When Gov. Jay Nixon named Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson to assume control over security in Ferguson last Thursday, there finally appeared to be a leader people could get behind.
In the hours after he was chosen to head security, hugs replaced tear gas on Ferguson’s streets. Johnson, who is black and hails originally from Ferguson, marched with protestors. He told police to take off their gas masks when working crowd control, promised not to blockade the street, and listened to protesters’ complaints. “Leadership, thy name is Ron Johnson,” Mike Huckabee said in a Fox News segment last week.
Then on Sunday, Johnson gave a riveting speech in a church at a rally for Michael Brown, the teenager whose fatal shooting Aug. 9 sparked the unrest that has engulfed the St. Louis suburb. “I wear this uniform, and I should stand up here and say that I’m sorry,” the charismatic Johnson said to thunderous applause. “This is my neighborhood. You are my family, you are my friends. And I am you. I will stand to protect you. I will protect your right to protest.”
But his success in doing so has been mixed – which only goes to show how difficult it can be for anyone to succeed when the leadership job is this complex and the problems are this systemic.
For one, promises aren’t easy to keep in an environment that is so chaotic and explosive. After last Thursday’s calm, the protests turned violent again over the weekend, and the tear gas and riot gear returned. The National Guard was called in, a curfew was temporarily installed, and a state of emergency was declared. Although Johnson said “a turning point” had been reached Tuesday night and that no tear gas, gunshots or smoke bombs were fired by police, only time will tell what happens next.
As the public face of Ferguson’s law enforcement, Johnson has also had to deal with the aftermath of decisions that were beyond his control. He has had to defend the release of a video alleging that Brown committed a crime the same day he was shot, which Johnson says he was not consulted on. Yet in a crisis like this, with multiple state and local forces coming together amid the chaos, lines are going to get blurred, particularly in the view of an enraged public.
And however much Johnson gets out and addresses the public, or talks about his son’s tattoos or his family’s roots in the area, to some he will still be a cop. A cop in a town where a tiny fraction of the police force is black. A cop in a place, and in a country, where there is a long and ugly history of distrust between African-Americans and the police.
For change to happen in Ferguson, there will need to be structural and systemic changes in the community’s economics, the city’s leadership and to its police force.
Still, despite all these limits to how much impact Johnson can have, his approach does matter. It may not immediately stop the protests or the violence. But if his listening, his charisma and his accessibility help to build some trust in the chasm of Ferguson’s divide, it’s a start.