This is not an easy piece for me to write. My mind has gone back and forth over all aspects of this and I’m pretty sure there is no way I can put my words down in a way that will not upset someone. But, it’s eating at me. It’s like that creature in the movie Aliens. It’s deep in my gut and if I don’t do something, if I don’t write something, it’s going to come bursting out of me at a time when I least expect it, in an equally gross and gory way as it did in the movies.
Last Saturday, which interestingly enough was also my birthday, an 18 year old black boy was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Here’s what we know specifically about this incident, without a doubt.
A boy was killed.
A police officer shot and killed him.
We know absolutely nothing else for a fact.
Not one other thing can be proven.
There have been allegations made against the police officer. There have been allegations made against the boy. Some claim the police officer shot him unjustifiably, more than once, and after the boy put his hands up and surrendered. Some claim the boy attacked the police officer and the officer acted in defense of his own life.
One of these is most likely true. They definitely can’t both be.
We don’t know without a shadow of a doubt what happened, because an investigation never got the chance to take place. A trial – if one is warranted – has not happened. An autopsy has not been performed.
We have a justice system in place in this country for a reason. Is it flawed? Absolutely. Is there room to improve it? You bet there is. Is it a tragedy that Mike Brown, the boy who was killed, can’t testify to his own defense? Yes.
But it is the justice system we have and for all it’s flaws, it is one of the best out there. Unfortunately, it is now permanently muddled by what happened next. A group of individuals in Ferguson decided that they wanted to protest Mike Brown’s death by destroying various businesses in the town and stealing stuff. Or rather they exploited his death to break the law.
What surprised me was the response I started to see. People were surprisingly in support of those who destroyed the livelihood of others. This is something that is complete anathema to me. I believe in the right of protest. I really, truly do. I believe even in the act of non-violent, civil disobedience. I will never, ever support the right of violent, destructive behavior as a form of protest though.
So, there I was, mid-week in the middle of this story, fully against what was happening in this town as a response to this tragedy. And then my world view flipped on it’s head. I watched horrifically as the police in this town went from being a police force to a military one. I watched as they arrested reporters and threw tear gas on them. Two of the most fundamental Constitutional rights were being taken away from people. One was the right to be heard. The second was a right to a free press being able to report on what was happening.
At that moment, if I lived close enough by, I would have been sorely tempted to be a part of the protest. We are no longer America if we are not allowed to speak our mind or protest if we feel called to do so. We are no longer America if our police have that much intense firepower to force a group to bow to their will as they were attempting to do. Similarly to the fact that I believe in the right to protest, I believe in law and order. But the police stepped way over the line. They are not above the law either. It’s one thing to deal with people who are breaking the law, it’s another to bend people into a submissive state.
Finally, after days of this, the Governor of Missouri and the President of the United States finally decide to get involved. The Governor removes the city police from the situation and puts the State Highway patrol in charge. I wasn’t sure exactly how that would work, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that protests, legal and non-violent, continued to happen and the night was relatively peaceful.
But then the police throw a bit of a bombshell. Mike Brown had apparently robbed a store right before he was shot. How is this relevant? My personal opinion is that it is relevant only to his state of mind as he and the police officer had their confrontation. But it is not primarily relevant to the police officer’s state of mind, because he didn’t know Brown had committed the robbery. This is something that has been reported many times, the police officer got into this altercation with Brown over jaywalking, he was not aware of what Brown had done previously.
You know what’s interesting though? Even this information should have waited to be made known until a full investigation is done of the shooting. I actually didn’t feel that way at first, but I’ve become convinced of it now. Mike Brown is also innocent until proven guilty, despite his no longer being alive. That’s a fundamental piece of our justice system, we are all innocent until we have a trial of our crime and are proven guilty. Does it seem pretty obvious that Brown committed the crime? Sure it does. But it hasn’t been proven. That’s what courts are for.
It had the intended effect though. It ticked off a whole bunch of people. And then the scariest thing in my mind happened Friday night. More rioting began and stores began to be destroyed again as people intended to steal and destroy more things. Well, now that we effectively handcuffed the police – mostly in part to their own over the top actions – we left a city that was unprotected by law enforcement.
That was until groups of people started standing in front of buildings preventing them from being looted. I find this both heroic and scary as hell. These people were heroic because they could have very easily been hurt by those wanting to destroy things. It’s scary as hell, because of the reaction I started hearing. “Good for them! We don’t need a police force! We can police ourselves!”
We can police ourselves? Who manages that? Who controls that? At what point are those that stepped up to “police ourselves” no longer one of us and become someone who has power over us? And since there is no law for them to be bound by, at what point do they become our masters?
You can argue that the police are in that same state, having power over us and I won’t argue with you completely. But I will argue that they are bound by the law and we do have ways to deal with them if they don’t abide by it. Not perfect, but we are imperfect people in an imperfect society. But they are there. I’m sorry but the other way is pure anarchy and it frightens me in ways that I’ve never been frightened before for this country.
So where do we stand now? I honestly don’t know. I see so much that is wrong on every side of the equation here. No one is trying to handle the very basic facts:
1. A boy was killed.
A police officer shot and killed him.
People want to make this about many other things. Some of those things I readily agree with. We have a very large race problem in this country. There are things that are better today than they were 50 years ago. There are things that are not. I know white people that are racists. This saddens me greatly. I know black people that are racists. This too, saddens me greatly.
So, we want to make this about race, and it may definitely be, but we don’t want to have true, genuine conversations about race. We want to be mad, we want to protest, which is all good and fine. But where do you want to go from there? What do you effectively want to see changed? That no black person will every be arrested, shot or killed again? Or that people, regardless of race, are treated the same in a given situation? I hope it’s the latter. I assume it’s the latter. But this week has given me pause. I’m not sure that’s what everyone thinks anymore.
I’m not a perfect person, therefore I can’t assure you I’ve never acted racist. I don’t think I have, but it’s possible I’ve done so and that bothers me too. What bothers me even more though is that now, as a middle-aged white man, there is a growing idea that I can’t even speak about these issues. I can’t be a voice in the discussion. People even call it by a name…”white-splainin” (or “man-splainin” if you’re talking about gender issues), not even realizing themselves that adding “splainin” to a word is inherently racist as well (don’t believe me? Ask yourself where the word “splainin” comes from?)
I don’t know what the right answer is in Ferguson. I don’t know if there is a right answer anymore. This last week has muddied things so badly that I don’t think we can get easily get them back on track again.
I know this though. We have to respect each other. We’ve got to learn to appreciate each other. We need to obey the rule of law. We need to respect authority. We need to let people’s voices be heard. All of them. We need to pause a moment, take a collective breath as a nation, and try to figure out where we go from here. This is the greatest country this world has ever known and this is a difficult issue to resolve. We’ve resolved worse. We can do it again.
I have great faith in our nation’s ideals. The most important one in mind is the following, from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are CREATED EQUAL, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are LIFE, LIBERTY, and the PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. (emphasis is mine).
Until we all feel that way about everyone, none of us are truly free. We will continue to be bound by the ugliness of what we’ve seen this last week in a little town in Missouri. My personal, American dream, naive though it may be, is to live in a country where this ugliness is one day permanently put behind us. Sadly, I’m not sure that dream will ever come true.