I’ve been riveted by the fast-moving situation in Ferguson, Missouri. It seems like an event from the sixties, a dark reflection of an ugly period long past, when cities burned and communities writhed in confrontations with law enforcement. I paid oblique attention for the first few days, but was shocked this morning (Thursday, August 14) to see that the situation hadn’t merely continued, but escalated dramatically. The footage was staggering—police firing tear gas, accosting journalists, knocking down TV cameras, advancing with military equipment on peaceful protestors.
What struck me today was that in five days now, it seems like hardly anyone is moving to regain control of the situation, or the narrative.
The Ferguson police chief gave a press conference yesterday, which was something, but I had to ask: Does Ferguson even have a mayor? Does the Missouri governor care as one of his towns is in anarchy and a militarized police force is exacerbating the situation, not calming it down?
Well. There is a mayor. His name is James Knowles. I looked it up on Google. He was even on MSNBC this morning to defend the police.
But other than essentially defending the near complete absence of information, Knowles didn't say very much. He might have answered any of these questions with some precision and with actual facts, but he didn’t.
• Who’s in charge of the police in this ongoing crisis?
• Why is basic information about the incident that precipitated this confrontation (the shooting by a police officer of an unarmed 18-year-old) being withheld?
• Is it legal to withhold the name of the police officer who did the shooting?
• Which of the several law enforcement agencies on the scene is in charge?
• Who’s the media point person?
• On whose authority are law-enforcement officers pointing machine guns at unarmed citizens?
• Does the militarized police reaction really reflect whatever threat exists?
The governor, Jay Nixon, was scheduled to make a statement later today. Which is good, I guess, but about five days late. In the meantime, Anonymous, the online hacking collective, claimed to have penetrated the Ferguson municipal computer system and gotten the name of the officer, as well as other information.
In the meantime, in the midst of the worst crisis imaginable for a small municipality (and a significant one for the state of Missouri) it’s clear there is no effective crisis management plan, and certainly no crisis communications plan, and social media is lighting up with negative reaction.