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SEEN UP NORTH: Cool – in the face of chaos

Tony Best

SEEN UP NORTH: Cool – in the  face of chaos

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LESS THAN 48 HOURS after meeting with President Barack Obama  at the White House, Eric Holder, the second most powerful US government official,  was in Ferguson, a small predominantly black city in Missouri that was in turmoil.

The task handed to America’s attorney general by President Obama was to help cool tempers and give people the assurance that justice would be served in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, on August 9 in circumstances that were not altogether clear but reeked of racism and unnecessary police aggression. His presence and commitments seem to have worked.

When he arrived, protesters were on the streets demanding justice after peaceful demonstrations had turned violent, shops had been looted, tear gas was in the air, and the place seemed on the edge of a powder keg. 

Today, a state of normalcy has returned after several nights of disruption and the six-foot-plus man who grew up in a Bajan home in New York, now has people across the land praising his calm demeanour and his reputation for both toughness and fairness.

It was an unprecedented trip. As far as anyone can remember, certainly in the past 50 years, no chief US law enforcement official has had to venture into such a hot spot.

“A lot has happened here and he (Holder) promised things were going to change,”  said Molyric Welch, a 27-year- old black student of St Louis Community College, after her meeting with Holder whose words were ringing in her ears.

“I am the attorney general of the United States, but I am also a black man,” Holder told Welch and other Fergusson residents at a community meeting. “I can remember being stopped on two occasions and accused of speeding. Pulled over … ‘let me search your car … go through the trunk of my car, look under the seats and all that kind of stuff. I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me.”

The attorney general’s thoughts resonated with the youth and community leaders who resented the way they were being treated by the 53-member Ferguson police force which only has three blacks patrolling the street in a city of 21 000 souls, 67 per cent of whom are Black. They were being stopped without rhyme or reason and often found themselves before the courts without justifiable cause.

“We want to be part of the change” of which Holder spoke, said Bri Ehsan, a 25-year-old criminal justice college student.

Missouri State police officer, Captain Ron Johnson, coordinator of the law enforcement response to the turbulence, hailed Holder for going to Ferguson, saying “Attorney General Holder, by being here is a guarantee on that” meaning the Justice Department investigation into the Brown killing would be thorough and fair.

As he has done on many occasions, beginning with his Senate confirmation hearings in 2009 in Washington, Holder never ceases to remind people of his upbringing and how his parents influenced his life. Just as important is the way the lessons of his father are being passed on to his own son today.

“I’ve got a 16-year-old boy who is six foot two inches tall and likes to wear hooded sweatshirts,” Holder told Ebony magazine in an interview published in this month’s issue.

 “On the wrong night, he could be a victim of some kind of inappropriate police conduct. I have had a conversation with my son in the way that my father had a conversation with me. I didn’t think I would have had the same dialogue with him, given the progress the country has made. But, I had to explain to him how he should interact with police officers or anyone who approaches him in a threatening way. The reality is that that kind of conversation in necessary.”

“He didn’t accept it in the way I did from my father, where what he was telling me was almost gospel,” explained the AG.

“In my son’s eyes, the sense of danger is more remote and he doesn’t see it in the same manner I once did. So, the conversation had to be more focused, more direct and more intense. But I think he ultimately got it.”