As I write this, many are just home after slogging through overcrowded stores on so-called Black Friday about to sit down to leftovers and a movie perhaps. The headlines are slowly shifting away from Ferguson and the other demonstrations which ensued after Officer Wilson was not indicted. But you can be sure that the Brown and Wilson families have not simply been able to go about their lives as usual on this Thanksgiving weekend. Nor have the business owners in Ferguson and elsewhere, who were unwitting victims in the spent enraged frustration of a small percentage of protesters, been able to ignore the “cost” of division, pain and anger.
Everyone seems intent on painting this situation as Black and White, us v. them, right and wrong, guilty or innocent. Fingers are wagging, facts are elusive, and desperation has seeped into our bones. Those bent on demonizing Michael Brown are digging up pictures that portray him as a wayward youth, at best; a thug, at worst. Others wanting to pillory Officer Darren Wilson are ensuring that we remain skeptical about his story that he was afraid for his life when he shot Michael Brown.
Contrary to these polarized vantage points, we all lose in the face of teenage death, militarized police, and the violent expression of desperation and anger. We must recognize our common humanity, our need for collaborative responses, and the goal of healed relationships.
While it is, no doubt, incredibly difficult for Michael Brown, Jr.’s parents to take the wider view, in their pleas for nonviolence, they have recognized that more harm will not restore the life of their son nor bring about the justice they seek. Michael Brown, Sr. has recognized that his own restored sense of peace and equilibrium is caught up in serving the community. Many have joined him. This does not remove the grief of those who loved Michael Jr., but it moves toward healing rather than hate. It’s a start.
Mother Theresa observed that we’ve “forgotten that we belong to each other.” It should concern us that young Black men are killed and incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates than their White peers. As Fr. Greg Boyle states, “The wrong idea has taken root in the world. And the idea is this: there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives.” Our actions must contradict this “wrong idea.”
It should likewise concern us that our police act as if the members of the communities they’ve pledged to protect have begun to look like enemies. This is, in part, about racism, but it is also about the increasing militarization of police and corrections training and administration. Officer Wilson was doing what he was trained to do. This does not excuse the shooting death of an unarmed teenager; it indicts the organization to which the officer belongs. He did what he had practiced doing. Were there ways to de-escalate the situation in such a way that both men walked away alive? I’m guessing there were. As far as I know, Michael Brown and Darren Wilson were strangers before the day of Michael’s death. How is it then that they approached each other as enemies? Sadly, the legacy of racial profiling had seeped into Michael’s understanding of police, and “shoot if you feel threatened,” real threat or not, was part of Darren’s training. Both Darren and Michael had been marinated in our culture of violence and “othering.” They weren’t fellow community members any longer; they no longer recognized the mutual benefit of respect and cooperation nor the value of life, everyone’s life.
Respectfully and humbly, I recommend three ways to begin healing and reimagining the challenges before us:
- Do everything in your power to better understand how racism is affecting your worldview. I know that I am still a work in progress having reaped the benefits of White privilege. Collectively, we need to dismantle the racism that shapes, to one extent or another, everyone in our society. Work beside those who “look” or believe differently than you do for a more cohesive community and a less violent nation.
- Encourage your lawmakers to pass the Youth PROMISE Act which calls for “Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education.” If we are concerned about young people like Michael getting on the wrong track, then let’s support caring and involved parents like the Browns as they do everything in their power to get their children on the right track. This legislation is already a bi-partisan effort to change the way we approach young people who may be in need of mentoring and re-direction. Let’s pass it and support positive efforts to build community and see our young, gifted people grow up to become productive citizens.
- Begin to imagine and restore a police ”force” that has the best interest of the people in its community at heart rather than the demonization of the citizens its being paid to serve and protect. Obviously, there are many officers who studied, trained, and became part of the police academy who genuinely want what is best for the communities where they serve. But when community members are understandably distraught and angry, as they were and are in Ferguson or anywhere else where young Black men have been killed by officers, our first response must be healing rather than riot gear, accompaniment and accountability rather than tear gas. Our common humanity seeks cohesion and compassion, not confrontation.
Some will assert that there is only one correct point of view in the Ferguson situation. There are plenty of people taking “sides” forgetting that we’re all caught up in this together. What’s good for teenagers is better for police officers too, not to mention the communities in which they co-exist. Again, Fr. Greg summarizes well the goal I am suggesting: “the voices at the margins get heard and the circle of compassion widens. Souls feeling their worth, refusing to forget that we belong to each other.”