In 2012, the Lord blessed my family and me when we relocated to St. Louis, Missouri. More specifically, I accepted the role of minister at the Ferguson Heights church of Christ in suburban Ferguson, Missouri. At that time neither friends nor family had any familiarity with this small town of 6 square miles and less than twenty-five thousand people. Therefore, we just said we were moving to St. Louis because that provided a better frame of reference than mentioning this seemingly insignificant town.
Fast-forward to the horrific events of August 2014 and this previously obscure town now stands center-stage at the world’s attention. Ferguson is now infamous for the events involving the shooting death of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. Once a quiet town in north St. Louis County, Ferguson is now a topic of conversation that is discussed nationally and internationally. Politicians, sociologists, educators, and religious leaders will discuss this history-making event for decades to come. Why? Trying to answer that question only validates the need for so many people around the world to continue to discuss, debate and dialogue about this drama in human history. I am, however, inclined to believe that many distant observers wrongly view Ferguson as an anomaly to human affairs as opposed to a representation of systemic problems in America that were dramatized by this one event (John 16:33).
Amazingly, people from far places question the political and social landscape in Ferguson in hopes of understanding how one person’s death divided a nation. Their queries seem to infer that there must be some situational factors unique to this geographical area that made it a hotbed for confusion. Somehow the social unrest must be uniquely defined by the “DNA” of a town that is so unlike other cities that it could only happen here. As a result, we have been inundated with phone calls, letters, and even financial support offering to help with the crisis. While we appreciate the compassionate concern, it should be noted that what happened here could potentially happen anywhere. Therefore, the best way to help is really for concerned citizens to look within the boundaries of their own communities and address the social and political problems that negatively impact those communities. Though a map may suggest that you live miles away from here, you may be closer to Ferguson than you realize. You are close because of the interrelatedness all humans share (Luke 10:25-37).
Even though the media immediately referenced this shooting as that of a white officer killing an unarmed black male, we must not allow ourselves to be misinformed about the greater concerns before us. I would suggest that we view this as an issue of humanity and not simply that of race. Because I was not present when Officer Wilson engaged Michael Brown, I cannot speculate as to what really happened (Matthew 7:1-5). I never interviewed a witness or examined any evidence. Therefore, fairness states that I cannot form a definitive conclusion based solely on the media, popular opinion, or my emotions. What I can offer is an assessment of actual matters related to the outburst of anger that were displayed in hopes of giving a more objective perspective about why things unfolded the way they did. This will also help to illustrate the volatility in human relations in places far removed from where I am (2 Timothy 3:1-3).
Anywhere you have groups of people who differ along the lines of any significant socioeconomic factors, the probability for problems greatly increases as those differences between subgroups become more apparent. Unless those who are perceived to have the advantage exercise some reasonable concern for the underprivileged, tensions will simmer (Matthew 22:37-39). As long as tensions simmer, people may assume that all is well because the simmer itself may not be as readily seen or understood as in the case of something actually boiling over. However, as events here have shown the simmer will soon boil over when an unplanned event ignites an atmosphere already possessing the explosive combination of anger, bitterness, confusion, frustration, and hopelessness.
Initially, it must be noted that local residents have been greatly discouraged by socio-economic factors that have adversely affected residents solely along the lines of zip code. For example, economic disparity, inferior schools, lack of access to opportunities, lack of proximity to resources, and related matters have brought tensions here long before the shooting in 2014. Many residents feel hopeless in light of the fact that St. Louis has some of the best and worst schools in the nation. How is it that one school district soars academically and just a few short miles away schools have lost their accreditation due to continued failure to maintain acceptable academic standards? Is it fair that companies relocated from these areas and now towns and villages raise operational revenue by writing an excessive number of traffic tickets, fines, and ordinance violations on its residents who are already economically disadvantaged? This last matter has been such an egregious act that the state is now investigating and sanctioning municipalities for unfair practices with regards to the percentage of municipality revenues from fines, fees, and ordinance violations.
Are any of these aforementioned concerns unique to Ferguson? Are these concerns exposed here just because of recent media attention? If so, how close you are to Ferguson may be a matter of how likely some of these types of problems exist in your own communities. Furthermore, the crisis here exposes an undeniable problem in how we tend to address problems in this country. Both citizens and the government tend to address things from the standpoint of a reaction to something as opposed to proactively preventing problems in the first place. As an example, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers warned local officials that the levees in New Orleans could not withstand a strong hurricane prior to Katrina. The government knew that the I-35 bridge in Minnesota was “structurally deficient” years before the 2007 bridge collapse that claimed precious lives. In like manner, socio- economic disparity, racial tensions, and hostility between the police and community were well evident in Missouri before Ferguson garnered the attention of the world. In none of these cases were things done to prevent problems. Instead, each instance represents an example of countless others where preventative measures could have been taken to minimize a catastrophe. Yet, nothing was done until something absolutely had to be done. How far you live from Ferguson may simply be a matter of how likely it is that real concerns of human existence are being suppressed until such a time that what once was a warning has given away to wreaked havoc.
In consideration of these problems, it is important to know my continued emphasis on humanity and socio-economic differences as opposed to race. Even though the Ferguson crisis has been deemed a race problem, mainly by the media and those not close enough to the crisis to know differently, it actually is bigger than race. What the world did not see is the outrage that a considerable number of whites had about the socio-economic factors prior to the shooting. As well, the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death did engage a considerable number of whites in protests, marches, and calls for improvement in the living conditions of all humans here. Just as well, I know a number of blacks who purposefully distanced themselves from even appearing to agree with the popular racial position about the shooting and in no way wanted to appear to join with others in protesting, marching, or speaking out about this crisis. Thus, the real view here has not simply been seen through the lenses of race, but rather seen through the lenses of humanity and how to address factors that unfairly help or hurt sub-groups beyond race.
Finally, I am aware that readers may not have ever visited Ferguson, Missouri. I do not believe the media and pop culture have given the most accurate view of things here. What’s really important is to understand how socioeconomic differences within sub-groups make any area volatile. The best way to help Ferguson is to prevent what happened here from happening in your community. Get involved proactively to help improve conditions for the human race before you have to react to problems that are dramatized on the world stage. Challenge and support your religious and civic leaders to ensure fairness, justice, and equality for all people (Matthew 25:31-46; James 1:27). Remember, it only takes one event to make your town the next Ferguson.
By Conley Gibbs, Jr.
This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Think magazine. To subscribe or learn more, click on the tab at the top of the page.