Life is said to be moving back to normal in Ferguson, Missouri, three weeks after an unarmed 18-year-old was shot to death by a police officer. Michael Brown has been buried. Shops closed in the wake of early looting are reopening. "I Love Ferguson" signs are popping up in front yards.
But the outward calm cannot mask the lingering pain of residents who felt failed not once but twice. First, by what many say are regular assaults on their civil liberties and freedom of movement. Second by the massive military response that made it seem as if police were at war with them.
On a visit to Ferguson last month, I saw people desperate for someone to know the indignities they say they experience regularly. Instead they got the National Guard and armored trucks in the Target shopping plaza. They got state and local police flooding the streets in riot gear like an occupying army, firing tear gas, and making arrests.
"This has been brewing in St. Louis County," said 24-year-old Cristian Santana, who was picketing by day on a downtown street across from the police and fire departments. "People just want a change," said Santana, who's Latino, a staff sergeant in the Army National Guard and a pre-med student who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite his exemplary record, he has been detained four times in St. Louis just for walking.
"They always said I looked suspicious," he said.
Brown was walking with a friend on a dead-end street in daylight when Officer Darren Wilson pulled up by them. The Ferguson police chief said they were blocking the street. Witnesses said Brown was fired at after running away from the police car, with his hands up in surrender. Wilson has told friends Brown was coming at him. An autopsy commissioned by Brown's family found he was shot six times.
Like all but three of the 53 Ferguson police officers, the shooter is white. Ferguson is 60 percent black. Tony Smith, a 41-year-old African-American landscaper from neighboring Berkeley, Missouri, told me he's been stopped for no reason while driving, and that an officer told him not to come through his town again. He said police "set up reasons to harass us."
Bishop Edwin Bass of the Church of God in Christ, who was there to help keep the peace, cited U.S. Justice Department statistics showing 86 percent of police stops, 92 percent of searches and 93 percent of arrests in Ferguson in a year were of black people.
"So many black males have been violated that their tolerance is really low," said Pastor Chris Harris of the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ in Illinois, there for the same reason.
In Ferguson, Michael Brown's death seems to have been a tipping point, and it isn't just minorities sounding the alarm. A white home-schooling parent named Sarah Shafer had taken her 7- and 10-year-old children to the daytime protest to show them "we don't support police brutality."
"As a white person, I have a responsibility to stand up and say, 'I am not cool with this at all, and you should not be either,'" she said of other "white people of privilege."
A police response was certainly needed after businesses were burned and Molotov cocktails were thrown at officers soon after Brown's shooting. But as the days wore on, the barricades and massive presence just exacerbated the tension. When the cause of unrest is a police action, the last way to quell it is pack an area with armored vehicles and officers with high-powered weapons.
After local and county police arrested reporters, Missouri's governor temporarily put the Highway Patrol in charge, but later limited their role to daytime. He may have done better not to, as highway police seemed genuinely interested in engaging with people along West Florissant, where nightly demonstrations took place. "We've sat here on the corner and talked about sports, politics, matters of art," said the highway patrol's affable Cpl. John Christensen.
As for nights, he said, "I've seen a lot of peaceful, lawful, constitutionally sound protests." The same few tend to get arrested every night, he said.
The inciters are believed to be mostly from out of town. Bass describes them as "anarchist, anti-establishment, racist." During a night protest, a man wearing a T-shirt with an obscenity against police was flaunting it in front of officers, ignoring appeals from a local peacekeeper not to provoke trouble. I asked the man why he was doing that. "They've messed with us for no reason," he said. "I want them to feel how I do."
He was out of line. But if authorities listened to the people I heard from, they would have realized what they're desperate for is to have their grievances heard and taken seriously. Instead, by the middle of that week, more than 160 people had been arrested, the majority for "refusal to disperse." An officer from St. Ann was suspended for pointing a semi-automatic weapon at a peaceful protester and threatening to kill him.
Just as our nation needs to learn how to use diplomacy rather than tanks to defuse tensions abroad, it needs to learn it at home.
There is reason for hope. People are reaching beyond class and race divisions to stand together. Even some business people whose stores were threatened have been profiled, and support the protests. Clergy and nonprofits are stepping up to answer needs and encourage civic engagement. The coverage is opening Americans' eyes to an overlooked crisis. From Republican Sen. Rand Paul to Democratic Attorney General Eric Holder, public officials are paying attention.
Whether or not a grand jury decides to charge Wilson next month, the momentum must be tapped. Ferguson police need more diversity and better outreach. Law-enforcement everywhere needs to put down their arms and focus on building trust.
Contact Rekha Basu at email@example.com.