As some of you know, I have been slowly awakening to the problem of systemic racism in our country and intentionally seeking out people and resources to continue to learn and empathize. I wrote about that here. When the opportunity to read a complimentary copy from Tyndale House publishers and review the new memoir 13 Days in Ferguson by Captain Ronald Johnson presented itself, I jumped at the chance. Because he belonged to the community, the governor thrust Captain Johnson, an African-American Missouri State Trooper, into a leadership role when the shooting of a young, unarmed black man caused rioting in the streets.
His earliest musing of this seemingly impossible situation made the hairs on my arms stand up. “I see both sides. But there shouldn’t be sides. Taking sides implies a winner and a loser. There are no winners here. Even if some police see it as a battle to be won, I see only a no-win situation. ” For the five previous nights since Michael Brown’s death on August 14, 2014 police lined up wearing riot gear – shields, camouflage, gas masks, bullet-proof vests – with military-style weapons at the ready and dogs restrained on leashes. Johnson, now in charge, decides on a different tactic. He marches. Not in a line of defense, but side by side with the protestors. Without even the covering of his bullet-proof vest. He walks and he talks and he listens. He gives the angry and hurting people of Ferguson what they haven’t had up until then. A voice.
During the anguishing days that he marched, he saw tiny victories and huge setbacks. Protestors initially saw him as the enemy because he wore a badge. Law enforcement, even those he had served alongside for years, questioned his loyalty to the badge due to his lack of force in dealing with the constituents. The Captain lets the reader into his loneliness and inner turmoil, and eventually the anguish that swallowed him whole when he felt forced to call for tear gas and riot gear as the protestors once again turned to violence and other criminal activity.
In the retelling of those harrowing days, Johnson admits to mistakes and regrets, but ultimately enough improvement in the community’s safety to call the city back to business as usual by the end of the month of August. And yet, everything has changed. After a relatively calm fall, the news in late November that the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer responsible for Brown’s death, again incites protests and riots. This time it lasts only a couple of days. Then in March of the following year, the Department of Justice concludes its 6 month investigation into the Ferguson Police Department, finding that it “was routinely violating the constitutional rights of its black residents”, using force “almost exclusively on blacks and regularly stopp[ing] people without probable cause.” The police chief resigned one week later. Baby steps. Inches. But change.
Through it all Captain Johnson leaned on his faith in God and the sanctuary of the bathroom to cry out in prayer. And yet our country still bleeds. Cities all across the nation continue to have racially driven incidents and compare themselves to Ferguson. But as James Baldwin said,
“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Click here to read the first chapter for free!