So what to make of Ferguson, Missouri, and the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer? We have clearly conflicting stories as to the sequence of events that day, but one thing all sides agree on is this: Brown was unarmed.
Beyond that, nothing.
So a high school graduate, off to college, is gunned down by an officer who says he was in danger in the confrontation. And once again, we have the racial unrest that often accompanies these deaths.
The protests mostly were peaceful, but don’t tell that to the QuickTrip owners whose business was destroyed by the more violent protestors, and don’t tell that to the local businesses that were looted in those nights.
That kind of mindlessness can never be justified. But can it be understood?
I don’t know; then again, I’m white, so I haven’t had the kinds of experiences so many blacks have had with authorities or with the justice system, or with life in general.
I’ve seen it, though, with my black friend in junior high, one of the first to integrate an all-white school, a friend who was subject to verbal abuse for weeks before it tapered off. And I’ve heard about it firsthand from my wife, who, when out for dinner with a black friend at a Tempe restaurant years ago, was ignored by the wait staff for such a long time my wife and her friend left, clear that the staff was treating them differently than the rest of the diners.
But to experience that regularly? I have no idea what that’s like.
Decades ago, poet Langston Hughes wrote “ A Dream Deferred,” in which he asks the question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” And then suggests the different ways it affects someone. He ends on an ominous note, one that might help us understand the violence in Ferguson: “Maybe it just sags/like a heavy load/Or does it explode?”
I wonder if that’s the case in Ferguson.
I can hear some of you saying, yeah, but that young man’s death doesn’t justify the looting and destruction.
And I agree. It frustrates me and I’ll bet some of you to see the professional racialists appear, stoking the anger. But put yourself in a working class black’s shoes and ask this question: Would Brown have been shot if he were white? Would the police officer have even initiated the original contact about walking in the street if Brown were white?
I don’t know the answers, but I do know that there seems to be a double standard in our justice system at times, a disparity that would make me think twice about the fairness of the authorities. Does that justify violence? Of course not, but can we understand how some might boil over in frustration? Maybe.
I can hear some of you also saying this: Yes, Brown’s death is awful, but why aren’t the protestors out in the streets over the much more common killings of blacks, by other blacks themselves? And that’s true; black on black killings are epidemic in some places, Chicago being the worst example. The statistics startle us, but really not much happens.
But this Ferguson shooting is different. It involves the people we trust to keep us safe, the police. Most of us, me included, feel safe when police officers show up to protect us. But for blacks, and with some justification, that trust is lacking or doesn’t even exist. The Ferguson shooting, so far anyway, only reinforces that mistrust.
I guess the final thing is this: We all want certainty, and in the Internet Age, we want it now. With this case, we might eventually get that certainty, but not anytime soon. That we won’t only makes the situation worse, because we expect instant conclusions, and when they don’t happen, the suspicions grow.
We’ve always had a healthy suspicion of authority; it’s baked into our Constitution. But we’ve gone beyond that, and with plenty of reason, to simply assume that when authority’s questioned, it’s always justified, that corruption of some sort is the norm.
That is frightening.