Mayberry and Ferguson

On August 9, Ferguson Missouri police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old black man. Initial reports indicate that Brown had his hands up in the air when Wilson fired multiple times. The Brown family lawyer proclaimed that Wilson was guilty of murder. Riots ensued, and SWAT teams and national guard were called in to restore order using military equipment and weaponry. The riots have since ended, but there’s still unrest, distrust, and anger simmering in the St. Louis suburb. And why not? After all, Ferguson was a public safety disaster waiting to happen. The population of Ferguson is 63% African American, yet the police force is 94% White.

It is amazing to me that in America you are guaranteed a jury of your peers, yet we can’t guarantee policing by your peers. This is something that Attorney General Eric Holder should try and rectify as a violation of basic civil rights. I also think that police officers should live where they work. Anyway, that’s my input, and while it would take time to implement those proposals, at least they’re viable. That’s in contrast to the irresponsible and bone-headed input by some in the news media over the past few weeks.

The FOX news team, of course, was quick to paint Wilson as the victim and Brown as the criminal. But my favorite skewed coverage was on CNN. Commenting on the Ferguson riots and police use of tear gas to disperse crowds, CNN anchor Rosemary Church suggested, “Why not use water cannons? At least it’s not something that is going to have the same kind of effect.” Typical of today’s beauty queen news anchors, Ms. Church made the mistake of opening her mouth and showing us how little she knows. She also demonstrated a thorough lack of historical perspective and sensitivity. Those of us who came of age in the early 1960’s remember all too well the disturbing images of southern cops blasting innocent Black citizens with water cannons. It was inexcusable behavior by racists parading as public servants. So thanks for your suggestion Ms. Church – you freaking idiot.

Meanwhile, not all insensitive coverage was initiated by the electronic media.

Syndicated cartoonist Taylor Jones amplified the 1960’s water cannon era by portraying a Ferguson storm trooper as Barney Fife. In the foreground of the cartoon is a Black man with raised hands while Fife, armed with an assault rifle and pointing a semi automatic pistol at the man, says, “We’ve got to nip it in the bud!” For me, Jones’ illustration and political commentary was the last straw in the media frenzy about Michael Brown’s killing, and for two reasons.

For many years now I have grown increasingly embarrassed to tell people that I work in television because increasingly, local and network news operations have filled their ranks with air heads whose main qualification is that they are young and attractive. Ironically, though, when attempting to ad lib, what they say is often very unattractive. The killing of an unarmed Black youth by a white man in authority is becoming an all too familiar occurrence in this country, and any news person who fails to grasp the significance of that racial divide is not fit to wear a microphone.

The other reason I reached my boiling point last month is because a tragedy born out of prejudice is never well served by satire born out of prejudice. Jones’ cartoon wasn’t funny because his metaphor wasn’t appropriate, and smacked of prejudice against the South. If ever there was a kind and gentle law enforcement officer, it was the fictional Barney Fife, loyal deputy on “The Andy Griffith Show”. To portray Fife as a violent, racist cop even in jest is a misrepresentation of the character Don Knotts created, and an insult to the millions of White people in the South who live with and respect people of color.

To be fair, Jones isn’t the first media professional to pick on Mayberry. Two years ago producers of the prime time EMMY awards show presented a parody of “The Andy Griffith Show” in which Andy and Barney were portrayed by characters from “Breaking Bad”. The segment ended with Bryan Cranston (“Andy”) and Aaron Paul (“Opie”) murdering Barney.

For some big city media types it is stylish to make fun of the South, and when based on facts, those parodies can be helpful. But no TV anchor, pundit or cartoonist has the right to indict all southern towns for something vile that takes place in a single locality. Barney Fife is nothing like Darren Wilson. For proof, just heed Fife’s own words; “It’s a wise man who knows it’s illegal to take the law into his own hands.” Barney also said, “I’m a student of humanity. I guess that’s the difference between a sharply honed lawman, and a jerk wearing a badge.” And once when Barney was swearing in extra deputies, he told them, “That badge means something. Don’t any of you disgrace it.” I believe that the majority of police officers and deputies in the South feel the same way as Barney, and that’s something of which we southerners can be proud.

Later this month, the town of Mount Airy will host its annual “Mayberry Days” event, where visitors can celebrate what’s good about small town America. There will be plenty of good food, good music, and good conversation. And yes, there will be plenty of good cops around to keep an eye on things. There’s no doubt that the Ferguson police force needs swift reform, but not all small towns are full of racists. Anyone who seeks to lump us all together should just nip it right now. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).