Ferguson: The search for a way out

A Ferguson protester is carried away by police. Image copyright Getty Images

The fires of last autumn's racial protests were never fully extinguished in Ferguson, Missouri. They smouldered through the winter's frost, waiting for a spark to reignite.

That moment came on 4 March in the form of a US justice department report on the Ferguson judicial system, which painted a bleak picture of racial discrimination and excessive force in the police department and a court system more fixated on generating revenue for town coffers than in advancing public safety.

The report has led to the resignation of a handful of city officials so far, including municipal judge Ronald Brockmeyer, City Manager John Shaw, Court Clerk Mary Ann Twitty, and - on Wednesday - Police Chief Thomas Jackson.

If the resignations were thought to be cause for celebration among civil rights activists and protesters in Ferguson, that picture quickly changed. Following Mr Jackson's announcement protesters took to the streets. They clashed with police, and two officers were shot in the early hours of Thursday morning by an unknown assailant.

Given the nature of Wednesday night's violence, it's hard not to conclude that Ferguson is heading back to square one - with massive protests met with armed police.

It leaves government officials, protestors and observers with a set of familiar questions. What next? How can the cycle of violence be stopped? How can Ferguson - and, more broadly, racial unrest in the US - be fixed?

What the US Justice Department wants

Since the Justice Department report was the proximate cause of the latest unrest, it's useful to start with a closer look at the report's recommendations. After a long litany of offences on the part of Ferguson authorities, it outlines a set of steps that should be taken.

Both the court system and the police need to emphasise transparency and minimise the adversarial nature of the current relationship between town residents and authorities.

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The justice department calls for a fundamental change in the Ferguson police department's culture, through steps such as modifying the town's fines structure, court-issued arrest warrant practices, rules governing use of force and police complaint procedures. The town must focus on promoting public safety, rather than exercising authority simply because it can or because it generates more revenue.

The report calls for extensive training, reformed hiring procedures and greater oversight, both within the police department and by outside civilians.

These recommendations could be enforced by a lawsuit against Ferguson or a "consent degree" between the federal government and local officials - although that will require separate negotiations.

What the protesters want

Many of the protesters and activists quoted in the days following the justice department report were angered by the government's conclusion that officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in self defence and he would not face federal prosecution.

They viewed the government's recommendations of improved training, procedural reform and culture-changes as too much anodyne bureaucratic talk, and not enough action. They want the resignation of Mayor James Knowles and for the Ferguson Police Department to be disbanded.

Ava Muhammad, a student national spokesman for National of Islam leader, said that President Barack Obama should send in federal troops.

"It is unfortunate that President Obama appears to choose what is politically safe over what is right," she told the Final Call newspaper.

Rika Tyler, of the St Louis-based group Hands Up United added: "I need to see action. I need to see people fired, or just dismantle the whole Ferguson Police Department and other corrupt police departments as well."

Patricia Bynes, a local Ferguson Democratic politician, told the New York Times that counting on the police to enact internal reforms would be fruitless.

"I know that people in power do not have the courage, the boldness or the persistence to actually do the right thing," she said.

What commentators want

Many observers are echoing the view of protesters that the current round of resignations, and the Justice Department's recommendations, aren't enough.

CNN legal commentator Mark O'Mara says Wednesday night's demonstrations show that "the people of Ferguson have lost all confidence in their police department". He calls for mass resignations within the police force.

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"The department of justice has an opportunity to gut the Ferguson Police Department and rebuild it from scratch," he writes. "In fact, it's more than an opportunity: It's a necessity."

Jarvis DeBerry, writing for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, goes one step further. The entire town governance of Ferguson should be abolished.

"The report from the justice department suggests that one of Ferguson's primary functions is ticketing people who live, walk or drive through Ferguson," he writes.

"Ticket-collection appears to be Ferguson's reason for existence," he continues. "Ferguson has got it backwards: The town should exist to serve its people; the people shouldn't exist to serve the town."

There are dissenting views about the legitimacy of the justice department report, however, let alone calls for greater intervention.

In the conservative National Review, Peter Kirsanow blasts the justice department report as "sophomoric" and a "farce wrapped in a fraud, inside a sham".

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"The purported evidentiary capstone to the report's conclusion that the Ferguson PD engages in a pattern of racial discrimination is an almost juvenile reliance on disparate impact," he writes.

The Obama administration's goal, he says, is to "exert greater control over local police departments".

Connor Friedersdorf, a conservative commentator who writes for the Atlantic, counters that the National Review's coverage of the Justice Department is misguided. More leaders on the political right should be rallying to the cause of the Ferguson protestors

"Why haven't conservatives seized this opportunity to highlight government-caused damage and to show blacks, Ferguson's most frequently abused demographic, that the right is intent on protecting everyone's civil rights?" he asks.

Some movement conservatives, he says, are more focused on the racial aspect of the protests - and the fact that they have been championed by progressives - than they are on the well founded grievances of the town's citizens.