Monday, December 1, 2014

On Ferguson

Don’t worry.  I do indeed have something to say about last week’s Grand Jury decision not to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson for killing eighteen-year-old Michael Brown.  The internet reaction to the news was…illuminating.  And so I have found myself inspired to elucidate my personal opinion.

This post began as an online comment exchange with someone whose sympathies lay with Wilson.  She bade me to look at it from the officer’s side:  He puts his life on the line every day to “protect” people.  Why shouldn’t he just want to return home to his wife and kids every night?  To which I replied that I actually have a lot of empathy for police...more than most people. Here in Oregon, there have been incidents of officers being randomly shot at or killed during traffic stops. I wouldn't want that job, and I'm grateful there are those that do. That said, closer scrutiny of the combined St. Louis County police forces involved in this incident and its aftermath has shown a shockingly high incidence of racism, KKK membership and just downright abuse of power among their ranks.  It's evident something is very wrong with the police culture in that jurisdiction, and it needs to be dug up and fixed.

My debate opponent then encouraged me to read the Grand Jury testimony before making my decision.  And so I did.  Which convinced me, in the end, that even if Michael Brown’s murder wasn’t an intentional act of violent race-hatred, a rookie’s level of decent policing would have prevented Brown’s death.

The problem with the Grand Jury is that much of their decision was based on the testimony of Officer Wilson. Unfortunately, when two guys are involved in an altercation, and one ends up dead, you only have that one, by-definition biased report of events to go on. Same thing happened in the Zimmerman trial. The surviving (white) guy has the luxury of hours spent with legal counsel in the interests of framing the account in the light most favorable to him; he has the opportunity to emote all over the place for the media, for the Grand Jury, for a trial jury, if the case makes it that far, in justification of his actions.

The dead (black) guy, not so much.

There were so many points at which Wilson could have halted the confrontation instead of escalating it. The kid slammed his car door and wouldn't let him out of his cruiser. Ok. Roll up your window, stay in your vehicle and call for back up. He could have done the same after the altercation inside the vehicle--which would not have escalated to the level of violence it did if the officer had not chosen to draw his weapon rather than fend off the attack with his club or mace.

After he was shot by Wilson at the car, the boy broke off the attack and ran away--again, Wilson could have stayed with his vehicle and waited until help arrived. But no, Wilson gets out of the vehicle and starts to chase the kid--still unassisted, with no back-up present--gun drawn. Reports of what led to the fatal shooting are conflicting.  Many witnesses reported that it appeared Brown had turned around, hands up in the ages old posture of surrender.  Wilson emotes that this unstoppable angry kid (who had one hand inside his shirt holding up his pants in order to run, by the way) kept coming at him even after being shot at least three times, until Wilson finally stops Brown for good by shooting him in the head. The kid was coming at him..."of course" he had to shoot him. But if Wilson had not made the incredibly stupid, if not criminal, decision to chase after the kid unassisted, with his weapon drawn, that would not have happened.

Perhaps the Grand Jury formed their judgment based upon the broad powers conferred upon law enforcement when it comes to “deadly force.”  But if there are laws on the books that allow white police officers to chase down unarmed black offenders and shoot them dead, then those laws need to change.  Sure, there are “Stand Your Ground” laws in many states that allow private (white) citizens to commit homicide at the slightest hint of “fear for their lives.” But, if anything, police should be held to a HIGHER standard of behavior than average citizens.  Their charge to “protect and serve” must apply to the members of the community they patrol, NOT to themselves.  They must be taught that deadly force is an absolute last resort; they must be trained in alternative tactics, tactics that will keep officers and the unarmed suspects OUT of situations where deadly forced might be used.   At the very least, Darren Wilson made a string of terrible decisions, which put his own life in danger and cost a young man his life, and he should be held accountable.

Is Wilson poorly trained and just plain stupid, or is he truly a racist individual recruited by and acting according to the policies of a corrupt agency?  Does it matter?  Either way, an unarmed 18-year-old—who made some bad decisions of his own—lay dead in the street, his body baking in the hot August sun for four hours after the incident.  (As an example?  As a threat?  We’ll perhaps never know.)  But the legal system ultimately chose not to hold the shooter accountable for the homicide.

Darren Wilson claimed he feared for his life, and the Grand Jury swallowed the story.  Even though Brown was unarmed, and was several yards away from the officer when the officer kept shooting until the boy was dead.  Even though many actual eye-witnesses stuck to their stories that the boy had turned and raised his hands in surrender.  Even though the cop had intentionally put himself in a position where he could have been overpowered and had his weapon taken away from him.   I’m sorry.  To me, it appears there was more of white-hot, judgment-impairing anger than fear in this murder.

White policemen "protecting and serving" a black community must be MUCH better trained on how to defuse a potentially violent situation.  They must be taught how NOT to escalate the potential violence of a confrontation.  Isn’t that why cops are (supposedly) issued mace and tasers?    And I have to ask...if the black folks in this community are such thugs and so potentially violent, why was this officer patrolling the neighborhood without a partner, without back-up? Why would his department put him in a position where he could so quickly and easily feel that unloading his weapon into an unarmed kid was the only way he could protect himself?

As I mentioned earlier, the internet response to the Grand Jury decision was intense.  Okay…it’s not like I have 400 Facebook friends with diverse political viewpoints.  But even the conservative friends I DO have—the ones who rarely comment on political stuff, felt compelled to weigh in on the aftermath.  “What is wrong with ‘these people?’”  “Don’t they know that their rioting and violence only hurt themselves?” “Things didn’t go their way, so now they’re having a tantrum.”  “Why was it so hard for those kids to not steal?  If he hadn’t stolen those cigars, he’d still be alive.” 

Obviously, the riots were acts of thuggery, (predictable) manifestations of the culture of violence and criminal behavior in black communities. 

The cop was only doing his job, why is everybody so mad?

The legal system has made its fair and unbiased decision.  Live with it.

If only the kid had not acted like a (not particularly dangerous—he didn’t have a gun) kid raised in a poor black neighborhood, he’d still be alive.

Would you just listen to yourselves?

To a man, every one of those comments came from a white person…a person who has limited contact with actual black people, has no idea what it is like to live in a black community, and whose understanding of black culture comes at him/her from terminally biased American media.  I myself am one of those very white people.  I could make those same misinformed judgments about the rioting in Ferguson, except for my steadfast belief in this one fact:  Since I have never walked in the shoes of members of that community, and am not likely to, I am not entitled to an opinion. 

It is not my place to judge what reactions black people—ANY black people—should or should not have to institutional approval of the obvious devaluation, by the white majority, of the lives of young black men. 

As a member of the white majority, I can only judge what WE do.  How WE behave.

And so I have.  And I find us sorely lacking.  In compassion.  In insight.  In the will to promote justice for all people—black, white, red, yellow, Christian, Muslim, atheist…  In the knowledge that our precious freedom and rights belong to ALL Americans, not just the ones who look like me and act like me.  In the will to fix our broken system so that it benefits ALL the people…not just individuals who already have more than they will ever need.

I have absolutely no business telling a people whose skin color I will never share, whose burdens I will never experience firsthand, whose battles I have never fought, only to have to gird my loins and fight them all over again, to “get over it” and move on.

I can only shine a light on the actions of people of my own race, the privileged” race.   And when the political climate allows us to go backwards, to re-embrace suspicions and racism that had once been on their way to extinction (or so some of us thought, and some of us would still like to believe), to exploit our privilege into giving us a leg-up on others less fortunate…

I will call us on it.

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