The scenes and stories from Ferguson, MO are both tragic and profoundly disturbing. The death of Michael Brown, Jr., shot in the back by officer Darren Wilson, resonates deeply and clearly sends the message about how black male youth are disproportionately targeted and profiled. That his death sparked brief but significant street violence is understandable, but also sad. That hundreds of people exercising their rights to peacefully demand answers and inform the public have been brutalized by the police takes things to another shocking level. I find myself despondent and distraught, and the whole situation has me reflecting on the intersections of racism, violent culture, and hypocrisy. It feels to me as though we have learned nothing from history.
I still cannot believe that anyone claims we live in a post-racist society. If anything, the election of President Obama has proved just how deep racism runs and how willing people are to exercise it. From the halls of power to the streets of America, the story is the same. The thread that binds Michael Brown, Jr. to Trayvon Martin to Rodney King is unravelling from the uneasy tapestry of the Civil Rights movement. Sure, we’re all equal now, but if an African American man is someplace that authorities don’t think he should be, that equality evaporates very quickly.
Sadly, the force used to apply that racism is growing exponentially. As the NRA-sponsored culture of guns and violence expands, the reaction to any perceived threat is to shoot first and ask questions later. The officer who shot Michael Brown, Jr. may have felt justified in using his firearm, although that justification is difficult to understand. Even if he did, why did he keep firing until Brown was on the ground dead? How can justice be had for anyone when presumptions of guilt end in the cold facts of death?
The very language we hear from our leaders is steeped in violence. We can’t simply deal with substance abuse, we need a war on drugs. Want to justify endless military action? Start a war on terror. Nothing helps build the prison industrial complex like a war on crime. By waging war on abstractions, we use language to justify needless violence. Those with the least power naturally suffer the most, creating a vicious cycle of loss. When the federal government offloads military supplies to local governments, it is no surprise that those who feel they are fighting these supposed great evils act like combatants rather than civil servants and keepers of the peace.
That irony leads to violent hypocrisy. In the name of protecting the people, suddenly we must gas them. In the name of freedom, journalists must be arrested for being in a fast food restaurant. That hypocrisy is modelled by authorities every day. When George W Bush exercised his executive authority, he was a bold leader; when the President of color does the same thing, he is a malevolent tyrant who must be sued and stopped.When white rancher and known tax criminal Cliven Bundy stands off federal officials, he is left in peace. When people of color peaceably assemble to request answers, they are shot with rubber bullets, gassed, and arrested. And quite sadly, the Mayor seems not to have a clue about racism. Mayor James Knowles III continues to assert that Ferguson has no racial tension. Really? The evidence would certainly point to the contrary. Adding to the horrific irony is that Hedy Epstein, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, was arrested yesterday along with 8 other protesters demanding justice for Michael Brown in St. Louis. If this is not a cry for how we look at justice and the intersections of race and power, I don’t know what is.
And so the cycle spins, with racism, violence, and hypocrisy grinding the marginalized and rewarding the powerful. In the end, the only thing that’s really surprising about Ferguson is that anyone is truly surprised. Sadly, every time we have another violent crime against a person of color from those in power, it is an excruciatingly painful reminder that we do not all start from a level playing field. People of color and other targeted populations are barraged with messages that this is not a safe place; that equity and equality are concepts reserved for those occupying the space of the dominant culture.