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Familiar Events

The sequence of events follows a depressingly familiar course.    

A white police officer shoots dead a black youth, setting off a wave of riots, vandalism and looting.  A grand jury is convened, resulting in a decision months later that the officer should not face criminal charges.  Renewed street violence erupts.  Troublemakers move in.  Tear gas canisters are fired.  Underlying tensions between a predominantly black community and a predominantly white police force emerge.  There are calls for an enquiry.  The violence recedes, replaced by an uneasy calm.  The incident then fades from memory.

Until the next one.   

The situation described could be applied (minus the grand jury, of course) to Tottenham, a district in north London, or any Paris suburb populated largely by North Africans. 

As it happens, the one in the news today occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, where a white police office, Darren Wilson, last August shot dead a black robbery suspect, Michael Brown.  The rioting, arson and looting that followed the original incident were renewed yesterday after a grand jury announced that it had no grounds to indict Wilson.  The jury, one feels bound to mention for the record, comprised nine whites and three blacks.

The local prosecutor defended the decision by citing conflicting evidence from eye witnesses – all black, I’m guessing – some of whom said Brown approached the police officer with his hands raised, others that he advanced in a menacing fashion, or in Wilson’s word ‘charged at’ him.   

In all these incidents, as in war, the truth is always the first casualty, either because the events are unclear or because agitators stir up the mob.  And I suppose one must add, sometimes because the police are trying to protect their own.  Whatever the facts – these usually being relegated to irrelevance – the black community rallies round the victim’s family, claiming the use of excessive force by the police.  And the law enforcement community counters that the ‘victim’ had been acting suspiciously and, when confronted, turned aggressive.  The black community complains that the police are racists.  The police say they are doing their job to protect all citizens.

The troubles on the streets of Ferguson may or may not spread to other cities.  There were demonstrations last night in Los Angeles and New York, mostly peaceful.  President Obama naturally appealed for calm.  If there are to be further disturbances, tonight will be the flashpoint.

A recurrence in London is not out of the question either.  Tottenham may have got a grip.  But there are plenty of other potentialities for urban upheavals. 

After each violent outbreak, both ‘sides’ – the quotation marks are sad but necessary – exchange the same old accusations and denials.  And then, no sooner has the furore died down than, suddenly, nothing happens.  

Social liberals (this writer included) tend to try to explain the notion of an oppressed community, rightly resentful over police stop-and-search tactics.  Social conservatives, with equal predictability, uphold the honour of the police, blaming rowdy elements on the streets for the problem.

The fact is that most of us on the sideline haven’t the foggiest idea what the problem is, let alone the solution.  But neither, it seems, do the police, or the community leaders, or the government.  It may be that they are too busy deploying the maximum number of platitudes designed to produce the minimum amount of effect.

A British enquiry a year or so back called the Metropolitan Police institutionally racist.  Is it?  And if it is, what has been done about it?  Other than a few gestures for the public relations people to peddle, I suspect nothing.  Is the Ferguson Police Department institutionally racist, too?  The residents seem to think so.    

It’s at this point in the discussion when statistics are produced showing how few ‘minority’ police officers are on the force, and how few have been hired since the last urban eruption.  “We’re trying to do something,” say the police.  And then the same nothing happens all over again.

It’s all redolent of the never-ending controversy over gun control.  Every couple of years – usually after a shooting incident at a school – both sides in the debate line up their arguments, engage in fiery exchanges of bile, and then sink back exhausted when nothing happens.

On both sides of the Atlantic we seem fated to live in a society that, in terms of community relations at least, is comfortably resigned to the miserable status quo. 

We experience everything but learn nothing.

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