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‘This Is a Defining Moment for Missouri’: Jesse Jackson Discusses Ferguson with VICE News

The civil rights leader spoke with VICE News about the deep roots of frustration in Ferguson, the present upheaval, and the lasting change that can come out of it.
Photo by Claire Ward/VICE News

As protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown approach their tenth night, many wonder where events will go from here. On Monday, Governor Jay Nixon brought in the National Guard and ended the midnight curfew he imposed on the town over the weekend. The unrest may continue to escalate, but activists hope that protests in Ferguson will produce a greater movement and bring lasting change to the community.


Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson sat down with VICE News to discuss the deep roots of frustration in Ferguson, the present upheaval, and the lasting change that can come out of it.

VICE News: Why do you think the situation in Ferguson has gotten so out of hand?
Rev. Jesse Jackson: The police have handled this so badly. They have not been transparent. The officer who did the killing has not been interrogated yet. He's still being protected, he's in hiding. It took six days to reveal his name, and even now that we know his name, and on Google you see his picture, on the video you see his picture, he's not yet been subjected to interrogation. It seems like a kind of cover up, so it creates a gap of alienation and distrust, and that's a big factor in this.

The National Guard will descend on Ferguson after another night of clashes. Read more here.

Police held a press conference on Sunday night in which they said that there was no plan to bring in the National Guard, then less than an hour later the governor announced that it would in fact be called in…
See, when the law become lawless and distrustful, they have no moral authority. There is chaos. And now with an extra layer of military, the National Guard, I'm not sure what they can do except maybe create a perimeter. But the National Guard is not trained to handle sensitive people relationships. It's not what they do.

What do you think is going to come out of this?
It's very difficult to say, in the sense that, at one level, we have a community that's on the occupation, about a 70 percent African-American community without anyone on the school board, 53 police, three are African-American, hardly any on the fire department — almost none of them live in Ferguson, for example. They don't have a fair share of the contracts, they're living under a kind of legal looting — their jobs have been looted. If you had a 50 percent black and white police force, 50 percent black and white fire department, in contrast, you'd have a much fairer distribution of resources and a sense of shared territory, a sense of shared responsibility. But right now, police are seen as very hostile, and at some point the cup ran over, and this thing is simply spiraling out of control. My main concern is that Ferguson is just a metaphor for urban America…. The infant mortality rate is high, life expectancy is short, unemployment three or four times the national average, kids dropping out of school — they've lost their sense of hope and vitality. And unless there's a kind of commitment by the White House and the Congress to urban policy, to reconstruction, to revitalize hope, we stand a real chance unfortunately of this being replicated.


There was a state of emergency in Ferguson long before Saturday. Read more here.

Apart from the clashes and violence, what kind of opportunity does Ferguson present for renewed activism? Walking around during the day, I've seen many expressions of political action and commitment.
In the case of Ferguson, if 5,000 blacks register to vote, they can completely change the political construction of the city. They have that power. This community has 21,000 people. So if 5,000 register to vote, they can determine the mayor — who appoints the police and fire chiefs, who issues contracts — the city council… They have the capacity to have a renewed, multiracial, multicultural city. And there are a number of whites who are predisposed in that direction. It's not all hostile and anti-black, that's not true. There is a possibility of building a governing coalition in Ferguson.

Do you see that hope emerging from the anger and frustration gripping Ferguson?
There's a lot of anger, but it must be directed. When the iron is hot, you can really reshape the iron, but you shouldn't pour the heat on yourself. Riots have a way of self-destructing and self-degrading. There are elements that tend to care less about an outcome, they want to simply vent. Most people who are marching are very focused on non-violence and discipline…. They want to see a full autopsy and they want to see it done quickly. They want some changes in the construction of the city's governing makeup — these people are very focused. There's another element that simply could care less about order. They've exhausted their capacity to make sound judgment, and my fear is that if police feel on the tight, they're gonna fight back, and God forbid somebody gets hurt or killed in that process. We can just hope and pray that that does not happen. But with so many guns, and so many explosives, something is bound to happen.


RAW COVERAGE: On the Ground in Ferguson, Missouri, Round 4

Everyone in Ferguson is telling us that these tensions have been simmering for a long while before Michael Brown's shooting…
People have adjusted to the injustice. One thing worse than oppression is to adjust to it. And some people become maladjusted, in the sense that we share quietness. Quietness is the absence of noise, peace to presence of justice. There are relatively few people calling out for justice and fairness. If you have on a shoe that is too small for your foot, for a while you can make adjustments with your toes, but at some point blisters will set in, and pain, and now you see a lot of blisters, lots of pain, in that community.

And you think it's reached its breaking point?
In Ferguson, this is a defining moment for Missouri. It's a test for the governor's leadership. He has not done very well. It is a test for the police, the occupiers' leadership. They have botched it badly. Since it's so broadly covered by the media, you could have replications across the country. I hope that does not happen. But I do know that the sense of disgust, the sense of disappointment, is very prevalent.

What do you think about President Obama's response so far?
Well, when the journalists were arrested, he did respond at that time. He sent in the FBI, and the Department of Justice is investigating. So far that's about all he really can do at this stage, except to look at the implications of the gap between those who have surplus and those who have deficits, and begin to think through some kind of reconstruction, comprehensive urban policy, to remove these conditions of darkness around the country.

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi