Russ Jones | ReligionToday.com Contributor | Tuesday, August 19, 2014
The St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri has attracted the attention of the world in the recent shooting and death of unarmed Michael Brown by a Ferguson Police officer Saturday, August 9.
Officer Darren Wilson reportedly fatally shot Brown just minutes after he allegedly robbed a convenience store stealing a box of Swisher Sweets cigars in a strong-arm robbery.
Since the shooting of the 18-year-old African American teenager, Ferguson has been the scene of Molotov cocktails, rioting, looting, and intense protests.
These scenes reminiscent of the race riots of the 60s and 70s in cities throughout the U.S., have many exasperated with the media circus and pondering what is at the core of the crisis.
1. Has media coverage contributed to violence in Ferguson?
For the past week networks like MSNBC, Fox News and CNN have camped out in Ferguson producing non-stop coverage. While some claim police behavior is behind the violence, others contend many mainstream news outlets are not only working hard to establish a narrative that isn’t balanced, but are seeking to try the case in the public square.
The Washington D.C.-based Media Research Center claims the media has created a narrative that the U.S. is a racist nation and its coverage feeds that storyline.
“We don’t have a news business in the United States,” said Tim Graham, MRC's director of media analysis. “We have a narrative business.”
Since the Ferguson Police Department released the identity of the officer who shot Brown, Darren Wilson, a white law enforcement officer, has been under attack.
CNN featured a report in front of Wilson’s home virtually identifying his address, The Washington Post named the street where Wilson lives and USA Today also named the community.
In its 5 p.m. newscast August 15, St. Louis television station KSDK showed video footage of the police officer's home. The NBC affiliated owned by Gannett, Co. Inc. issued an apology on Facebook.
“Yesterday KSDK showed the video of the Ferguson Police Officer’s home in our 5 p.m. news but did not mention the address of the home. KSDK immediately felt using that video was a mistake and pulled the video of the home from future newscasts and from our web site. We have not used the video since then and do not intend to do so. We apologize to our audience, to the surrounding neighborhoods, to the greater St. Louis community and to the officer for our mistake.”
2. What is the role of Black activists like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson?
Members of the Project 21 black leadership network, some of whom are St. Louis residents and eyewitnesses to the unfolding controversy, are speaking out about continuing protests that have resulted in dozens of arrests.
Christopher Arps, co-founder of Move-On-Up.org and member of Project 21, says the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, are like putting fuel on a bonfire.
“We have a very strong and diverse clergy presence in St. Louis,” said Arps. “We really didn’t need Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson here.”
While there has been rioting in the late hours of the night since the shooting, Arps doesn’t believe it was a coincidence that violence broke out in the streets much early the same day Sharpton delivered a fiery speech.
“I believe his comments insight the riots we saw that night,” Arps said.
Arps maintains that what happened to Michael Brown is a tragedy and that cooler heads should now prevail until the investigation is complete.
“This tense situation does not need outside agitators swooping in fanning the flames of an already tense situation.”
3. What is causing the rioting?
Following seven days of chaos, Democratic Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon lifted the nighttime curfew and deployed the Missouri National Guard to help contain civil unrest in Ferguson.
Some call the deployment an overreach of power or an attempted to squelch the freedom of speech rights of protestors, as contributing factors to the violence. Others go as far to say that Ferguson is “occupied” by law enforcement.
“Although Michael’s death is sad and unfortunate, the emerging facts support the police’s version of the situation,” said Dr. Carol Swain, professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University. “By all accounts, the community’s response has been unreasonable and more importantly, unproductive for black people in America.”
Swain, who is also host of “Be the People,” contends national black leaders have failed the people of Ferguson.
“Black communities need leaders who know God and can inspire hope and change among the people, rather than fuel the nihilism that presently exists,” said Swain.
Protesters were heavily outnumbered Tuesday evening when law enforcement officers fired tear gas and stun grenades to help maintain peace. At one point, officials estimate police and media combined outnumbered protesters.
Importantly, police reports find that outside provocateurs represent a majority of those trying to push police to violence, while most Ferguson residents are peacefully protesting.
Others point to a demographic shift in the community that’s given rise to the rioting.
Ferguson, a town of about 20,000, can best be described as a community in transition. In 1970, Ferguson was 99% white, but now the St. Louis suburb is 67% black.
Out of a police force of 50, only 3 are black.
In recent days, some commentators say this unbalance of diversity has caused a racial divide in the community.
4. Who is Darren Wilson?
The 28-year-old police officer lives in Crestwood, a neighboring town of Ferguson, but has been in hiding since his identity was released. Earlier in the year he was awarded a commendation for his “extraordinary effort in the line of duty.”
While much has been reported about Michael Brown and the riots in Ferguson, little has been reported about Officer Darren Wilson.
At a rally that received little media attention, over 100 people gathered in support of Officer Wilson.
In less than a week, a Facebook page entitled “I Support Officer Wilson” has grown to over 36,000 “Likes.”
On the crowdfunding site GoFundMe.com, Wilson supporters have raised over $30,000 for his family’s financial needs, including legal fees.
5. How is the Church responding?
Local religious leaders have been actively engaged in outreach efforts since problems began in Ferguson.
At various times local religious leaders have attempted to disperse unruly crowds.
Five-years-ago, Joe Costephens launched The Passage Church that borders two St. Louis area suburbs, including Ferguson.
Costephens has organized various evangelical churches that have been cleaning ravaged streets filled with rubbish created by rioters.
“Our goal is to be there for people without taking sides,” said Costephens. “I’m trying to save my own judgment until more is known.”
The Passage congregation consists of a diverse group of parishioners, some who grew up in the streets and others who are highly educated. They’ve taken to the streets seeking to deliver a message of peace and racial healing.
“The community is coming together, but that’s not being reported,” said Costephens. “The camera’s are missing people being neighborly.”
Area pastors are also leading a campaign to encourage people to shop and eat in Ferguson this week.
“Let’s show this greater part of our St. Louis community that we love them.”
Costephens explains that the people of Ferguson need hope and reconciliation
“The root issue of everything we are seeing is sin and I would dare say pride,” adds Costephens. “Always needing to be right, opposed to coming before one another seeking forgiveness and figure out ways to unite through this situation.”
Russ Jones is co-founder of Christian News Service, a content creation and news distribution firm. He's also a media consultant to a number of cause oriented campaigns and organizations. Russ has been a guest on such programs as the Mike Gallagher Show, the Dennis Prager Show, Bill Martinez Live and Sandy Rios in the Morning. He holds degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master’s degree from St. Paul School of Theology. He is married to Jackie and together they have four children.
Publication date: August 19, 2014