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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Last week, I spent a day at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where some students and I talked about protest. Des Moines is six hours up the road from Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot to death by a police officer in August, prompting weeks of often violent clashes between protesters, rioters and heavily militarized police.

Some of the kids have ties in that area, so they were waiting — even more tensely than the rest of us — to see if a grand jury would indict the officer and whether the failure to do so would mean renewed violence. These were serious-minded young people concerned about the state of their nation and they were wondering what they could do to effect change.

I’ve had similar talks on college campuses going back before most of us ever heard of Ferguson. I’ve lost count of how many students have told me: “I want to change things, but I don’t know how. What can I do?”

It amazes me that half a century ago people their age fought for civil rights, women’s rights and an end to a useless war in Southeast Asia using no technology more sophisticated than mimeograph machines and rotary dial telephones, while kids with iPads and social media accounts feel helpless to make themselves heard. I’ve walked away from many encounters with students feeling that they were earnest, well intentioned — and utterly clueless about their power to better the world.

Nor am I alone in that. I often hear older people, those who marched, leafleted and shouted for justice in the ’60s, complain that Kids These Days are too complacent. They lament what they would do if they were just young enough. Rep. John Lewis, the hero of the voting rights campaign in Selma, often puts it like this: “Young people today are too quiet.”

But here’s an idea: Instead of just criticizing them, why don’t their elders teach them? Meaning not just icons of the struggle for human rights like Gloria Steinem, Diane Nash and Tom Hayden, but lesser-known footsoldiers whose names never made the history books. Why don’t they put together college campus lectures, church basement meetings, podcasts?

Call it Protest 101, a seminar in how to organize effectively for change. It would be a gift to the next generation, one the elder generation is uniquely positioned to give.

I vacillate on what John Lewis said. Sometimes it seems to me that young people are, indeed, entirely too quiet, too narcotized by gadgets, games and irrelevancies to notice the world is going to heck around them. Other times, it seems that they simply don’t know what to do about it, that they have been made to feel too helpless and small to make a difference.

But as the Occupy movement a few years ago demonstrated and Ferguson reiterates, there is a new ferment among young people — and people not so young — as they see civil rights gains whittled away, as they see elections rigged like a casino slot machine by monied interests, as they see unarmed black boys gunned down without consequence, as they see robber barons too big to fail game the economy and get away scot-free while the full weight of American jurisprudence and media indignation drops like a brick on poor people and immigrants.

What a waste if that energy goes only into the breaking of windows. What a loss if that moral authority is burned up in fire.

This nascent, inchoate movement knows how to get attention, but has no idea what to do after that. It is undisciplined and unformed and does not know how to articulate an agenda for change. I submit that that’s where their elders come in.

The ’60s generation once changed the world. Here’s a chance to change it again.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at

Photo: Pastor Renita Lamkin of St. John’s AME Church, second from right, joins the protesters who confronted Missouri Highway Patrol Col. Ron Johnson in Ferguson, MO, on Aug. 14, 2014, with questions about the shooting of Michael Brown. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

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16 Responses to Some Thoughts As We Wait To See Whether Ferguson Burns

  1. As far as I am concerned, we outsiders should just stay out of the problems in Ferguson Let them sort it out. If anyone thinks that the results of the inquest will settle anything, you are a fool. Just as in war the first casualty in Ferguson was the truth. Each side has their version of it.

    • Do you not know that it is just not Ferguson but all parts of the US that are seeing black people killed? Black people are being killed at an alarming rate by white people and yes also by black people.
      It does matter that cops, which are supposed to protect and serve, kill blacks and don’t get prosecuted by doing so. It does matter whether it is a cop doing the killing or someone else because cops have other weapons at their disposal besides just guns that kill. They have an entire police force, Tasers and clubs and plain old fist fighting to draw on but instead, all too often, resort to deadly force just because they can.
      If the police don’t value human life then who does? I hope the cop in Ferguson get indicted just so we can see, first hand, the mentality of police officers that kill.

      • Defending your life is NOT a crime. From the very start, people were wanting to lynch a police officer for defending himself. If this had been a black cop that shot a white thug, no one would have heard about it. But wwe have a racist regime that will stir up white against black every chance they get.

        • I totally agree. If a white person is shot or beaten to death by cops, nobody cares. We had a homeless, unarmed, mentally-ill white man viciously beaten to death by a bunch of Mexican cops here in Los Angeles, and I didn’t see Obama send anyone to investigate. The cops were let go, even though they had video of what happened and it was a blood bath. It was horrible. While they were beating him to death he kept crying for his Dad….heartbreaking, sickening and no one gives a damn, particularly our dear President.

          • The thing is people , particularly on this site, don’t want to believe that our government only cares about the government. They care about the people only enough to keep fools thinking they want to help the American people. We have a corrupt, self serving regime, and with the Emperor seemingly trying to stir things up between the races, a problem that we have not openly had for some time now. We have a regime that is racist, with a “leader” that liberals and radical blacks have called their messiah, or even godlike. This regime has no regard for our laws or our Constitution, and seems to want our country in flames.

          • Thankfully, Obama is going to be out of office in a couple of years. The last election we had shows that most Americans are fed up with the situation. We will probably not have another black president for at least one-hundred years.

          • I don’t think his color is an issue, but his actions. We most likely will have a black president. I don’t think the Emperor should count against blacks. We need to find an American next time. I’m also not as sure as you that he will be gone after 2 years. I think he is quite confortable in his position, and will do all he can to stay.

        • That MFer cop could have driven off and called for help form the 50 plus cops on duty. He decided that he would be a hero and confront that “demon” on his own. He decided that killing someone was the proper action because he was ” a cop that could never back down from a black man.: To do so might show weakness and GOD knows that a cop can never show weakness for fear that, in future incidents, he may once again, be forced to decide that someones else’s life is as valuable as his own.
          You see, that is the whole argument here that cops are making every day: My life is more valuable than

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  3. I am a white female and I have known since I was a kid that when a cop stops you, you DO NOT do anything that might appear threatening to him. He’s got a loaded gun and he is trained to use it at a moments notice. It’s just common sense. When I’m in my car I always ask permission to go into my glove box to get my registration. I always speak politely and call him “Officer.” Nobody had to tell me this. My parent’s “didn’t have to sit me down and have The Talk.” Good Lord!…. This guy Michael Brown was fighting with the cop. I would expect to get shot for much less than that. It doesn’t matter that I’m white. Don’t attack cops and don’t scare them and they probably won’t shoot you. Stop acting like dummies.

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