City on a Hill: Marion in Ferguson

December 4, 2014

If death marks the beginning of legacy, Washington, D.C.’s so-called “Mayor for Life,” Marion Barry Jr., started strong.

Despite a controversial career marred by crack-smoking and womanizing, the four-term mayor and Ward 8 council member was memorialized by the Washington Post after his death on Sunday, Nov. 23 for helping alleviate District poverty. Barry’s handling of racial inequality was likewise eulogized by current mayor Vincent Gray in Time on Monday. A public memorial service is set for Saturday.

But while D.C. was always Barry’s home turf, nowhere in America today needs the lessons of his legacy more than Ferguson, Mo.

Just three days after Barry’s death, the Aug. 9 shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson reignited public fervor after a grand jury decided against criminally charging Wilson. In response, punditry, protests, and posts inundated screens, streets, and social networks nationwide. In D.C., thousands demonstrated from Mount Vernon Square to the National Mall.

The problem of Ferguson is partly one of narrative. Evidence hasn’t yet adequately explained the events of Aug. 9. Under Missouri law, Wilson built a case for acting in self-defense. Brown’s autopsy seems to support Wilson’s story about an altercation through the window of his cruiser, albeit inconclusively. And although Wilson’s account of being verbally taunted and charged by Brown seems unbelievable, nothing directly contradicts it.

Absent truth, understanding Ferguson means abstracting away to the deeper narratives that underlie the long national history of violence between minorities and police. Activist anger incited by the verdict, biologically unsustainable and sociologically fleeting, won’t create change. Neither will social media, which radicalizes discourse by ignoring complications, counter narratives, and countervailing evidence. Pundits, protesters, and outrage aren’t enough. Ferguson is a structural problem that demands actionable solutions. Barry’s legacy suggests several potential courses of action.

One is restricting police behavior, increasing minority representation among officers, and curbing the disproportionate targeting of blacks. Before running for office, Barry advocated for improved relations between D.C. citizens and police. On Aug. 25 of this year, he tweeted about a continued need to reform police departments nationwide. Barry’s activism has, in part, yielded Ferguson demonstrations that have faced little opposition from District police, increased minority representation among police, and helped create a pilot program requiring District cops to wear body cameras. Post-Ferguson, support for such programs is growing. Lobbying local governments will only quicken the pace.

Barry’s legacy also illustrates that Ferguson’s problem isn’t just racial—rather, as David Brooks argued Monday in the New York Times, it’s socioeconomic. Brown was killed in August in a poor neighborhood overrun by gang violence. During his first mayoral term, Barry upped the number of businesses owned by black middle class citizens and created summer employment programs for youth. On Aug. 25, 2014, he tweeted a shared “responsibility to build hope among our young people—and develop jobs and programs that deter our youth from a life of crime.” Beyond addressing racial divides, solving Ferguson requires willfully revitalizing America’s squeezed middle and working classes.

Barry’s bureaucratic ties also prove the system isn’t broken—it just needs redirection. As a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee volunteer during the 1960s, Barry collaborated with local government to lobby, mobilize, and demonstrate. He later won election to the D.C. school board. With just five St. Louis public high schools educating a majority of their students to Algebra and English proficiency, and with Normandy High—Brown’s alma mater—regularly graduating less than half its senior class, education reform must spearhead addressing the inequities that make Ferguson. But it’s also worth remembering that the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation and that collaboration between the federal government and civil rights activists birthed the 1965 Civil Rights Act. The system has been a reliable partner in the past, and can produce beneficial change when enlisted.

Finally, Barry’s electoral legacy demonstrates that Ferguson’s problems cannot remain balkanized to urban minority populations. “Self-segregation,” according to a recent Atlantic article, breeds ignorance of the disadvantages suffered by minority communities. Barry’s first mayoral run relied on upper-middle-class whites, good-government advocates, and, later, LGBT constituents alongside black voters. Overcoming apathy will require embracing Ferguson as our common heartache.

But Ferguson is also no isolated case. The police shooting of black 12-year-old Tamir Rice on Nov. 22 in Cleveland incited national outrage. A grand jury decision exonerating a New York City cop who killed black man Eric Garner via chokehold in July prompted a federal Justice Department inquest last night.

The problem—longstanding, complex, and deeply rooted—continues to demand systemic and far-reaching solutions. The city Barry helped create exemplifies some of these solutions in action—imperfect but engaged, much like its Mayor for Life himself. But progress also betrays tragedy. Nearly half a century after Barry arrived in Washington and despite solutions enacted piecemeal, the same racial and socioeconomic issues still bisect American society. And if death marks the beginning of legacy, Brown’s challenges us to choose ours purposefully.


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