The Ferguson dilemma: When keeping up appearances is not enough

reporterarrested2A recent article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that described the way that the small St. Louis County municipality of Pagedale was condemning inhabited, livable houses and levying fines for petty housing code violations. A subsequent editorial  drew an explicit line between this practice and the over-reliance on revenue generated by traffic violations which was condemned in a recent Department of Justice report. In both cases, poorer citizens bear the brunt of the abuse of municipal power.

With my sincere apologies to those good people who have really tried to bring the lessons of Ferguson home and act upon them, a particular aspect of the misdeeds described seemed emblematic of how many in the St. Louis region have reacted to the issues that have risen in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests. This passage among others in the article struck me as jaw-dropping:

At a recent demolition hearing, Mayor Mary Louis Carter told one homeowner after another where they needed to focus their work if they wanted to keep their property: “The first emphasis should be the exterior,” she said repeatedly. One house needed new plumbing, electrical work, a new roof and foundation. Do the outside work first, Carter instructed the homeowner’s lawyer, “it’s a long time before he’s going to be able to use lights or plumbing.”

The mayor explained: “We want to bring our property values up and make our neighborhood look nice.”

Fix the outside and we don’t need to worry about what is on the inside. The folks who live in the houses can deal with the lack of plumbing as long as we don’t have to see or hear about it – and God forbid, as long as it can be kept from anyone looking to buy a house in the neighborhood.

Isn’t this emphasis on keeping up appearances what lies behind the bellyaching of those folks who, beginning a few days after Michael Brown’s death, began moaning about how all this negative publicity would “hurt” Ferguson and the St. Louis region in general? I can’t help but think it’s funny how I didn’t hear too much about any of these concerned citizens going out of their way to deal with issues of race and abuse of police power before the protesters who were the genesis of Black Lives Matter made a little noise. Maybe if anybody had been paying attention before, we might never have had had to deal with front page “Ferguson” on the national – and international – stage.

And isn’t it possible that it is genteel annoyance that our plumbing problems are out in the open for all to see that animates the desire to bring charges against the reporters who witnessed and told the world about the inept response to the Ferguson situation? According to Think Progress:

St. Louis County police are suddenly levying an onslaught of charges against journalists who covered the Ferguson protests last year, accusing them of minor offenses days before the statute of limitations is up. This week alone, three journalists have been charged for interfering with on-duty officers – a full year after their arrests. The recent developments follow an ongoing trend of criminalizing journalists for doing their jobs.

Two of the reporters possibly face $1000 fines and up to a year in jail for “interfering with officers.” Their crime?:

On a separate occasion, several officers – many of whom were armed with assault weapons – entered the restaurant and ordered patrons to leave. Journalists, including Lowery and Reilly, were told they could stay, but the officers later returned and told them they had to leave. Both were arrested and detained for not leaving fast enough, and were released without charges hours later.

As Martin Baron, Executive Editor of the Washington Post, which employs one of the Reporters, Wes Lowery, noted, he “should never have been arrested in the first place. That was an abuse of police authority.”

Let’s see. Abuse of police authority? Wasn’t that the problem to begin with? Only this time it doesn’t have anything to do with us getting our metaphorical linen all dirty, but about punishing and/or impeding folks who expose our dirty linen. Because if nobody knows we soiled our underclothes, doesn’t that mean we’re as bright and shining clean as a new penny?