What lit the match in Ferguson, Mo.


August 12, 2014 5:06PM

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Updated: August 13, 2014 9:25AM

Michael Brown’s mother is a remarkable woman.

So remarkable, in fact, that just 48 hours after her unarmed 18-year-old son was killed by a police officer in a St. Louis suburb, she called for calm.

In the aftermath of Lesley McSpadden’s son’s shooting, rioting and looting erupted into the night Sunday in Ferguson, a struggling, mostly black suburb that is patrolled by a mostly white police department, an arrangement ripe for conflict. Michael Brown was black.

The protests and rioting continued, to a lesser degree, on Monday, when McSpadden, visibly shaken, stood before a microphone and called on her enraged neighbors not to resort to violence.

“Instead of celebrating, we gotta plan a funeral,” she said through tears, talking about how her son was set to begin a vocational college program this week. “We are going to do this right. We don’t want no violence.”

Michael, described as a “gentle giant” by his high school teachers, “wouldn’t have wanted violence,” his mother said.

Michael was walking in the street Saturday afternoon with a friend when they were stopped by police and an altercation followed. Local authorities say a police officer shot Brown after the teen attacked the Ferguson officer. But witnesses, including the friend with Brown, say the officer shot Brown multiple times while he had his hands in the air.

Local authorities are investigating, as are the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. With racial tensions burning and so many legitimate questions unanswered, it is hard not to jump to conclusions. But Ferguson, and a watching nation, must wait for the results of a thorough review, which we hope will include a broader look at how to properly staff a racially integrated police department and avoid possible racial profiling.

President Obama echoed that sentiment on Tuesday, “As details unfold, I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding. We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

In the meantime, the protests in Ferguson continue, as they should, but may they be only peaceful ones. The Ferguson Police chief on Tuesday said his office had received death threats against his officers.

“To sneak around under the cover of darkness, to steal, to loot, to burn down your neighborhood — this does not require courage,” Cornell William Brooks, president of the National NAACP, said. “Courage is when you strive for justice.”

The kind of violence that erupted in Ferguson after Brown’s death, including the torching of a local mini-mart, is grossly wrong, but it does not come out of thin air. As in Sanford, Florida, where another black teen, Trayvon Martin, was killed in a racially charged confrontation, Brown’s death is shocking, but not utterly surprising.

“The bleeding began long before Michael Brown,” a local pastor, Traci Blackmon, told a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter at a vigil Sunday night. She was circulating a petition seeking a dialogue with local officials.

“We come in peace,” Blackmon said. “But we are angry and in need of action and answers.”

The urban and racial despair to be found in Ferguson and elsewhere across the country cannot be denied or ignored. We must arrest the looters, yes, and punish the arsonists. But we dare not reduce the causes of the rioting in Ferguson to a simple-minded crime story — good guys versus bad.

If we are honest, we know better than that.

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