Communication, not mob mentality, will sort out Ferguson protests

Posted on Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 11:18 am

It was reported Monday by Andrea Peterson of the Washington Post that the city of Ferguson had hired a Chesterfield public relations firm that specializes in crisis management. We tried contacting the firm to verify this, but no one answered the phone. As metaphors for the communications issues that have characterized the protests in Ferguson, this works very nicely.

As the 10th night of protests approached, a few things had sorted themselves out. More remain unsorted.

The family of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old whose death at the hands of a Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9 sparked the protests, has hired lawyers. Mr. Wilson apparently has hired lawyers. Three autopsies have been performed, none of which appear to conclusively support initial eyewitness testimony on either side.

The Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments, which could not have bungled communications worse if they’d tried, were relieved of overall command by Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol. For a couple of days, Capt. Johnson talked to everyone, leaving no doubt who was in charge.

After Sunday night, when protesters made a move on the police command center, Gov. Jay Nixon activated the National Guard to protect the command center, apparently surprising Capt. Johnson. As Monday evening began, Capt. Johnson was still in charge on the streets, which had been ordered cleared, but the Guard was in charge at the command center.

For all the uncertainty on the law enforcement side, there was more on the protesters’ side. The pastors and local activists who played a leading role in the first days of the insurgency, appeared to have no control over certain more aggressive elements in the crowd.

These awful events will not be calmed until leaders emerge, on both sides, and communicate clearly, among themselves, among each other and to the public. Law enforcement should speak with one, clear voice. It must engage on social media, where it is being creamed in the info-wars. It must treat reporters fairly. In return, reporters should respect lawful orders, as they would if they were embedded in a war zone. People are frightened, and frightened people sometimes make bad decisions.

On the other side, protesters should consider who they are following, and for what purpose. Mob mentality is not just a figure of speech. There are people in this crowd who are there to create trouble, not solve problems.

If progress is going to be made in dealing with very real issues facing Ferguson and St. Louis, responsible leaders must step forward and be heard.

-St. Louis (Missouri) Post-Dispatch

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