Captain Ronald Johnson, by most accounts and all appearances, is a brave, decent, and compassionate man: and that’s why I fear for him. Over the last few days, Johnson has emerged as a key figure in the standoff between the mostly aggressive police and the mostly peaceful public, hugging here, speaking and mediating there. It is an example of which his fellow officers should be proud. Unfortunately, recent events suggest that he is the exception to the rule. Whilst he calls for calm, his colleagues behave with an unbridled belligerence. He has therefore become the reasonable face, the acceptable face, of his region’s police force, a role which has an inherent danger. He is the proud, eloquent, dignified African-American to whom the protesters’ critics can now point and, however inaccurately, can say: “Look at the dignity with which he turns the other cheek. Look how commendable he is under fire. He is the standard by which your dissent is now judged.”
I fear for Captain Johnson because, given his prominent role in Ferguson, he may become a focal point for discontent if a detailed investigation into Mike Brown’s death is not forthcoming. Part of the reason that he has been trusted to dissipate tension is that there is a sense that his actions are part of a march towards justice, or at least a clarity as to what happened that afternoon when an unarmed black teen was gunned down. Yet I suspect that there are those in Johnson’s police force who see his efforts not as a catalyst for progress, but as an end in themselves: that if he merely stands in front of enough crowds, if he makes enough beautifully empathetic appeals, then the problem will go away.
I do not envy Captain Johnson his role. He is surely not naive as to the difficulties expressed above, seeing his intervention as vital to alleviate his community’s concerns but also wary that he may be seen merely as the front for an organisation burrowing itself ever further into national disrepute. He must also be aware that, in a twist of irony, his name and face are far more readily identifiable with the events following Mike Brown’s death than the name and face of Mike Brown’s killer.
For this reason, I was happy to see that some people defied the curfew imposed by Ferguson’s police last night. Not because I wish Captain Johnson any professional embarrassment, or any ill to the protesters who stayed out after midnight: but because these activists further exposed the feral obstruction of justice by police for whose deceit Captain Johnson’s humanity has become the unwitting shield. As those police withhold Darren Wilson, the man who shot Mike Brown dead, from the scrutiny of the law, Captain Johnson’s role looks increasingly forlorn, which is exactly as many of them seem to want it: that he should be one more blast of tactical tear gas, one more strategic smoke bomb, that prevents us from staring unrestrained at the truth.