I waited for the announcement about the grand jury’s decision on the shooting of Michael Brown as the minutes dragged on. I didn’t understand -still can’t understand – why they would wait until nightfall to announce a decision that had been made hours before. It seemed emblematic of the many ways in which officials seem tone deaf about the pain of the African American community in Ferguson and across the country.
And then it came. It wasn’t unexpected, of course. The prosecutor, son of a cop who was killed in the line of duty by a black man, had failed to make a recommendation to the grand jury, choosing instead to dump documents and testimony on them with no guidance. One might surmise he wanted his ham sandwich to go free. As the time for the announcement drew nearer, it was made public that Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, had not been asked to turn himself in as we would have been if the grand jury had returned an indictment. So most of us saw it coming.
The tragedy here, beyond the senseless death of a young man just starting his life, is that we haven’t traveled very much closer together in understanding one another. That years of life post the civil rights movement and pop culture and higher education haven’t really bridged the chasm between black and white at a fundamental level for so many of us. That we still hold deep suspicion for each other and entrenched positions.
This was driven home when the prosecutor released some of Darren Wilson’s statements to the grand jury. They revealed a man with little compassion for the humanity of the teenager he gunned down. Referring to the look on Michael Brown’s face during the altercation, Wilson describes him like “a demon.” He also refers to him like “Hulk Hogan,” a wrestling character, describing himself as a 5-year-old child in strength by comparison. On that day, both Wilson and Brown stood over six foot four and yet Wilson saw Brown as something superhuman and sinister.
Why the heightened sense of danger in an incident in which only Wilson had a gun? A clue to that may be found in a comment Wilson made about the neighborhood in which the shooting occurred. He called it “not a very well-liked neighborhood,” where people didn’t like the police. Clearly, that was on Officer Wilson’s mind while he drove through there. It fueled his gruff manner, ordering Brown and his companion out of the street, assuming an antagonistic attitude he more than likely would not have taken had he been patrolling a middle-class white neighborhood and come across a couple of teenagers walking in the street there. Michael Brown was “the other” well before the incident began, dehumanized into a demon in a hostile place. Wilson sounds twitchy, finger on the trigger finger, feeling himself a “child” in dangerous circumstances.
I don’t know that Michael Brown did everything right. I don’t know that Darren Wilson deserves to be the most hated person in America right now. But I do know that Brown should not be dead today, and that he is stems from something bigger than either one of them.
Wilson was trained by a force that by most accounts does little to build bridges to a beleaguered community. He was not an anomaly. He was a product. From a prosecutor too callous to reach out to the victims’ families to officers trained to raise guns in the faces of unarmed civilians and shoot tear gas at a group of people carrying an injured woman, everything officials in Ferguson do shows how apart and righteous they feel. They are bound to create cops that travel the neighborhood like an occupying force rather than as servants and caretakers.
So here we are on the cusp of 2015,watching images that look like they could be 50 years old. Another mother weeps in pain at the loss of yet one more young black man. And officials are still justifying themselves instead of really listening. If the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice – and I believe it does – it still has a long way to go. Perhaps there really won’t be peace until there’s justice and maybe that’s as it should be. No, businesses in a black neighborhood should not be burning. Bricks should not be thrown. But it’s okay that we have unrest of another kind, in our hearts, and that we keep feeling it and talking about it until racial justice is real.