Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"Let's Not Just Make Noise; Let's Make a Difference"

I tuned in to CSPAN last night to hear the outcome of the St. Louis County grand jury investigation into the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson this past August. I knew CSPAN would provide the coverage, sans talking heads, so that I could make my own conclusions about what was said. And what I heard from the District Attorney made me scratch my head and say, "Huh?" 

I appreciated the methodical detail of the course of events that led to Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson crossing paths with 18-year-old Ferguson resident Michael Brown. But as I heard the story unfold, I couldn't help but wish that this were one of those movies where we could pause the action and allow for an alternate ending. Did Officer Wilson really need to back up his vehicle and block Brown and his friend? Did Brown really need to have an altercation through the window of the police SUV with Wilson? When Wilson's gun went off and grazed Brown's thumb sending the 18 year-old man fleeing down the street, did Officer Wilson really need to pursue him, or could he have waited for back up to arrive? And did Officer Wilson really need to fire off repeated rounds at Brown, even when Brown turned around? The District Attorney said there were conflicting stories. That's believable since it was a highly emotionally-charged scene, and probably the adrenaline of witnesses was running as hard and fast as the two men engaged in the fight. But I just can't shake the fact that Brown didn't have a gun. Officer Wilson did. Even the forensic evidence cited showed that Brown was collapsing forward and yet the bullets kept flying. And one family lost a child, a young man.

The grand jury took what was presented to them, and concluded that Officer Wilson was within his right as a law enforcement officer to respond as he did. Missouri had spoken, and America reacted to the news. 

Many of us, African-Americans and people of all colors, were, sadly, not entirely surprised by this decision. But we were disappointed. Many were angry. Unfortunately for business owners along a block of West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, MO, the anger erupted in setting buildings ablaze and destroying the workplaces. The news media, naturally, gravitated toward the more violent outbursts even though there were peaceful demonstrations and vigils taking place not only in the St. Louis area, but all over the country. As I noted on Facebook, division and fear make for good television visuals. Nobody wants to show the non-violent protests, the people allowing themselves to scream out for justice and not just burn the whole thing down.

I understand the rage. I cannot help but feel the powerlessness of people who, rightly or wrongly, believe the whole system is set up against them. How many times have unarmed black men and women been shot and killed, yet nothing happens? How many parents have had to teach their sons how to behave when the cops approach them, and now even telling their children to put their hands up or out and away from their body doesn't necessarily save them? And there won't be a trial, held in the light of the public eye, to get at the truth in this case. Even the announcement of the non-indictment came at night and not during the day.

I understand the tension of the police. It is not easy to put on a uniform that invites such disparate responses of repulsion on the one hand, and adoration to an extreme on the other hand. It's a dangerous and difficult job, particularly in a country which has a love affair with individual rights to be their own private militia. I was once a student officer with the University of Missouri police department, so I know the type of abusive behavior the cops endure from the public they serve. 

But what I don't understand is how we can keep having these same scenarios play out over and over and over where, at the end of the day, a young African-American or other person of color who is unarmed ends up dead, and there are no consequences, no discipline, and...effectively...no real justice.

Some have argued that Michael Brown wasn't an innocent choir boy on his way to his grandma's house. They note that the confrontation between Wilson and Brown stemmed from the report of someone matching Brown's description having just stolen some cigarillos from a convenience store. Officer Wilson testified that he saw cigars in Brown's hand and he realized that he was likely the thief. There are many, mostly white Americans, saying that Brown shouldn't have broken the law by stealing the cigars. And there are those who go so far as to say, "He got what he deserved."

I have to wonder when it became justice to shoot and kill someone for shoplifting? If that's now a capital crime, then there are lots of kids and young people who won't make it to their adult years.

And it doesn't answer the central question that is still in my mind: why did Officer Wilson feel so threatened and afraid that he shot to kill, rather than wound, Michael Brown?

I don't think we'll ever really know that answer. And so I go to the place that Michael Brown's parents have gone: demand that their son's death not just be more noise in the racial clammoring of America, but that we do something to make a difference. The difference needs to be greater than Ferguson because what happened there on a mid-day August Saturday could easily have happened here in Tallahassee, or in Seattle, or in West Roxbury. Communities of color have very little trust that the police are there to serve and protect them. Constant racial profiling hasn't helped and may actually be contributing to a subconscious belief that everybody is a bad guy until proven not guilty. The Browns have called for all police to have body cameras to record their interactions. That will document what happens at traffic stops and such. But there are still more things that may need to happen. And it will take all of us, police officers and the communities they serve, to come together and work toward solutions that will address the growing mistrust.

My faith tells me that I am to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. That is my ongoing commitment in my hope and desire that we will all one day see that we are a human race made up of many hues which also color our experiences which in turn become our realities. I will commit to the long slog toward making true equality THE reality.

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