An imminent grand jury verdict in St. Louis County will determine whether to indict Ferguson police office Darren Wilson on criminal charges for shooting Michael Brown. News reports have detailed the expectation of violence in the St. Louis area after the decision is handed down and the mobilization being planned by law enforcement in response. This is an open letter to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon urging him to maintain peace and protect those exercising their right to free speech. I encourage you to read the letter and join me and others across the country in signing it now. Your voice can make a difference. Sojourners will send the letter and signatures to the Gov. Nixon. -- Jim Wallis, Sojourners
Dear Gov. Nixon,
For the last several months, the nation's eyes have been on Ferguson, Missouri. Few had heard of this small St. Louis suburb until Michael Brown was shot and killed by a member of the city's police department -- whose mission is supposedly to serve and protect. Now this community is an infamous global symbol of the nation's continued struggle for racial equality and the troubling trend of police militarization.
Jesus proclaimed, "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God" (Matthew 5:9). The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, "True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice." These are not idealistic thoughts or nice sentiments to be dismissed when tensions and conflict arise. Rather, they are wise words of truth that should guide our thinking in moments of distress. We need to make Jesus' instruction real and consider Dr. King's words a practical exhortation for the ensuring peace and public safety in Ferguson once the grand jury has made the decision of whether to indict Darren Wilson.
Whatever happened on that unfortunate day between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, nobody should have died. And the tensions resulting from Brown's death were only exacerbated by the police response that focused on exerting power and control through militarized means rather than ensuring public safety and protecting the rights of everyone in the community. Faith leaders stood alongside others, horrified at the sight of an unarmed, dead young black man whose body was allowed to lie in the street for hours. Faith leaders were equally outraged by the use of tear gas, military grade equipment, and other tactics more suitable for a theater of war than the streets of a suburban city.
Sadly we cannot rewrite that chapter in Ferguson's history, but the pages of the next one remain blank. As governor you have an outsized influence in determining what it will say.
Recently, Rev. Traci Blackmon, a local clergy leader, issued an urgent call for action. She asked people across the country to write you letters of solidarity with the people of Ferguson. Her request followed stories and news reports of law enforcement amassing weapons and riot gear. Meanwhile, Rev. Blackmon reports that young people in Ferguson and other community leaders have been requesting bandages and other first-aid items. This is a striking juxtaposition. Missouri citizens should never feel so threatened by their own government and unsecure about their own safety that they feel the need to stock up on medical supplies.
Your leadership is needed now more than ever. This will be one of the defining episodes of your governorship. Please do everything possible to de-escalate violence, which means limiting the use of military tactics and not deploying the National Guard as a first response. The rights of people to peacefully speak and protest must be steadfastly preserved and respected by everyone, especially government leaders and law enforcement agencies. The easiest and most obvious way to protect public safety is to limit confrontation and not allow people's rights to be infringed upon.
Regardless of the grand jury's decision, the police response to any public reaction has become an urgent moral concern for the entire nation. The impact of one life being taken in Ferguson has already been felt. Now you must do everything in your power to ensure no other lives are lost and no other persons are hurt. It is imperative that you prioritize talking to community leaders, allowing public spaces to remain open and safe, and the law to be upheld in ways that protect all life. Your actions can help bring a modicum of justice to a community that has already unjustly suffered so much. Please use your power to be a peacemaker for the sake of all the children of God.
The nation will be watching the decisions you make, and I am hopeful this will be a lesson in leadership from which other public officials across the country can learn. You will be in our prayers over the coming days and weeks.
Jim Wallis, Sojourners
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Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God's Side, is available now.