Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What’s the Big Deal? An FAQ on Ferguson

Disclaimer: I am just a guy.  I am no expert.  I come from the white suburbs, and live now in a diverse urban community...but I am still white.  My perspectives on race come only from my listening to others in my community and my attempt to represent their concerns here.  But this is no substitute for actually talking to people who are different from you about what they experience.  Further, this post isn’t intended to pose what the proper response from the Grand Jury should have been, but rather just discuss why people might be feeling the way they do.  This is a post aimed at helping those with empathy who truly desire it.

 These questions I have seen across social media in the last couple days and weeks: 

 What does race have to do with it? 
“Officer Wilson was wrong in firing or he wasn’t, but race has nothing to do with it.” 

  • Short response: For the African-American community that is accustomed to being followed around in stores while shopping, pulled over at far higher rates than the rest of society, and experiencing the general vocalized and non-vocalized racism of society, it would be hard to believe that race has nothing to do with this.  Even if there happened to be a case where it does not...you can understand how it would be hard to see it that way.
  • Officer Wilson’s motivations:  It is possible that Officer Wilson is a racially hateful person, as certainly some in Ferguson are (through the testimonies of racial strife in that particular region for decades).  But even if he is not (I’ll assume the best), race could have played a factor.
    • Is it legally recommended for an officer to ask people walking in the road to get off the center of the road?  Yes.  But does Officer Wilson angrily confront the two teens walking in the center of the road in the aggressive manner he does if they are white?  Maybe, but maybe he asks nicely first.  But either way, perhaps you can understand why there might be mistrust.
    • Race can make things scarier for people with racial anxiety.  I have heard many tell a scary story that says something like, “And then this big black guy came out from around the corner and I was freaking out.”  Now the interesting thing is that if it was a white guy that came around the corner, the story likely would just have said, “and then this big guy came around”...with no other description.  We wouldn’t say “big red-haired guy” or “big guy in a polo shirt”, but many would say “big tattooed guy” or “big guy with piercings all over his body”...because it makes their story sound scarier.  Or if we’re telling a story about a person who does something stupid we may say, “and the blonde lady in front of me couldn’t count to ten”, but if it was a brown haired lady, we would probably just say “and the lady in front of me couldn’t...”  My point is, even in simple storytelling, we include the details that use stereotypes to accent how we felt in a given situation, and “blackness” is a description I often hear from white people in describing qualities of a person that makes their story scarier.
    • Take for example John Crawford.  A black father wandering around a WalMart in Beavercreek, Ohio.  He found a BB gun for sale in the store, that was already out of it’s box on the shelf.  He picked it up and was carrying it around like a walking stick while he chatted on his cell phone in the store.  There is video of the whole event.  Another customer called 911 and reported that a dangerous man had an assault rifle in the store and was pointing it at people. Security video shows this was a lie.  It is likely the caller felt threatened because of Crawford’s race.  The police arrived with Crawford on his phone, swarmed him in the aisle with guns pointed, yelled for him to drop the gun, and while a confused Crawford tried to process what was happening (again, he was on the phone), he was shot in less than 2 seconds after the command to drop the gun...the gun he had never even pointed at anyone...in a state (Ohio) where people are allowed to carry fully exposed guns legally anyway.  He was never asked to show his license (which he didn’t have because the gun wasn’t even real).  You could say that racial fear has no part in this, but there are pictures easily found in the internet of groups of white men walking through WalMart in Ohio with full automatic rifles strapped to their backs, and no one bats an eye (http://goo.gl/0ZWIEj).  I’m not saying the police or even the caller hate black people, but his “blackness” certainly seemed to raise the fear level to the point that he died in a situation where a white man likely would not have.
    • Part of the reasons given for no indictment is that Officer Wilson is justified in shooting if he feels his life is threatened.  In the Grand Jury reports, Officer Wilson reports that he felt one more punch from Michael Brown could have killed him.  While the struggle in the car is certainly scary and inappropriate on many levels, would he have felt scared to that level if it was a white teen?  Would he still have reported that Mike “looked like a demon”.  Maybe, but maybe not.   After the struggle in the car, which did not result in the death of either Officer Wilson or Mike Brown, nor the arming of Mike Brown, nor the disarming of Officer Wilson, Mike Brown fled.  According to the report, he reached more than 153 ft. away from Officer Wilson before turning around.  153 ft. is 50 yards on a football field.  If Mike Brown was an Olympic Sprinter, it would have taken him 5 seconds before reaching Officer Wilson again (given his current physical shape in pictures, I’m guessing more like 7 seconds).  The question asked was whether Mike Brown charged Officer Wilson or was simply stumbling forward.  Either way, he didn’t make it far as he was dropped 153 ft. away.  So the issue is, even at 153 ft., Officer Wilson felt his life was still in danger (which must have been terrifying).  Would he have if Mike Brown was white?  Maybe, but maybe not.  But either way, perhaps you can understand why there might be mistrust.
  • Race may not have played an issue here, but it makes sense why it is certainly a possibility that it did and why people might find it difficult to believe it was absolutely not a factor.

 Why can’t people just accept a decision that was legally decided?
“There was a grand jury who knew all the facts and decided not to indict.  People who don’t know all the facts have no right nor reason to argue.”

There is considerable reason for people to feel like injustice was carried out, even if the process happened legally.  Consider:

  • Prosecutor Bob McCulloch who is in charge of bringing charges to the Grand Jury for consideration, declined to even suggest what charges they should be examining (which is highly unusual).  Further, McCulloch is the Vice President of an organization (http://www.backstoppers.org/board.html) that has been selling “Support Officer Wilson” T-shirts from the beginning (http://teespring.com/supportdwilson2014).  Would you feel your child’s justice was receiving unbiased consideration in this situation?  Mr. McCulloch may be able to set aside his personal views and still act without bias, but you may be able to see why  it could be difficult to trust that is the case.
  • The Grand Jury did not need to be unanimous.  Only 9 out of 12 needed to agree for a decision.  There were 9 white jurors and 3 black jurors, and no voting results announced.  This is not to say that the vote was necessarily split, even along racial lines, but that it would be hard to feel good about things for people already lacking trust in the system.
  • There is more to justice than just the law.  Something can be legal and still be perceived as unjust.  Slavery was once legal.
  • Perhaps this case was entirely just, but maybe you can understand why there might be mistrust.

 Why are people so stupid as to loot and riot?
“All the protesters prove is that they need the police to keep them in line because they clearly can’t control themselves.”

  • First, we cannot lump everyone into one category.  There were many protesters, including the bulk of protest leaders that had been participating in non-violence training courses in preparation for the non-indictment announcement.  One of the protest leaders, Bassem Masri, who had been organizing and Live Streaming the protests had his phone he was filming with stolen right out of his hand with 90,000 people watching live on his stream.  There are simply people out there in the world that are opportunistic in their pursuit of evil.  If there are criminals who want to steal stuff or destroy stuff, this provides a perfect opportunity.  We cannot assume this was all the work of protesters.
  • Secondly, what if some of it was?  Is it just stupidity?  Or complete lawlessness?  When you feel as though your fight is against the systems of injustice, what do you do?  It must have seemed extremely stupid and unlawful for the Patriots to take over an entire shipment of private trade tea and dump it all into the Boston Harbor!  That was the destruction of private property!  But we see that as a heroic act, and we do so because we believe in the cause and the change it initiated.  Rioting and the destruction of property is certainly problematic, but sometimes it represents something more profound than just the acts of the “stupid” who “don’t know any better” or “haven’t learned to respect people’s stuff”.

 What about black on black crime?
“Why are people so worried about one white cop shooting a black teen, when “blacks” are killing “blacks” so much already?  

  • The reality is that most crime occurs within cultural groups.  People hurt the people they are know and are closest to, more than random people at a distance.
  • In fact, white-on-white crime represents 83% of crime perpetrated by white people (http://goo.gl/n4Rkvo).  

 Isn’t this whole thing just created by the sensationalist media?
“Why do we never hear when a black man kills a white kid, but when a white guy kills a black kid, all hell breaks loose?!”

  • Crime happens everywhere, constantly.  It would be impossible for all of these tragic shootings to garner national attention.  The issue that causes situations (Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford) to rise to national awareness is not so much the death occurring, but the expectation in these situations that it won’t lead to an arrest.
  • The reason that stories where black men (or cops) kill white people do not gather the attention, is that there usually is an arrest, as there should be.  
  • In short, the level of outrage and attention is not just about the crime itself, but about the perceptions of whether justice will be carried out and whether that process can be trusted.  

Altogether, Ferguson is a great tragedy.  It’s a tragic loss of life.  It’s tragic in the ripping apart of a community where racial tensions have simmered for a long time.  It’s a tragic story of fear and its consequences.  And it has brought racial tensions and assumptions to the surface all across our country and world.  But the one thing we need to realize is our need to listen to the other side.  It’s good to ask tough questions like these if we are truly interested in listening for responses.  If we cannot have empathy, we have lost much.