On Monday, authorities braced for the worst but hoped for the best ahead of the announcement that a grand jury did not indict a Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in August. The shooting touched off weeks-long nationwide protests, and authorities were met with resistance from demonstrators and unruly crowds as they tried to respond to emergencies.
Before the decision not to charge Darren Wilson in the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown was read Monday, barricades were erected around the courthouse building, and more than 20 Missouri state troopers were seen silently assembling with rifles, 3-foot batons, riot shields and other equipment. All of these measures were put in place by authorities seeking to prevent what happened in August from happening again, when our society dissolved into chaos.
However, by early Tuesday there were 29 arrests after protesters fired more than 100 gunshots, burned and looted as many as 25 buildings and vandalized cars in violence that broke out following the announcement. Let us remember, that is not just the St. Louis-area that will suffer from yet more human trauma and violence, it is our society as a whole that loses.
Stitched into the flag of our beloved country are instances of civil unrest. Civil disobedience and peaceful demonstrations have a meaningful place in our history, with many lessons to be learned from each struggle.
However, when peaceful protests and demonstrations turn into criminal activities and uncontrolled rioting with unscrupulous so-called leaders using these opportunities to promote their own personal agendas, America suffers.
Ahead of Monday's announcement, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency to keep communities safe, and I applauded that decision. Any further loss of life or human trauma that comes as a result of more uncontrolled demonstrations would be a great misfortune.
After the rioting in August, we learned emergency crews that were part of a response team helping to control the crowds were met with many challenges in trying to set up staging areas.
The uncontrolled movement of people did not allow fire engines and ambulances to get to the scenes of accidents and disturbances. In some cases ambulances were delayed for up to 30 minutes in trying to transport a patient to receive medical services from one of the so-called rioting “hot zones.” As the violence during those three weeks increased many EMTs were unable to respond to 911 calls because of concerns for their safety.
The parameters were put in place Monday to prevent these circumstances from repeating, but it is in the hands of the demonstrators who in the wake of their raw emotions must remember that the communities and all of their citizens need clear access to their respective hospital services.
Life must continue for these people. Patients need access to undergo routine surgical procedures at their local hospitals. Daily doctor visits must go uninterrupted. Health care workers must be able to report to their respective jobs.
While I said it would be a misfortune for any loss of life or injury to occur to anyone involved in the protests, it will be an even greater tragedy for it to occur to anyone who isn’t involved in the demonstrations. As a physician, I dread the possibility of reading that a person suffers a medical complication because their medical routine has been disrupted, or that a timely dispatch of emergency services is not available because of rioting, again.
I called on the nation’s leaders to be more vocal about how to prevent uncontrolled rioting from occurring for the second time this year because I strongly believe that we could have prevented it from happening again. As I said earlier, lessons can be pulled from each instance of civil unrest in our history.
My hope is that we can build on what we learned in August, and even borrow a lesson from Ghandi. He built a nation based on example. He showed that peaceful, civil disobedience is more powerful in bringing out a moral message than destruction of communities and people's lives. In the coming days, we will see whether the rioting and violence subsides, and our leaders prevail with a peaceful message. However, it will ultimately be up to our nation to decide if we are ready to listen.