The situation in Ferguson is a tragedy because the trust between law enforcement and the people has broken down. The officer may have been justified or not justified in his action, the boy may have been killed wrongfully or not, but either way it is clear that the people have no confidence in their law enforcement.
The problems in Ferguson sadly mirror problems that we have seen in places around our country:
a) Difference breeds distrust: 2/3 of the population of Ferguson are African American, but less than 10 percent of their police force is African American. In an ideal world this would mean nothing, but sadly our society is not post-racial. Racism still exists in corners that are more convenient to ignore. Because of this, any difference in racial representation breeds distrust.
b) Distrust leads to suspicion: If you believe that your police harbor racial animus against you, you will be likely to interpret any action they take as an attack. It is human nature. Yesterday I was sitting in the back of a vehicle without a seat-belt. I was holding back a pile of luggage and hadn’t thought to buckle up. I looked out of the window and saw a police officer in a patrol car. When the officer followed our vehicle, I began to panic. I was thinking about seat-belts and read my own situation into the officer’s interpretation. My reaction was entirely reasonable, but incorrect. I tell this story to say that it is not paranoid for the residents of Ferguson to see racism behind the actions of their police, even if to outsiders it seems confusing.
c) Suspicion leads to resistance: If an authority that you suspect of having a secret agenda against you tells you to submit, you would be crazy to fully comply. Issues like those in Ferguson cause more issues like themselves. More young men will resist arrest if they believe their local police authorities cannot be trusted. This means that more young men will be shot. This is a tragic circumstance that cannot be dismissed with easy slogans or simple solutions.
I have no idea what actually happened on that night, and I don’t claim to have the answers to solving America’s racial problems, but I do know that this is a problem of democracy and of representation. When people do not trust their authorities the situation can never heal itself. There ought to be a way for communities to appeal to the State to have their police department investigated and replaced by a special action. Police abuse has been a problem many societies, including our own, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
With that said, I’m not sure violent opposition is ever the right response to police abuse, real or imagined. As a Christian, I am convinced that the government is always preferable to anarchy and that God placed even the worst of governments over us. Romans 13 is fairly clear that we ought to submit to the government. It is even more serious in historical context: Paul was talking about the Roman Empire, which was not known for its commitment to democratic representation and respect for human rights! But regardless of this fact, I don’t hold it against the protesters that they resist. I cannot imagine the betrayal and distrust that they feel and ask that we respect their position.