Which Way Do I Go To Get To Your America: Thoughts On Ferguson and Michael Brown
Last night, my wife went off to work and I stayed home with our two year-old son. We played “find the bug” with the toy bugs I’d just bought him. We wrestled a little, rolling around and giggling. We read stories and talked about our day. I took him upstairs, got him into his firetruck pajamas, sat with him in my lap and read some more. Then I put him in his crib and softly sang him a few songs as he slowly drifted off. And I sat there for a few minutes, awed at where my life has taken me.
Then I went downstairs, turned on my computer, and watched as part of America tore itself to pieces.
There are inescapable truths about Michael Brown, the young man who was shot to death by a still-unnamed police officer in Ferguson, MO this week. He was 18 years old, college-bound, a good guy, and black. He was walking down the street with a friend of his. There was some sort of altercation with a police officer, several shots were fired, and Brown, unarmed, was shot to death. Now, the city of Ferguson burns, under siege by police. The police response has been maddening and terrifying — tear gas and rubber bullets fired into crowds, SWAT officers aiming rifles at angry, unarmed citizens, reporters being denied access, then harassed, attacked, and arrested (actions even right-wing blowhards like Ted Cruz have decried). The imagery has been horrific, as if a foreign tyranny took over a small town.
The gentleman on the left has more personal body armor and weaponry than I did while invading Iraq. pic.twitter.com/5u6TxyIbkk— Brandon Friedman (@BFriedmanDC) August 14, 2014
The protests were often — but not always — nonviolent. Most remarkable and memorable was the image of a black man, dressed in an American flag, hurling a gas canister back at the police.
As for Brown himself, you have a choice at this point of what you believe. You can believe that he attacked a police officer, tried to wrestle his gun away for no reason whatsoever and was shot in the ensuing struggle. Or you can believe that the officer became enraged when Brown and his friend did not immediately comply with his order to “get the fuck onto the sidewalk”, and opened fire. I choose to believe the latter, and if you try to tell me that it’s too soon to pick a side, then you’re kidding yourself. Because you should also know that Monday night — Monday night, in the midst of all of this chaos — a young black man in Los Angeles was shot to death by a police officer. He, too, was unarmed.
America has problems. It’s a great country, but sometimes it feels like it’s deeply broken. It has problems with guns, problems with race, problems with law enforcement and power and youth. Young black men die in droves, sometimes by each other’s hand, and sometimes by the hands of cops. It happens far too often. If you have watched the events of the last few days unfold and you do not think that America has a race problem and that black people don’t still face unfathomable prejudice and hatred and violence, then congratulations: you are officially part of that problem. Because to not see it is to wander through the world with blinders on. Worse still are those who say that it’s tragic, but “why didn’t he just get onto the sidewalk?” It’s the sort of de rigeur victim blaming that has become prevalent in conservative media outlets, misdirecting you from the issue, sowing seeds of doubt and prejudice into people’s minds. On the other side of the coin, we are now reading about how Brown did not have a criminal record. Or even (and I’m admittedly guilty of using this factoid as well) that he was going to college. These are all some popular hot topics on the news right now.
It doesn’t matter. None of that matters. It doesn’t matter if he complied with the order, just like it doesn’t matter if he had a criminal record a mile long. It wouldn’t have mattered if he’d gotten out of jail that morning.
An unarmed black man was shot to death by a police officer. Again. And then a few days later, it happened once more.
The next media hot button was the rioting and looting. I don’t condone it, but I understand it. There’s a line in Living Colour’s “Which Way To America” where, after repeatedly lamenting the divide between the America you see on TV and the America that’s outside the window, singer Corey Glover shouts “Where’s my picket fence? My long, tall glass of lemonade? Where’s my VCR, my stereo, my TV show?” If you want to understand looting, that’s a start. It’s opportunism, and it’s small and petty and stupid and ignorant. But it’s also rage and fury and resentment and a way of expressing that which you have no way of expressing, that which you perhaps don’t even fully understand.
All of that is a distraction. The facts about Brown’s background, the looting — they’re all background noise slowly getting louder, distracting you from the truth.
An unarmed black man was shot to death by a police officer. Again.
In Ferguson, 65 percent of the population is black. That 65 percent accounts for “86 percent of traffic stops, 93 percent of arrests after stops and 92 percent of searches after stops.” Similarly, “blacks in Ferguson were twice as likely as whites to be arrested — even though police found contraband for 34 percent of whites they stopped and searched, versus 22 percent of blacks.” Despite 65 percent of its population being black, Ferguson’s 53-member police force has three black people on it.
What you are seeing is a small community that is perfectly, shiningly, resplendently emblematic of America’s race problems. Stripped bare and hurled into the street for all to see. All of the race problems, complete with tear gas, riots, rage, and rubber bullets. People are shocked, they say. People don’t know what to do. How could this be our America? I suppose I get that. But I look at Ferguson, and you know what I saw at first? I saw Soweto, and Sharpeville, and Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Nothing about this week has shocked me, because I’ve seen it before. Hell, Americans have seen it before too, in Detroit and Chicago and Montgomery and every other city. Some of us just forgot, or we were lulled into thinking that the problems had fixed themselves.
Ferguson is a reckoning, a terrible, awful, tragic sacrifice made so that the rest of us could clearly see one of the divides that threatens to once again tear the country asunder. It’s a burning monument to racism, suppression of speech and the press, and all of the things we thought our country stood against, but in fact still infects it like a cancer. We need to watch it happen. We need to flinch and cry and get angry and upset and confused. We need to write about it and talk about it and vote about it and we need to never stop and never forget. It’s the way we find a solution. It’s the way we get to a place where I don’t fear the police. Where I don’t get searched every. single. time I go through an airport. Where I don’t have to worry that the life I’m trying to build for my child isn’t just an illusion, a bandage covering a gaping and horrible wound beneath. Where black men don’t get shot for being black, where police aren’t feared but respected, where rage doesn’t explode into the street and where the response isn’t to terrorize the citizenry. It’s the way we fix it. It’s the way we heal.