It may be miles and miles away from where you live, but Ferguson, Mo. is closer than you think.
This national embarrassment, this ridiculous cluster-you-know-what, is terrible, virtually indefensible on so many levels. But the seeds of this atrocity were planted a long time ago. What’s worse, they’ve been planted all over our nation.
In fact, what makes this notable is not the KIND of racism, police brutality and abuse of authority … but rather the EXTENT of it.
In light of this one tragic, preventable and unjust killing, so many of the decision-makers in the various interlocking layers of law enforcement have done so many things so badly that the town has become a veritable dumpster fire of national attention. But regular, garden-variety racism and police brutality has been a way of life for so long in so many places that it’s become cliché to even complain about it.
Consider this hypothetical.
If the police had just shot Michael Brown and he survived, but was paralyzed from the waist down … or if he’d died, but the cops hadn’t escalated the situation by responded with such an overwhelming show of force that partially incited a riot … or even if there had been full-on rioting but the demonstrations only lasted one day… or if the police wouldn’t have promised to reveal the officer’s name and then went back on their own promise to the community for the sake of — get this, his and their safety — this might not be the trending topic that it is.
(Trending on Twitter and on news aggregators, that is. For the life of me, I cannot understand why , five days later, I have yet to see it listed in the trending news on my Facebook feed. They figured out how to get me up-to-the-second missives on the latest Kardashian sideboob fiasco, but somehow the biggest story in police brutality and race relations of the year doesn’t make the cut?? Where’s Ed Lover when you need him?! C’MON SON!!)
My point is, it’s only getting this much attention because it’s become such a perfect storm of brutality, incompetence and tone-deaf, head-smacking obliviousness. Case in point: St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar characterized his police response as “an incredible amount of restraint,” which included tear gas, riot gear, rubber-plated bullets, military-style tanks, sniper rifles with laser sights, and pretty much anything else you can use playing Call of Duty.
So yeah, while this Ferguson thing is out of control for sure, similar incidents of armed police and/or citizens killing unarmed black people all over the country are a regular occurrence. To the list of fallen that includes Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, and many others, we now add another name – Michael Brown. This, all by itself, is heinous, and heartbreaking.
But the attitudes, biases and both interpersonal and structural forms of racism that made this incident possible… they exist, in various forms, in every city in America.
Ferguson is not as far as you think.
Ferguson police Chief Tom Jackson recently said he welcomes racial sensitivity training, but where was that desire before this happened? In my city, people complained when city officials paid to attend a diversity training aimed specifically at white people. When the seeds of unrest were being sown through decades of racial disparities in arrests, sentencing and incarceration, was he concerned then? And was he concerned enough before this happened to risk such public criticism? I’m not saying he’s lying, but I wonder how much of a priority this would be if it weren’t for the phalanx of media descending on his city and the specter of the Department of Justice looming in the distance. From my vantage, I can only wonder.
But here’s what I don’t have to wonder about. Plenty of people, even now… even AFTER this atrocity has come to light, still resist seeing this for what it is, and have engaged in victim blaming, deflection, and outright denial, in order to shield themselves from the horror and convince themselves that those blacks had it coming.
And this isn’t just some strawman generalization, either.
Just in the last 24 hours, I’ve seen a screenshot of a Facebook comment by a woman named Catherine Nardi (incorrectly identified as the wife of the local police chief) who quite literally characterized black people as animals. I also saw a blog post by a very prominent conservative blogger named Matt Walsh who implied, in a post entitled “the police aren’t the ones destroying the black community,” that somehow black pathology is to blame for this whole affair. In so doing, he pulled out the rustiest of canards, black people kill each other all the time, why aren’t they marching about that? … as if that never happens.
(PRO-TIP: don’t say that, EVER. Plenty of black people march about black-on-black violence all the time. It’s called Google, Matt Walsh. Try it sometime, it might prevent you from writing like an asshole.)
My point in bringing these up is not specifically to shame either Matt Walsh or Catherine Nardi. I don’t know either of them personally, but based on a preponderance of evidence, my guess is that they are so hardened in their perspective (and isolated in their influences) that they probably cannot be publicly shamed into changing their tune.
My point is that these are only the worst of the bad attitudes. On the other side of the scale, people with much less racial animus and vitriol, who would likely claim to not have a racist bone in their body, probably still harbor deep-seated, entrenched racial biases that occupy their subconscious and impact their decision-making. As Matt Stauffer put it, they may not be actively racist, but they uncritically participate in a racialized society, and then through ignorant action or inaction, help racism perpetuate its pernicious chokehold on American society.
These are the people who might say, “that’s a shame that happened, but let’s wait ‘til all the facts come out before we rush to conclusions,” as if no conclusions can be made from the fact that police killed an unarmed black man who witnesses say had his hands up at the time of his death. These are the people who might cheer their favorite college basketball player in an arena but cross the street or lock their car door if it were dark and they didn’t recognize him without his uniform on.
These are the people who greenlight movies that only use white actors in the hero roles, but allow blacks and other people of color to play evil villains, thugs and henchmen. These are the people who resent being asked to attend diversity trainings because they have “real work” to do, who forward emails depicting President Obama as a monkey, and when confronted, tell the aggrieved party to lighten up, who are willing to characterize white open-carry protesters in Starbucks as peaceful demonstrators, but are liable to call grieving black neighbors in Ferguson “an angry mob.” They’re the same ones who don’t get why this whole thing is such a big deal, and who, if they were to be completely honest and unfiltered, might admit that if the police shot a black kid on the street, ehhh… it’s a shame, but he probably did something to deserve it.
I’m telling you.
Ferguson is closer than you think.
Look, I know this tragedy isn’t only about race. I know it’s also, on some level, about the drug war and bad policies and sentencing laws. I know it’s also about the militarization of police forces, about decades of military surplus making its way to local police forces and those police forces behaving like occupying forces, to the extent that people demonstrating in their own backyards are being fired upon with tear gas canisters.
It’s also, as Dave Deckard of BlazersEdge so eloquently stated, about responsibility in journalism.
Because if nothing else, the recent suppression of speech and the arrests of actual journalists has created a situation where the only voices that can get through are the voices on the ground, which means that, in a very real sense, the responsibility for truth-telling and unfiltered honesty has begun to trickle down from the ratings-driven, ideological spin zones of professional, mainstream media and into the laps of everyday citizens like you or me. In times of crisis, when we cannot rely on the professionals to confront the problem, we are the only solution we have left.
And the solutions require more than just hashtag activism.
So, let me be clear. I said this about Donald Sterling, and I’m saying it again here. If you’re not willing to examine the ways that racism may have infected your community, your workplace, your household, or even your heart, then I don’t care what you think about the atrocities in Ferguson. Because if you refuse to deal with this, your abdication of that truth-telling responsibility will help pave the way for the next horrible atrocity where another young black man gets killed because some police unit shot first and asked questions later.
Dig deep, look around, and be honest. If you’re a Christian like me, try not to sin, but still – be angry.
Because Ferguson is closer than you think.