Remember the Occupy movement, with all the encampments across the nation, populated by citizens taking on the 1 percent? At best, we have a vague recollection of them and their noble cause, which was to shame the country into doing something about the toxic inequality of our wealth. We took notice for a while, then lost interest as the media switched to others stories du jour. It wasn’t long before the authorities were able to sweep away their protest with nary a squeak in return from any of us, while also brushing off any hope for reform.
Let’s set aside for a moment the argument over whether the violence in and around Ferguson, Missouri, and disruptions around the country have any justification. Another question is, Will they accomplish anything or will the questions about police brutality — particularly toward minorities — be shoved out of the public’s consciousness by the next Malaysian Airlines, single-minded, simple-minded coverage.
The shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of a white cop, Darren Wilson, who admits he suffers no pangs of conscience, and the subsequent grand jury absurdity, which resulted in no indictment, has forced us to focus once again in this country on trigger-happy cops and anger from people of color about prejudiced mistreatment by the authorities.
As always, the victims of the destruction in and around Ferguson are largely innocent bystanders, struggling small-business people who have seen their lifetime work and dreams literally go up in flames. But in a larger sense, our society is victimized. The justified disgust at the thuggish destruction and dangerous behavior of a few troublemakers obscures the equally justified outrage at a law-enforcement system that is turning us into a heavily armored police state. Instead of “serve and protect,” for too many out-of-control officers, the watchwords are “intimidate and suppress.”
We can’t go on like this, not if we want to maintain a system that relies on the consent of the governed. If too many citizens conclude that they are being mistreated, they will withdraw their consent. We all have a stake in preventing that from happening. But even with the violence, the obvious needs for reform probably won’t be addressed. Soon Ferguson and the larger problem it represents will fade from memory, leaving just more residue of the distrust that defines our lives these days.
What can we trust? Equal protection under the law? Few believe in that any more than they accept the concept of fair economic opportunity in the United States. Can we bank on our public officials representing our interests? Certainly not when our political election system is so totally under the control of the big-moneyed few. Our education system is a mess; so is health care, and efforts to improve them are met with implacable resistance. How about in the private sector? Can we rely on products we buy to be what we’re told they are? Of course not.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t include media in the list of broken promises. Those dedicated to the reporting that holds our institutions accountable face their biggest obstacles erected by those who own and manage their newspapers, TV and radio networks, etc. The mission is impeded by the corporate operators who place profits above any semblance of journalism. So many of those who these days are sent out to cover the news are sadly unqualified showbiz blusterers.
Information-seekers are frustrated at nearly every turn. So we’re susceptible to rumormongering and the demagogic politicians who operate in a vacuum and have no regard whatsoever for facts or context.
Meanwhile, we deteriorate. Those on the right blame the current president; those on the left blame the unyielding opposition. Both are correct, but let’s face it: The blame is really on all of us. By refusing to stick with demands for needed change, we’re giving up on our country.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.