Skip to main content

Why Ferguson is your town

By Eric Liu
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Protesters march in Ferguson, Missouri, on Thursday, August 21. The St. Louis suburb has been in turmoil since a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9. Some protesters and law enforcement officers have clashed in the streets, leading to injuries and arrests. Protesters march in Ferguson, Missouri, on Thursday, August 21. The St. Louis suburb has been in turmoil since a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9. Some protesters and law enforcement officers have clashed in the streets, leading to injuries and arrests.
HIDE CAPTION
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Liu: What's unfolded in Ferguson is un-American, a shocking affront to rule of law
  • He says police have run roughshod over constitutional rights
  • Events have united people on left and right, while politicians have dithered, he says
  • Liu: We should look at whether what happened in Ferguson could occur in our town

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including "A Chinaman's Chance" and "The Gardens of Democracy." He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- What if this was your town?

That's the haunting question being chanted in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. It demands an answer.

Ever since an unarmed black teen was shot and killed by Ferguson police five days ago, what's unfolded has been positively un-American.

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

The Ferguson police chief has refused to name the officer who shot Michael Brown or to reveal key details about the shooting. His force has responded to protesters with a surplus of militarism and a deficit of sense, skill or humanity. They've run roughshod over freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and the right to be young and African-American and presumed innocent.

LZ Granderson: How many unarmed people have to die?

There has been a vacuum of leadership at every scale of this story. The mayor has seemed flat-footed. The governor was too long silent, then finally issued a statement, saying he would visit Ferguson. The President has kept his distance since issuing a statement of his own.

New video from Ferguson shooting death
The impact of Ferguson's racial disparity
Could cop body cams ease tension?

Nowhere thus far has there been a political leader like Robert Kennedy in Indianapolis after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., wading at once into the charged scene with physical courage and quiet moral authority -- sharing in grief, naming the tragedy, earning the trust needed to call for peace.

Fortunately -- if that's a word that may be used in this situation -- everyday Americans have been filling this void. Citizens in Ferguson and across Missouri have protested and organized marches and vigils. African-Americans unleashed a wave of commentary on social media, highlighting how swiftly stereotypes can indict and convict black men in the court of public opinion.

Then when journalists covering the story were manhandled by the police and locked up for reporting the story, Twitter exploded and people across the country -- indeed, the world -- began to amplify their voices in a burgeoning, turbulent virtual square called #Ferguson.

Now libertarians who have long mistrusted the heavy hand of government find themselves in common cause with social-justice progressives who cannot believe that this is happening half a century after the Civil Rights Act became law.

What these citizens from the right, left and all points between are saying is simple: No one in the United States should get away with this kind of abuse of power.

We may disagree on taxes and health care and immigration. But we can agree that the most basic form of civic power -- the force necessary to protect a community -- must in a democracy be subject to the kind of accountability that is utterly missing in Ferguson.

To be sure, some perspective is important: There is still so much unknown about the killing. A Twitter wave obliterates context and thrusts forward only the most sensational aspects of a story. And plenty of partisans on the left and right are taking Ferguson as a chance to bash the other side for its failed policies and ideologies.

But let's be very clear. What's happening in Ferguson is not just politics. It's not what historian Daniel Boorstin called a "pseudo-event." It's real. It's a spark of anger and alienation that emerged first from African-Americans who bear the petty humiliations and mortal dangers of second-class treatment. Now it's spreading.

Complete coverage on Ferguson shooting and protests

In this age of contagion, when pent-up frustration and a desire to change social norms can cascade quickly into tea parties or Arab Springs or marriage equality movements, it's not easy to say where this spark will lead.

And as events unfold, we would do well to ask ourselves a basic question. It comes from the exam that immigrants take to become citizens of the United States, and it is surprising in its simple profundity:

"What is the rule of law?"

Alas, the killing of Michael Brown is awakening many to the meaning of that question -- and to the consequences of ignorance. The rule of law must mean, at the barest minimum, that the government tells us which of its agents has slayed an unarmed citizen. It must mean administering justice in a way that is credible, transparent and responsive to the people. It must also mean an end to the looting in Ferguson.

But it also should have meant that we never got to a scene like Ferguson.

5 things to know about Michael Brown's shooting

So now it's time for each of us not to be spectators, merely watching the flames in the streets or the pundits on the screen, but to be citizens.

It's time to look around our own communities and consider just how we see and treat each other. How over-martialized and under-professionalized our own police forces may be. How little empathy exists among people of different races and social classes. How so many of our neighbors see "the rule of law" as a cruel, cynical joke.

And how we can change all that.

What if this were your town? Our task now is to live like it already is.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT