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Finley: Ferguson's future is Detroit's past

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Justice isn't achieved by burning down a city. All that comes from torching a community in the name of justice is ... Detroit.

Ferguson, Missouri, can see its future by looking at Detroit's past. It's been nearly 50 years since angry, black Detroiters set fire to their city to express their frustration with a system that was stacked against them. And Detroit still hasn't recovered. The acceleration of abandonment and blight triggered by the 1967 riot is only now being confronted.

In the years after the riot, Detroit moved rapidly from an integrated community to the most segregated city in America.

It lost its white middle class, and also its small businesses, and ultimately its larger ones. A collapsing tax base destroyed city services. A concentration of high-poverty students and shrinking resources laid waste to a school system that once offered salvation to African-American children. And then the black middle class fled.

Investors wrote off Detroit as hopeless. While the suburbs grew and flourished, the core city withered and nearly died. It became a predominately poor, mostly black city with too many social problems and too little resources to solve them.

It's hard to imagine Ferguson will fare any better than Detroit.

Like the Motor City in the '60s, Ferguson has been transitioning from a majority white to a majority black population over the past 25 years. It's now two-thirds African-American.

And also like Detroit of that era, the structures of government haven't kept pace. Just three of the 53 officers on the Ferguson police force are black, and even before the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white cop, there was tension between the community and police.

Detroit's riot was sparked by a raid on an after-hours blind pig. Ferguson's came in reaction to a grand jury's decision not to issue charges against Darren Wilson, the cop who shot Michael Brown.

Detroit's rampage was spontaneous. Ferguson's less so. The town of 21,000 outside of St. Louis has been flooded since the August shooting with anarchists and outside agitators who have been plotting their response to the grand jury announcement for weeks.

But in both cities, failure to get ahead of resentment and inequities, ignoring the divisions that develop as the racial makeup of communities change and maintaining a police force with little understanding of the people it is supposed to serve and protect provided the fuel for the explosions.

Now, Ferguson's business district is smoking, its streets are filled with angry protesters and Al Sharpton has moved his circus into town.

Worse, the name Ferguson is synonymous with racial discord. As Detroit showed, that's not an easy mark to erase.

And just like in Detroit, the people who will suffer the most in Ferguson are the impoverished African-Americans who won't be able to escape the city when it becomes unlivable.

That's what happens when people think they can find justice by striking a match.


Follow Nolan Finley at, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.