Lessons from the Missouri riots

The fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, might not have led to prolonged rioting had it not expressed the divide between the two communities in a suburb which is two-thirds African-American but where only three of 53 police officers are black. That marked mismatch between demography and power is reflected also in the presence of a white mayor, a school board with six white members and one Hispanic, and a city council with a sole black member. In such circumstances, official actions appear to be racial acts, and law enforcement in particular looks like a cutting-edge exercise in the reality of power disparities. Those perceptions were fuelled by the initially heavy-handed response to the violence, which appeared to confirm black suspicions of police intentions. Promises by the federal authorities of a fair and thorough investigation into the teenager's shooting have calmed the situation, although tensions continue to simmer.

Structural causes and administrative miscalculations do not justify the deadly violence in Ferguson, particularly the use of firearms and acts of looting carried out by criminals masquerading as protesters. However, as with previous riots in Cincinnati and Los Angeles which also involved race, Ferguson would provide an introspective country such as the United States with an opportunity to ponder social shortcomings and learn how to prevent or contain such violence in the future.

One important safeguard cited by observers is the existence of strong ties between the administration and civic and religious leaders, who can act as a bridge to the aggrieved community. The representative nature of strong community networks built up in times of peace gives leaders the credibility to mediate between residents and the authorities in a crisis. Respected community figures also help to isolate instigators and prevent them from influencing the course of riots. Even if the crisis cannot be defused, its momentum can be slowed, giving time for saner heads to prevail.

Ferguson is also a reminder to other countries, particularly those that are multiracial, of the potentially combustible nature of political, economic and ethnic differences that are left unchecked for long. A key challenge is to prevent law-and-order issues from becoming racialised, an insidious process that catalyses latent distrust into the raw material of violence. Singapore has taken pains to ensure that citizens see the state as an impartial arbiter between the legitimate demands of various communities. This is the fundamental tenet of social peace. However, social harmony is always a work in progress, and hard-won advances made over the years should never be taken for granted.