Here’s something I love about being 50: I’m wise. Seriously. So damn smart. But what really makes me intelligent is not what I know, but rather what I don’t know.
True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us. -Socrates
I love having Socrates on my side. So. Are you smart? Think about it, especially as you watch coverage of Ferguson, MO in the aftermath of the grand jury’s failure to indict the police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown last August. Think about what you don’t know, and in the meantime I’ll tell you some things you should know.
1. Michael Brown was not a thug. He was an 18-year-old high school graduate with no known criminal record. NO CRIMINAL RECORD. He had some marijuana in his system when he was killed. And there is video of him possibly stealing cigars from a convenience store. Are you privy to what went down in that convenience store? No? Neither am I. And neither was the officer who shot him six times. But I do know that when I was 19, I got totes wasted at the World’s Fair and stole the African Queen boat, which was on exhibit, took it for a sail, and evaded security guards when they chased me down. I wasn’t a thug. I was a drunk, stupid, kid. And I would have been stoned, too, if I could have been. The only difference between what Brown did and what I did is that he’s black and lived in a poor neighborhood, and I’m white and lived in privilege. He may not have been “a gentle giant,” as his family has described him, but that doesn’t mean he was a thug. He was a teenager with friends and family, ups and downs, dreams and failures. Words matter; choose them carefully.
2. The protestors are not looters and rioters. Read that sentence twice. I’ll rephrase: the looting and rioting is being done by looters and rioters, okay? The protestors – some of whom have been out on the streets of Ferguson every single day since Brown was killed, have a right to be seen and heard. So please stop using the ubiquitous “they” to refer to every black person in Ferguson. It’s inaccurate, misleading, and racist. And yes, the violence is unfortunate, and those perpetrators are detracting from the ability of genuine legal protestors to be heard. But that’s the fault of the police, too — police have systematically targeted all public gatherings, violent or not, with tear gas and at gunpoint, instead of recognizing the difference between the two. Also: not all of the protestors are black. And as I write this, I’m watching footage of police officers in riot gear pointing assault rifles at people who, honest to the goddamn gods, are just standing there.
3. It’s not just the death of Michael Brown that has led to the current unrest. If you review just the uncontested facts of the case, a pattern of disrespect and insensitivity becomes clear: A black, unarmed teenager is confronted by a white police officer and ordered to get out of the street. An altercation ensues, and the police officer shoots the kid six times – three times in the head – and kills him. The kid’s only crime as it relates to this scenario is that he was walking in the street. Instead of immediately recognizing that a terrible tragedy has occurred, the police leave Brown’s bloody body in the street for four hours while the shooting is investigated. The officer who killed Brown is put into a protective custody of sorts: his name, which should have been available as a public record, is not released. He faces no immediate consequences. The Brown family receives no apology. Can you imagine how angry you’d be if you were mother to a black son in that area? Yes, I teach my kids to be respectful of law enforcement because I think it’s an important part of being a citizen – not because I’m afraid an officer will shoot them. Can you see how dramatic that is? How fundamentally unjust? When a prosecutor does finally address what happened, it’s in a lackluster, confusing, ambiguous presentation to a grand jury, which votes not to indict the officer.
4. Don’t sit in the comfort of your secure home nestled in your safe neighborhood and judge the mindsets of people who have to teach their children to recognize the sound of gunshots. Just don’t.
Listen, I don’t necessarily want you to change your mind – I want you to change your perspective. Imagine yourself in the middle of this vortex:
Your son has recently graduated from high school, and is thinking of enrolling in a technical school. You’re a little worried about him, because he parties a lot, but he’s a sweet kid, loves his family, and has never been in trouble with the law – you’re trusting he’ll find his way. On a hot August day, he leaves to roam the neighborhood with a friend. The next you know of him is that he has been shot to death by a police officer who later says your son, who has never even been arrested, was reaching for his gun. No one apologizes for shooting your unarmed son. No police officer expresses remorse for what happened. Instead, you must watch your dead son’s reputation be dragged through the dregs of the nation.
For the love of this country, doesn’t that seem worth protesting?