The Past isn’t Past
This Thanksgiving, talk of Ferguson dominated the conversation. I was surprised but pleased by the fact that our work – justice work – had found some staying power over many days that were full of the distractions of far-apart family spending precious time together.
Like most of us, I wish that criminal justice issues would dominate news, dog walks, dinner tables and evening discussions around the fire. Our criminal justice system affects so many people, debilitates so many communities, costs every single one of us SO MUCH money, falls down time after time after time, is such a focused reflection of the way we think about all other social issues (education, housing, family, public assistance, etc…. not to mention humanity in general), and is an opportunity to assess the intersection of our national past in order to chart a better future. And yet, I am pretty sure that this was the first big family convening where the topics I love to talk about all day long got more than a few obligatory questions before moving on.
This is a good thing. With my family, Ferguson persevered through football, Black Friday bombardment and some coma-inducing feasting. Today, despite the weekend behind us and the mad scramble to get back in the saddle, it seems to be holding strong. For that, I am thankful.
Disclaimer: So much has been said about Ferguson, I doubt I can say anything new, and it made me momentarily hesitate. Already, Tim Young, Stephen Saloom, Ernie Lewis, Janene McCabe and Jeff Adachi (and probably more of you!) within our NAPD community have all written beautiful pieces on different facets of this amazingly complex topic. But this isn’t a subject to wrap up neatly. It’s personal for all of us. I am not sure too much can be said; I am not sure there is any harm in repeating it again and again.
So I write… Like everyone, we wish we could have watched what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. It’s pretty hard to forge an opinion without clear information about what went down. Of course, a body camera on the officer would have given us that information, and Darren Wilson wasn’t wearing one. (Getting body cameras on police officers immediately is a no-brainer.) Without real footage, we are left to examine our prejudices and the credibility of Dorian Johnson versus Darren Wilson, and project a deprived guess at the truth born of the limited evidence and court proceedings that we are allowed to access.
The conversation got me thinking about how long ago the Ferguson story started being written. At some point in the conversation, I had this vivid mental image of two black teenagers walking down a dirt road in Louisiana 100 years ago, and being approached by a carriage with a white driver commanding them off the road. Of course – not then, not now – it’s not about traffic interruptions or public safety – it’s about the dynamic of power. Forget what happened after the confrontation – why is a police officer stopping two teens from walking down a neighborhood street to begin with?
Many years ago I was taught, and can’t refute, that you know racism exists when the assertion of black power is viewed as an attack on white people. Ferguson confirms. If black teenager Michael Brown could be shot for asserting his will to walk down the street in his own neighborhood and white police officer Darren Wilson could avoid being brought to trial because his request and subsequent lethal enforcement was viewed as appropriate, we have a tacit endorsement that black people should still tuck their tails between their legs, bow their heads, offer up the vulnerability of their bare hands, and acknowledge “yes, sir,” which is not so different than “yes, master”.”
I don’t know if Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson resisted moving to the sidewalk. But I am quite certain there were more significant public safety issues to which Darren Wilson should have been attending, and I am damn sure that no one should have died. I actually think – though I have no skin in the game, and my skin color immunizes me from lethal violence to a large degree – that acquiescing to ridiculous requests of suppression should be resisted. Acquiescing only perpetuates a problem that needs correcting. And of course I know that for black people and white police officers, the assertion of rights and peaceable resistance is a surefire fast track to being arrested or killed. That has to change. We need better cops, and to achieve that, we need to be a better society. I include myself; I am part of this flawed power dynamic and that puts a bit of Darren Wilson inside of me too, but also the sincere struggle to keep it at bay, and the opportunity to learn and grow.
The preservation of that inequitable power dynamic – which started before America even was – has to be revisited. I winced, physically, when I read Gov. Nixon’s “expectation” on the night of the grand jury non-indictment that, “people on all sides show tolerance, mutual respect and restraint.” I cannot imagine a more inflammatory statement to have made at that moment. To tell a community that lost one if its teenagers on his way to his grandmother’s house, to completely fabricate a false context that Michael Brown was a public safety threat when approached by the police, after three months of prolonged proceedings not open to the public, when even mainstream news suggested the prosecutor was intentionally sabotaging the proceedings, after a grand jury finds not even enough evidence to support probable cause, and the news is released at 8:00 at night, the Governor suggests “mutual respect”? Unbelievable. And that’s just the wound of this moment, not the thousands of co-existing moments of people of color being victimized by law enforcement, or the hundreds of years of American prejudice, violence and oppression toward black people.
Whether his statement was intentionally malicious, or whether Governor Nixon is so disassociated with the power dynamic in Ferguson and throughout America, or whether he read a sanitized history book that his own experience has never challenged, I don’t want to judge. The message was like pouring kerosene in an open wound for me, and I cannot imagine how much more painful it must of been for those on the other end of the power dynamic. We have never had mutual respect for people of color in this country. Asking it of the Ferguson community is the absolute wrong thing to ask.
Governor Nixon has some introspection to do. We all need to ask ourselves to consider the role of racism in our history – the small moments and the big ones, the infinite varieties – in order to build a community built on equality. White people don’t have to give anything up to face the past honestly, and we don’t have to give anything up to empower a community to share in the privilege of respect that we almost always take for granted. It is woven into the historical fabric of Ferguson both specifically and acutely. Blair Kelley reported in The Root that Ferguson is not far from the place where Dred Scott lived and made a series of petitions for his freedom that ultimately ended with a US Supreme Court decision in 1857: African-Americans have “no rights to which the white man was bound to respect.”
Start researching Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson and you will read about so many others – Eric Garner in New York, Alonzo Ashley in Denver, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Oscar Grant in Oakland, Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL…. Have family who suggest that these are anomalies? Of course no one tracks this data really (what does that tell you?) but CNN’s Melissa Perry took a segment of data from the FBI which found that from 2006 to 2012 in this country a white police officer killed a black person at least as often as twice a week.