There is this new theory going around that America is in a long term state of “decay.” In the latest edition of Foreign Affairs Magazine, political theorist Francis Fukuyama puts forward the thesis that America is becoming dysfunctional because its government services have lost their way.
My theory is just the opposite: America is in a long term state of transition and renewal, because government services are learning how to meet the needs of citizens at all levels.
Let me give you an example of why I believe this is the case.
In 1989, world leaders decided it was better to decentralize weapons than to concentrate them in the hands of two superpowers. It was an historic easing of cold war tensions between the West and the Soviet Union. Actually, the Soviet Union broke up. As it did it facilitated the creation of a major international market for the sale of guns and weapons.
Eventually military weapons found their way into the hands of the private citizenry of America.
To combat this, local police departments began to arm themselves adequately to combat crime where in many instances they began to find themselves outgunned when fighting criminals.
Fast forward to the most recent incident in Ferguson, Missouri.
A teenager was shot by a well armed policeman. Civil unrest began and law enforcement showed up in full MILITARY strength. Typical of past incidents, looting started, outside agitators showed up, and confrontations with police took place.
Then something unusual happened.
In the ensuing days, every major institution was quick to respond and start investigations and help calm tensions. The governor became directly involved in the streets where the incident took place. Local police were withdrawn and different, more neutral ones, were employed. The police became directly involved in calming tensions peacefully as did citizens from the outside community. The police were even involved in calming other policemen.
The media descended, making America a witness to the events. The federal government became involved to investigate the violation of civil liberties. Discussions started as to whether or not local police forces should be outfitted to look and act like military units.
Every sordid detail of the incident is now being analyzed and judged by most every person in America. America is now awake and fully participating in confronting this incident of local violence.
Why? Not much is taken for granted any more in America. We no longer assume violence does not occur in our local communities. No matter how many gates we put up the term “safe neighborhood” has lost its meaning and promise.
We are now challenging the assumption that crime is automatically and successfully dealt with by putting law breakers behind bars. Questions arise: why are the highest percentage of people in jail young African American youth? Do communities become less safe as a result?
Citizens in every part of America are now involved in figuring out what it takes to create safe neighborhoods and communities.
In Ferguson you had a front row seat in witnessing how many different people and organizations became involved in working for both justice and peace. It looked like a new way of confronting violence was being born.
In the 1991 LA Riots, I led a caravan of 24 trucks and other vehicles loaded with food and equipment to help. I turned down a street off of the Harbor Freeway into no man’s land, the land of African Americans. When we got off the freeway offramp and drove down the street, I thought I would be scared, but to my surprise, I wasn’t as scared as the locals who first saw me. I remember catching the eye of two African American men sitting on their front porch. They stood up, looked at me with eyes (really) wide open. That’s when I knew everything would be ok.
Getting back to Ferguson, I had that same feeling when I saw hundreds of whites marching with blacks. I felt even better when the head law enforcement officer was black and walked down the middle of the street with the protesters. I sensed a new model was being born in how we handle violence and anger in oppressed areas.
This is a new way to reach civility, even though there will be chaos before there is complete order.
Then with the benefit of time and perspective each of us will have the opportunity to see with clearer eyes where we may have been right or wrong in our initial reactions. We then have the opportunity to make better decisions in our quest to creating more just and enduring communities when violent confrontations may occur where we live.
Ferguson was a data point for me. It suggests that America may be transitioning to a more successful public model of how we will work through tensions by successfully working together, notwithstanding Fukuyama’s prophecy of decay.