Watching Ferguson, Furious, From 1,000 Miles Away

Central Park, this weekend, felt like a painting to me. Here were all these kids, many of them rich as kings, running around carefree while the situation in Ferguson, Mo., tightened like a fist. I'm thinking specifically of "Landscape With The Fall of Icarus," of course, about which there's this famous poem:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along...

Oblivion has not been the only option for those of us outside Missouri, though. More than a few have been eating and opening windows and walking dully along for the last week while thinking of nothing but Ferguson. In fact, if you are a journalist or a writer you might have spent a lot of your time fighting with your editors to let you go to Missouri and see things for yourself, because observing feels like doing something, because the act of bearing witness holds out the promise of some effect. A tiny one. But it would be something.

What most of us can do, though, is barely above nothing, meaning that we can hang out on social media feeds and hope not too many of our friends are retreating to the comforting envelope of whatever this ice bucket stuff is. And we can yell, rather ineffectually and mostly by way of pixels, for someone to do something, anything.

The "someones" we have in mind are politicians, obviously. But the politicians, too, seem to be feeling helpless. They seem to spend a lot of time doing not much of anything other than watching the chaos themselves. Mostly, they issue statements, and seem to hope that since those statements are longer than tweets, they will somehow have a greater impact. Then authorities seem to throw their hands up in the air about the greater issues. They refer to "peace and justice" in these press releases; they just haven't anything of practical value to say about them.

Of course, action has its perils. It is not even that reassuring that the governor of Missouri finally called in the National Guard today. More policing, more force, more restrictions aren't likely to calm anyone down. But what is likely to calm things down, what leadership could be doing, is implementing the sort of small, practical steps that will give any further investigation of Michael Brown's death the credibility it absolutely needs. There are practical ways to make this all look a little less like, as a friend put it, "using a police coup to hide a murder." Suggestions include: appointing an outside Special Prosecutor, releasing the incident report from the Brown killing proper, revealing where exactly Darren Wilson is and why he hasn't been charged yet. (There is a preliminary report of a grand jury hearing, but it won't meet until Wednesday.)

When authorities can't get their act together to do such small, obvious things, it is very hard to have faith that we will see any movement on the larger issues this crisis raises about race and police brutality in America.

A lot of people hoped those larger issues would be the topic President Obama would speak on at his press conference this afternoon. Instead he simply said he'd send the Attorney-General, Eric Holder, to Ferguson to oversee an independent federal investigation by the FBI and the DoJ. Obama demurred on making too many pronouncements about Michael Brown's particularly, because he said it was important that he avoid "pre-judging events." He seemed tired and distracted as he said these things, taking long pauses between words.

He seemed, in a word, to be feeling helpless too.

The vacuum of faith in government that the crisis in Ferguson has revealed isn't new. Anyone who has followed any kind of criminal justice reform news for the last twenty years has seen it before. The refrain from everyone between Michelle Alexander and Rand friggin' Paul is that the system is set up to unduly target black people. It is practically spray-painted on the Washington Monument at this point. But infuriatingly, the people who are the most delicate about saying that, the most queasy about incorporating it into their policy decisions right now, are exactly the people who have the power to do the things that might end this.

In short, the only good news at this point is that people still have a sense of humor about the lack of leadership, even if the punchlines depend on hopelessness:

A few more nights of tear gas and rubber bullets, and I bet all remaining wit will dry up, too.

[Photos by Getty and Shutterstock; beautiful melding of two by Jim Cooke.]