Police in riot gear and armored vehicles confronting a couple hundred angry suburbanites was unthinkable until a few days ago. The ordinary middle-class people of Ferguson, Mo., turn out to be mostly black, protesting ongoing harassment after a police killing of an unarmed young man. The unrest brought back images of law-enforcement clashing with black citizens that stretch back to the big-city riots of the civil-rights era.
All of which is very confusing — I almost expected to see protestors wearing aprons and wielding barbecue tongs. The American Dream suburb was created as a refuge from the nasty city with its brutal economics and its clashes of incomes and race. For those paying attention, however, the city long ago came to the cul de sacs, and older, middle-class suburbs have not desegregated as much as suburbanized segregation.
Grievances Without Resolution
Fifty years after the great civil rights battles were fought and seemingly won, black citizens violently reacting to white police overreach continues to be a recurrent theme. The senseless persistence of looting and teargas in Ferguson seems to echo so much of what’s going on the in the world, where grievances are real while the barriers to conflict resolution seem insurmountable. The proximate cause of unrest in Ferguson is fixable, but America seems to have little appetite to address the underlying big issues. The anger of young men at bleak job prospects and declining wages did not cause the Ferguson eruption, but it certainly feeds it.
Congress has gone home to campaign in mid-term elections without addressing the struggling American economy—again. They argue over the same feeble nostrums, then leave.
Diminished Insight, Abundant Weaponry
The world, too, seems embroiled in conflict, with the same old issues argued with ever-diminishing insight but ever more abundant weaponry. It turns out the military style of confrontation in Ferguson was underwritten by a taxpayer-financed giveaway of surplus war-fighting hardware. As we watch with alarm the confrontation of largely peaceful and unarmed citizens with overwhelming force, we would be wise to think about populations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Gaza, Turkey, Ukraine, and sub-Saharan Africa—I probably missed a few hot spots—where the same menacing weaponry threatens innocent people in far more deadly ways.
Hawks argue that America must more forcefully crush forces of undisputed evil in the world. President Obama, aware that military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have largely failed to bring peace or political stability, uses force cautiously and reactively, which seems to leave a power vacuum that enables innocent people all over the world to become victims of well-armed, power-grabbing, fanaticism-fueled militant insurgencies. American citizens, reasonably, see no winning strategy in either approach.
Weaponized Winning of Hearts and Minds
What unites Ferguson and, say, Iraq, is the lack of a strategy to fix the underlying issues. America’s post-9/11 strategy relied on the military to avenge a political act and then to secure the peace. Soldiers were expected to emerge from their fortified bases, walk the streets and engage with people to win “hearts and minds,” even though they were not trained for such an enormous task, had little local knowledge, and didn’t speak the language. Military force was supposed to set the table for the creation of functioning democratic institutions and a stable economy. But America has never created an aid infrastructure to develop local institutions and economies, and many politicians object to what they call paternalistic American-led “nation building.”
Of course, we can’t establish democratic institutions and functioning economies abroad if we haven’t learned to do it at home. Is our scandalously dysfunctional Congress a beacon of hope for anyone? We fight over political abstractions like “entitlements” and “safety nets” and discuss too little the mechanisms that would lift incomes for ordinary people (a higher minimum wage is a tool, not a strategy) and make buying a residence, for example, a modestly wealth-building investment for ordinary people as it once was, instead of a Sisyphean feat, requiring 20 percent down, perfect credit, or a wealth-destroying subprime interest rate. We don’t have a functioning transportation strategy. Education battles often take on worthy issues, but end up in stalemate—a stalemate that tends to further disadvantage the worst-off communities, where the basics of a decent education by anyone’s measure—like school texts—are still in short supply and where districts close schools for lack of funds, not lack of students.
Cities of Stalemate
If America’s influence is declining in the world it is because it is no longer a can-do nation. It’s a nation of stalemate, of the outsize power of concentrated wealth, and a nation where too many bark “no” before the question is fully asked. In what sense is that an America worth admiring or emulating? In a nation that jails black men rather than employing them, what moral authority can we wield? Ferguson’s failures are regrettably a metaphor for all of our failures, and the consequences ripple well beyond the borders of St. Louis County.