I think we are going to remember November 24th, 2014 for a long time. I think it is going to be a day that makes the American history textbooks, and serves as a turning point in how we look at race relations for years to come. The thing is, what are we going to remember? Are we going to remember a city in unrest, rioting and consuming itself? Are we going to remember an 18 year old man who was killed by a police officer? Are we going to remember the underlying meaning of why it so profoundly troubled the American people?
The public has been struggling for a week to figure out exactly how to feel about what happened last Monday in the Grand Jury decision in the Ferguson, MO case against police officer Darren Wilson. I intentionally took a full week to try to process my own thoughts and put them together, rather than responding emotionally, which I think is at the root of the issue to begin with.
First of all, we have to address the issue of justice. A large percentage of those enraged by the decision not to bring charges against the police officer who shot and killed 18-year old Michael Brown have claimed that justice was not done, and that the people of Ferguson have had their right to justice stolen from them.
The reality is that justice was done. Justice is lawyers and judges sitting and discussing the facts of the case. That happened in the courtroom. Justice was done when those facts presented a situation that a judge deemed ill-fit for a trial. That was justice. As much as we may or may not like the result, the pathway to it was justice.
We are, in a lot of ways, confusing justice with fairness. But we don’t have fairness either. Do we really believe that pressing charges on the police officer will bring Michael Brown back? Do we hope that, in making an example of the cop, that this won’t ever happen again, out of fear for retribution? Do we feel that, despite the physical evidence’s inability to create reasonable grounds to press charges, that we should allow our own emotional reactions to infiltrate the legal system?
Michael Brown has, in many communities, turned into a symbol for the need for reform. He now represents those who face racism every day. He has turned into a headline, a polarizing character in the story. Some want to believe he is a terrible thug who threatened Darren Wilson to the point of fearing his own life. Others insist he was a saint, a good boy going about his business who was so wrongly gunned down, just for the color of his skin. I don’t believe either to be true. I believe he was a kid, an 18 year old, who was stuck in a bad situation. He probably loved his mother and struggled sometimes in school. He probably had good friends and he probably screwed up every now and then. He was, I’m sure, not 100% good or 100% bad. He was human. As far as I can gather from the facts, he reacted badly in a very bad situation, and a police officer did the same. At the end of the day, two lives were changed forever, and a great many more too. Now we, as the American public, have to decide what to do with what’s left.
We can’t, though, treat Michael Brown like he is the patron saint of race relations. We can’t name legislation after him, we can’t use him in political cartoons, we can’t make him the hero of this story. Because, at the end of the day, he is human. Opponents of this situation will always be able to find something wrong with this one man. “He was robbing a convenience store,” “he was getting into a physical altercation with a cop,” “he was a ‘bad’ kid.” All of these are character hits that we just can’t afford to taint the message of equality and progress we’re really looking for. Rather than holding up any single example, it is important that we look at the issue as a whole, and understand that we can’t keep going on the path we’re on. We need to insist on a positive change, but not for any one individual. This needs to be greater than any single person.
We also have to look at our own reactions to the situation. I know that, as a white person, I will never understand the rage that comes from the feelings of discrimination and hate. I know that I’ll never understand what it’s like to live every day facing the possibility of racism and oppression. That being said, burning down someone’s beauty shop isn’t going to get the point across. Violently tearing apart your city isn’t going to lead bigoted white people to want to stand in solidarity with your struggle.
I have a Facebook friend (although not a particularly close one) who was aggressively enraged by the decision in Ferguson. She posted “If you are not angry enough to burn down a building right now, than unfriend me and never speak to me again.” I thought long and hard about unfriending her and never speaking to her again. The fury that comes with something you find morally wrong is understandable. Yet, when we let that fury turn into reckless and violent behavior, we are losing our ability for others to hear the value in our argument. Those who riot in the streets are giving away their voice, instead giving an excuse to those who look to oppress them.
I love to use the phrase “there is a difference between being right and winning.” Being right is easy. It’s easy to know what is best, to be morally superior, to know in your gut that your feelings and thoughts are righteous and valid. The much harder thing is to win, to make others acknowledge that your point is as valid as you believe it to be, and to, in the end, get what you want out of a situation.
There are plenty of ways to be be right and NOT win. You may be right when you tell your boss you think he is an idiot. You’re going to lose, however, when you get fired. This is exactly the same case. The people of Ferguson are right. A terrible situation happened that resulted in the death of a young man. A police officer, meant to protect the community, killed him. There is a racial divide in America, leaving many African Americans fearing those who are meant to protect them. Yet, all of those incredibly meaningful points get lost when, at the end of the day, the rioters lose their point in the screaming and the violence and the outcry.
It’s easy for me to stay calm, because this doesn’t have a direct relationship with my day-to-day life. I’m not scared of the police. I don’t feel discriminated against on a daily basis. I don’t live in near-constant fear. But, when we look back on the greatest human revolutions in history, they were not done by those who yelled the loudest or threw their weight around most, but by the people whose passion manifested itself in heartfelt and insistent calls for change. We are allowed to be upset. We are allowed to be angry. We just can’t afford to lash out, for fear of losing the war for the sake of the battle.
This was a tough piece for me to write. The bottom line is that this is a complicated case, and that there are deeply emotional responses on both sides, arguing over deeply troubling and often cloudy facts. While it may be easy to read these or any words and immediately jump to conclusions about the values of the writer, I think this whole conversation needs a dose of patience.
All too often this week, I’ve seen writers say “if you argue with THIS, then you don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “The last thing anyone needs to read about Ferguson.” There will never be something to say that nobody can argue with. There will never come a be-all, end-all comment that will bring about a world-wide silence of agreement. We should argue about everything. We should be asking questions, we should be pushing each other to think harder, think deeper about every issue. While this post is what I think and feel, it is a constantly evolving thought. So push me. Ask questions. Start a conversation. That is, after all, how we’re going to change the world.