Lanny Davis: Thoughts on Ferguson: What I know and don’t know

The one thing I know is that I don’t know what it it’s like to be a young black man who is confronted by a white police officer pointing a gun.

I don’t know the fear, the humiliation, the rage that a young black man must feel when this happens, especially when he doesn’t believe he has done anything wrong.

I know I have memories of my own as a young Jewish kid in an all-Christian neighborhood, walking home from school and sometimes being called names. “What’s a kike?” I once asked my dad when I was about 7 or 8 years old. He told me it was a hate word about our religion. I didn’t really understand at the time, but I saw how it upset my parents so I was sure it was bad.  


But I know that nothing I experienced then or now comes close to what young black men often experience because of the color of their skin.

I don’t know why Michael Brown was shot and killed. I understand from news reports that he was unarmed, and he was shot multiple times in daylight by a police officer, and one of the bullets went through his brain and killed him. It made sense to me when one law enforcement expert on TV said that the police “are trained to try to talk down someone before you shoot down someone ... unless your life is in danger.”

I know it’s wrong to generalize about people, whether “white police officers” or “young black men.” We don’t know the facts yet, and the police officer who shot Brown deserves a chance to explain what happened and why. We need to understand the evidence and the facts derived after due process of law. The presumption of innocence still should be upheld.

I know that the Ferguson police made all the Crisis Management 101 mistakes, such as not being fully transparent from the beginning and, especially, the grotesque decision to try to shift the blame to Brown by releasing the videotape of his robbery of a convenience store — as if that could justify the shooting of an unarmed young man walking down the street in daylight. Also, the department should have released the name of the police officer who shot Brown earlier, although I can understand the delay may have been caused by concerns about the safety and security of the officer’s family.

But lest we forget, we must give credit to our community police officers, white and black, who face dangers and risk their lives to provide security for all of us, including and especially for young blacks in black neighborhoods, who are the highest casualties in urban neighborhoods throughout the country. And to those criminals and thugs who exploited this tragedy by looting and engaging in violence, you have soiled the dignity of the peaceful protests of the Ferguson community by your actions.

What should politicians and political leaders do in the short term? There is one thing I know for certain: they should resist rushing to the microphones or issuing press releases just because they feel pressure to do so. And they should resist such pressure from others. They must not play politics or look as if they are doing so. Rather, they should follow the leadership, tone and message that we have seen from President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. They have inspired us with their statements of empathy and understanding for the Browns and the terrible pain of losing their son, while still showing commitment and faith in allowing the criminal justice system to work its way. 

Holder deserves special credit for the dignity and balance he demonstrated when he personally visited Ferguson and met with Mr. and Mrs. Brown and the Ferguson black community to assure them that, despite everything, justice is possible. 

If there is anything unifying in this awful, awful tragedy, it is the shared grief we all feel for the Browns and for the loss of their young son. May his soul rest in peace. 

I know one thing, and that is that we must learn from this horrible experience — politicians, police, everyone — and make sure it doesn’t happen again.


Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and is executive vice president of the strategic communications firm, Levick. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life.