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Aug 19 2014

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In Ferguson, Who Speaks for the Rest of Us?

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Tragedy in Missouri...

Tragedy in Missouri…

The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri is a colossal human tragedy.

Whatever the details of the still-ongoing investigation reveal, the fact that a unarmed, young man was killed by a police officer who shot Brown at least six times in broad daylight, shocks the conscience.

That Brown, with no arrest record, had apparently navigated tough streets and tough choices to graduate high school, and was preparing to attend vocational school, speaks to admirable individual accomplishment and budding human potential that was shockingly and arbitrarily ended.

These facts alone make the event newsworthy, regardless of race.

But it is race that has made this an explosive national story, with decidedly mixed results and unnerving excesses. There is plenty of blame to go around.

The widespread, serial looting in Ferguson that has followed days of demonstrations, is as troubling as the St. Louis PD’s deployment of combat-like units, using heavy-handed tactics, tear gas and rubber bullets for crowd control.

The unbearable grief of a mother who has lost her son, in a community coping with the disbelief and  rage surrounding the shooting, is cast against a backdrop of select opportunists and charlatans who have stoked the fires of racial animosity for narrow, no-quarter political and cultural agendas.

Reason is the victim.

Was Brown a gentle giant? A shy young man who spurned advice that he try out for football where his size would give him a natural on-field advantage? A high school graduate who had avoided any brush with the law? A man with ambition, intent on creating a life for himself beginning with continued education?

By all accounts, yes.

Was Brown a young man who smoked weed, whose default pose for pictures was with his middle finger extended?  The man in convenience store video, clearly guilty of stealing cigars and roughing up and generally intimidating a cashier as he exited the store?

By all accounts, yes.

Was the man in the first description capable of the conduct of the man in the second?

Of course.

But to acknowledge that integrated context today is likely to brand that individual as a racist. To consider the robbery as germane to the later shooting has become all but an admission of racist thinking. Thus, if we do not agree on the approved, pious narrative of Brown’s life, you are tacitly a bigot and a racist.

Hogwash.

In reality, this rigidity of thought does Michael Brown – and any Americans of color – a serious disservice. It attempts to suppress unflattering information – indeed defame anyone who raises it – on the assumption that such information creates a greater acceptance of the necessity for the shooting among the broader audience of public opinion, precisely because Brown was black.

That’s racist.

The robbery is relevant to the shooting in this manner.

If the officer in question did not know about the crime, Brown certainly knew what he had done, and given the space of time between the robbery and the stop that led to the shooting, it was fair for Brown to assume the police had been notified. The robbery mattered because it informed Brown’s state of mind, and that, in turn, informed his actions.

What was Brown thinking?

What the robbery did not do, what is could never do – which should go without saying – is justify Brown’s murder.

A cross-section of America, capable of reason, sees these facts and yet, remains silent for fear of being branded as a racist.

But it is indeed possible to believe that the amount of force used against Brown was wildly excessive and unnecessary, but also believe that the officer in question – Darren Wilson – is entitled to his day in court, to explain his side of the story, and that a jury of peers will determine guilt under the established legal system, not through a variation of vigilante justice.

To believe that militarizing our local police is both unexpected and unnerving, and that their conduct requires a thorough review of basic law enforcement training and doctrine, but also insist that Brown’s death does not signal an open season on vandalism and looting, or that such conduct is ever justified as a legitimate channel of minority rage.  That each citizen and business owner has a presumption of protection when crowds become violent.

To acknowledge that Michael Brown was no saint, but critically, that sainthood is not the required baseline to avoid being arbitrarily shot to death by the police.

More broadly, the charlatans and hucksters would have you believe that Michael Brown’s senseless death is a microcosm of America, a country bitterly divided along racial and cultural lines, incapable of settling disputes amicably; a generally indifferent but deeply bigoted and racist white majority that manipulates the law to their own ends, at the expense of striving minorities, just trying to a fair shot at the American dream.

It does not minimize the challenge of race relations in America to say that this narrative is deeply flawed and offensive to the majority of Americans – of every color – who look on with shock and sadness as the promise of a young life is abruptly extinguished, and the anguish of a family and friends who must live on.  That the first filter of interpretation in  life’s experience is not race, but that as parents, siblings, children, family and friends.

The narrative of the charlatan ignores over 200 years of progress in history where today the African American president of the United States lives in a house built in part by African American slaves. A national union whose charter did not claim perfection, but the continual striving to “create a more perfect union.”

Michael Brown richly deserves his posthumous day in court, and the justice that will come with a verdict.  But it will be Officer Darren Wilson, not America, that will be on trial.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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