in terms of reacting to police overreach and a specific incidence of injustice.
There's a very good chance that, when those history books are finally written, this, this moment and others too awfully like it, will be the moments that define Barack Obama's presidency. This will be what people remember, even more than a healthcare plan. This will be where he retroactively earns that Peace Prize.
There are still many ways the situation could all go horribly wrong, and every actor involved seems intent on exploring them all. The Ferguson Police Department's incessant efforts to blame Michael Brown for his own death may stir anger that even the calmest hand on the tiller can't hold back. St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who has already spoken out to cheer on the hard line tactics of the local police, may choose to let the officer who shot Michael Brown walk away without even a trial to bring the details of the situation to light. Worst of all, Jay Nixon's basic political cowardice and total disregard for the African-American community may rocket this particular situation back to, and beyond, the tensions that existed when the president first spoke. Certainly, instituting a curfew represented a slap in the face to the community and to Captain Johnson.
Between Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson's attempts to imply a non-existent relationship between a robbery and Brown's shooting, and Nixon's tone-deaf curfew, Missouri authorities have done their best to roll back every step toward justice that had been made by Johnson, and by the many peaceful protesters on the ground. All the wounds inflicted on Ferguson may simply prove too deep to staunch quickly. Maybe a week from now we'll all forget that there even was a moment of hope. It's entirely possible, even likely, that Ferguson is in for a long, battering period of worsening conditions as local politicians and police forces reassert control and every effort is made to degrade the community.
But no matter what happens today or tomorrow, no matter what happens next week or next month, the national conversation has changed. The feeling has changed. A fresh wind is blowing. The people of America have shifted their views on the militarization of our police forces and the belligerence displayed by those police toward African-Americans. I don't believe that wind can be stopped.