Ferguson, Missouri, is not going gentle. Since August 9, when unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson, the town’s outrage has built into a sea of cardboard signs and raised fists. Citizens have prayed and pillaged, some justice seekers and some “violent opportunists,” as a local official tweeted. The police response was reportedly heavy from the beginning and has ranged from smoke bombs and tear gas to mace and rubber bullets. Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency, imposed and then lifted a curfew, and finally called in the National Guard. In an interview with CNN, Nixon said the community’s feelings are “raw and appropriate.”
“This was a horrific shooting,” he said. “We’re not to justice yet ...”
The FBI is investigating, and a grand jury began hearing evidence this week, giving protestors a reason to take a breath. Some of them must be thinking back to 1992, when the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King were acquitted. Riots broke out in LA and spilled over into Las Vegas, where a few miles from the Strip stores were looted and burned, and responding law enforcement was met with gunfire. The violence went on for weeks, and property damage totaled $6 million.
Nothing on that scale has happened since, not even in response to a “particularly troubling” case mentioned in the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2012 review (part of a collaborative reform) of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s use of deadly force. In that 2010 incident, Trevon Cole was unarmed and kneeling in his bathroom when he was shot to death by a police rifle during a raid. It stemmed from Cole’s reported sale of a small amount of marijuana to undercover officers, though the affidavit for Metro’s search warrant included a false criminal history for Cole that confused him with another man of the same name. He had “no record of violence.” He was 21.
The DA didn’t file criminal charges, and the homicide was ruled justifiable by the jury on a coroner’s inquest and by Metro’s internal review board (Cole’s family received a settlement of $1.7 million after filing a lawsuit against the department). There were protests, but they didn’t escalate the way the situation in Ferguson has. Reports depict longstanding conflict and mishandling by authorities in the St. Louis suburb, but the cries for justice come from common emotions. Why weren’t Las Vegans as outraged over Cole?
It’s hard to say what makes a community snap. On Wikipedia’s list of “incidents of civil unrest in the United States,” New York City has 25. Chicago has 16. LA has 11. Las Vegas has two—both about race. Locals have demonstrated plenty, but the lid stays on. It’s lack of community, some say, lack of care. I don’t think so. What’s happening in Ferguson is a release of pressure that’s so much bigger than that town, or any town. Tension around race is always boiling under the surface, and some tragedies make the entire country look. If we all rioted every time we saw injustice, no amount of political promises or police lines could contain us. But that wouldn’t fix what’s broken. Maybe Las Vegans realize that. Or maybe it just hasn’t been our moment.