I’ve been patiently awaiting your comments about the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson not to indict the white officer who killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, an African American.
For those who have been asleep the last few weeks, here’s a brief synopsis of what has happened.
On Saturday, August 9, 2014, at 11:51 a.m., Michael Brown, 18, and his friend Dorian Johnson, 22, went to the Ferguson Market and Liquor, where surveillance video captured one of the two men pushing a clerk before walking out of the store with a box of cigarillos. Someone at the convenience store called 911 to report a “strong arm robbery.” (Dorian Johnson’s lawyer said that his client told investigators about the “situation involving Bike Mike taking the cigarillos.” “This is not a theft,” the lawyer said, “it’s more of a shoplifting situation.”)
As they walked down the middle of Canfield Drive toward Johnson’s house, a Ferguson police officer confronted the two men. According to Johnson, Officer Darrin Wilson told the two to “Get the fuck on the sidewalk” or “Get the fuck out of the street.” They replied that they were “not but a minute away from our destination” and that they “would be shortly out of the street.” According to Officer Wilson, when he encountered the two men, he rolled down his window and asked Brown and Johnson to get out of the street but that the two men refused and “were yelling back, saying we’re almost where we’re going and there was some cussing involved.” Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson has said that Wilson originally approached Brown because he was “walking down the middle of the street, blocking traffic.” Then the situation got physical.
Officer Wilson drove away, but then he quickly put his car in reverse and backed up. This is where the stories of the witnesses and Officer Wilson diverge. Johnson said that Wilson’s car was so close that he almost hit them and that when he “aggressively” tried to open the car door it “ricocheted both off me and Big Mike’s body and closed back on the officer.” Officer Wilson said that he thinks it was Brown who “violently” slammed his car door when he tried to open it, then “bum rushed” him, “shoved” him back into his car, and punched him in the face. Wilson said he went for his gun, and Brown grabbed it, causing the gun to go off. Brown ran; Wilson pursued him, shooting his gun at least nine more times.
Johnson said that Brown had his hands up and was indicating to Wilson that he was unarmed. “He was running for his life and just got shot and turned around and didn’t try to reach for anything. He put his hands in the air being compliant and he still got shot down like a dog,” Johnson said. Wilson said that Brown “just kept coming” at him full speed and that’s why he just kept shooting. Wilson was treated at a local hospital for a swollen face; at least six bullets hit Michael Brown, including a fatal shot to the head. One bullet hit the top of Brown’s head. Michael Brown’s body laid in the street, uncovered, for hours while Ferguson police officers investigated the shooting of this unarmed, black 18-year-old.
More than two weeks of rioting began shortly after news of Brown’s shooting was heard, and violent protests began anew on Monday night after a grand jury—made up of 9 whites and 3 blacks—decided “that there was not enough probable cause to indict police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old.” “The duty of the grand jury is to separate fact and fiction,” said Robert McCulloch, the prosecuting attorney. “After weighing the evidence, at least 9 of the 12 members of the grand jury decided that Wilson acted within the limits of the lethal-force law.”
For those who question the wisdom of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson, keep in mind that they perused more than a thousand pages of documents and listened to some 70 witnesses testify over the course of three months. Many people believe that the grand jury’s decision came down to finding a definitive answer to the following question: was Brown surrendering or was he charging when Wilson shot him? One grand jury witness at first claimed that Brown was “defenseless, hands up, he was trying to stay on his feet and you could see that his knees were beginning to buckle and he was going down.” Investigators got this witness to later say that Brown was “moving toward Officer Wilson, who was screaming ‘Stop,’ as he fired his weapon.”
In his grand jury testimony, Wilson said that during the physical confrontation with the much bigger Michael Brown—Brown was 6’ 5” and 290 pounds compared to Wilson, who is 6’ 4” and 210 pounds—he feared for his life. After already taking two blows to the head, Wilson said that he feared that a third punch “could knock me out or worse.” “I mean it was, he’s obviously bigger than I was and stronger and the, I’ve already taken two to the face, and I didn’t think I would, the third one could be fatal if he hit me right.”
After the verdict to not indict him on charges of murder and manslaughter was announced, Darrin Wilson broke his silence in an interview with ABC George Stephanopoulos. He told Stephanopoulos that he would have “acted that same way if circumstances were repeated.” “The reason I have a clean conscience is I know I did my job right,” Wilson said, adding that he would have made the same decisions had Brown “been a white man. Wilson also said that the incident was the first time he had ever fired his gun in the line of duty and that the witness accounts that Brown “held up his hands to signal his surrender were ‘incorrect.’” He also said that he was sorry that Brown’s parents had lost their son.
Many people simply don’t believe Officer Wilson’s narrative of what happened. In fact, many pontificators have suggested that Wilson’s detailed accounting of the August 9th events is a complete fabrication (some have called it a fairy tale) and that those events could not have unfolded in the way he has described, and they believe that he acted in haste, with careless and reckless abandon for Michael Brown’s life, or with racist intent (or some combination thereof). I can only imagine how difficult it is to be a police officer in today’s society and to have to make a split-second decision about whether or not to shoot or be shot. As Charles Barkley said, “[We] have to be really careful with the cops, because if it wasn’t for the cops we would be living in the Wild, Wild West in our neighborhoods…. We can’t pick out certain incidentals that don’t go our way and act like the cops are all bad.”
I wasn’t there when Brown and Wilson’s paths collided on that day in August on that street in Ferguson; I don’t know what happened and will never know no matter how much I read. An 18-year-old black kid is dead, and the white police officer who killed him will not face any criminal charges and has since resigned from the force. I’m just glad that I didn’t have to sit on the jury that was charged with judging Wilson’s guilt or innocence. It seems fairly clear from the conflicting testimonies that the events that led to Michael Brown’s death are not as black and white as some on each side of the debate would like the other side to believe. Being a white cop in a mostly-black neighborhood is probably really, really difficult, and it’s a mostly thankless job.
To the white people who want to make Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent rioting, looting, and violence in Ferguson a banal and overblown racial issue (you know, the ones who say things like, “This looting would never happen if Michael Brown had been white….” or “White people didn’t loot when OJ was acquitted….”), STOP, and open your high school U.S. history textbook. There is no historical legacy of black police officers systematically shooting and killing unarmed white Americans, so your comparison is nonsensical. There is, however, a disturbing record of white cops shooting black folks. Between 2005 and 2012, on the average of about twice a week, a white police officer shot and killed a black man. A black man is 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white man. It’s not just a myth that white cops too often kill black men.
Still, a more salient issue that former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich noted on his Facebook page needs to be addressed—that “poor, minority communities deserve community policing that builds trust, including minority police officers, rather than law enforcement that’s viewed by a community as repressive.” Sadly, the original scuffle between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown is symbolic of the disconnect that too often exists between blacks and whites in American society—that race (still) matters when it matters, but sometimes it’s difficult to decipher when it doesn’t.
Let’s get back to these protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and in other cities throughout the United States. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once wrote:
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I’m certainly not saying anything provocative when I suggest that looting and burning down businesses and attacking the police and the Missouri National Guard are not constructive behaviors for those who really want to see changes in the way police interact with the black community. Looting and burning down buildings and all the other tomfoolery that’s happening in Ferguson simply gives more fuel to the white folks who already think that black folks don’t know how to behave. Said Bill O’Reilly of Fox News: “The non-violent protesters are just as guilty as the looters and the rioters, and they should be arrested for aiding and abetting. They have set Blacks back years now.” Borrowing from the chants of the protesters who yelled “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” during the August protests, Don Alexander of Brentwood, Tennessee, used the Indiegogo crowdfunding page to raise money for a billboard in the Ferguson, Missouri, area, that simply said: #PantsUPDontLOOT. And, after watching the recent chaos and violence unfold in Ferguson, a 51-year-old white man said to me, “See, those black people say that they want equality, but they don’t want any accountability for their actions.” I highly doubt that he’s the only white guy who thinks this.
Could these protesters not have found a more peaceful and a more proactive way to demonstrate against what they saw as an unjust grand jury decision? Do these same protesters get this angry when they see generations of young black men and women drop out of high school or forgo college or a post-secondary education in favor of an uncertain life in and on the streets? Do they get this angry when they hear about the shooting death of an African American at the hands of another African American? Do they get this angry when they see black mothers and fathers partying and drinking and engaging in shenanigans rather than staying home and taking care of their children? Do they get this angry when they see so few parents participating in their child’s PTA or attending school functions? Do they get this angry when they see a black teenage mother getting pregnant, again, while the black teenage father walks away from his responsibility? Do they get this angry and organize the folks in their local neighborhoods when they see the state of the public schools in their communities? Do they get this angry when they see so few African Americans voting in midterm or presidential elections? Do they get this angry when they turn on the television and see black folks being exploited—and exploiting themselves—on the Maury Povich show, as they try to figure out which of the men they brought to the show is their baby’s father?
Michael Brown—despite the fact that he didn’t behave well at all on that August 9th day when he pushed that store clerk and stole those cigarillos and then was shot and killed by Officer Darrin Brown—could have ultimately created a life that mattered to the city of Ferguson or wherever he ended up residing and earning a living. Let’s do all we can to make his tragic death matter. What, specifically, are these protesters doing to make sure that other young black men and women are creating lives that matter? Protesting and getting yourselves arrested is hardly a recipe for changing communities and how the police interact with non-white people. As Dr. King said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others’?” What, really, are these protesters doing for others?
Instead of organizing protests and burning crap down, perhaps they could organize book drives so that parents will have books to read to their children before bedtime. They could organize book clubs, so that black folks will read and engage in intellectual activities rather than sit on Facebook and Twitter and talk about the latest episode of “Scandal” or “How to Get Away with Murder.” They could organize and volunteer at their local school. Organize and volunteer to teach young women to respect themselves and their bodies and to do positive and uplifting things with their lives and for other people so that they will not look for a man or a baby to love them. Organize and teach folks how to garden so that they can eat a more holistic and organic diet. Organize and teach folks how to care for their body and to be more judicious about what they eat. Organize walking groups or exercise clubs so that folks can be better stewards of their body.
Listen. Lying down in the street to recreate and to remind folks how Michael Brown died is dramatic, but it isn’t constructive and is hardly a long-term solution to what ails the black community. As Charles Barkley said about the miscreants who were burning down and looting buildings in Ferguson: “Those aren’t real black people; those are scumbags. Real black people aren’t out there looting.” The “real black people” need to find constructive things to do that will REALLY help the communities who most need it.
Keith Myers, my friend from the University of Iowa, wrote this on his Facebook page the day before Thanksgiving: “Biggest tragedy about Ferguson? A mother lost her child. Maybe WE ALL should remember that when we break bread with our friends and loved ones tomorrow.”
Let us remember the sorrow of Michael Brown’s family, let us go into the holiday season spreading cheer and good will to each other, and let us always carry with us what the Dalai Lama said: “We all have to live together, so we might as well live together happily.” Let us all of us do better at living together happily.