I don’t even know where to start with the rat’s nest of social justice issues that need to be addressed in the midst of all that is happening in the aftermath of the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and the ensuing (justifiable) outrage of the people of Ferguson, MO.
I don’t know that I’m even remotely qualified to discuss it.
I don’t know the struggle people of color face in their every day lives, with the police, with the systemic racism that permeates our culture.
I don’t know a damn thing about what it’s like to be black in America.
I can observe what it’s like. I can recognize injustice when I see it. I can empathize with the pain of another human being, but I have no frame of reference to be able to sympathize.
I am blessed with the privilege of being surrounded by diverse people. That diversity has opened my heart and shattered it and rebuilt it over and over again.
Through their experiences, I am more capable of recognizing my own biases and it has made me acutely aware of how absolutely fucked up things are in our country. More specifically, right now in Ferguson, MO.
All we know for certain, without a shadow of a doubt, is that a young (black) man was shot and killed by a (white) police officer and that the (primarily black) city is in the midst of massive protests clashing with a heavily armed police force.
Some of those protesting have engaged in illegal activities. Most of those protesting are doing so peacefully, condemning looters and rioters, and attempting to protect targeted businesses.
All of the town’s police force has responded in a militarized fashion with tear gas, riot gear, massive firearms pointed at civilians, and military issued armored vehicles.
The police justify this obscene level of armament by pointing at the violent activities of the few. They fear more violence erupting, but never take into account that one of their own murdering an unarmed young man incited fear in the community. Law enforcement doesn’t seem to recognize that their escalation of threatening violence creates an atmosphere where those within the community fear for their safety and their lives.
When Ferguson city police released the name of Darren Wilson, the officer involved, they first included a statement that the victim might have been a suspect in a strong-armed robbery of a local convenience store and had stolen some cigars.
That small mention, and the ensuing video, which had no relevance to the officer shooting an unarmed young man, gave people (mostly white) a justification for the death of Michael Brown.
He was a thug, a thief, with no respect for authority.
There are reports that say Michael Brown reached for the Darren Wilson’s gun while Wilson was seated in his car. They might have had a physical altercation and the Wilson might have been assaulted.
The officer is the real victim! He feared for his life and shot justifiably.
Never mind that Michael Brown was unarmed and 35 feet away from Darren Wilson when he was shot half a dozen times.
I don’t give a damn if Michael Brown stole some cigars. He didn’t deserve to be shot for it.
I stole cigarettes from convenience stores almost the entire time I was in high school. Should I have been shot if I was caught?
I don’t care if Brown and Wilson did get into a physical altercation. Cops are trained to deal with situations of physical violence from civilians in a way that does not result in death.
I’ve been flippant and disrespectful to cops. Should they have shot me for running my mouth like an angst filled teenager?
The likelihood of me being shot by a cop for either of these things is infinitely smaller than any person of color.
I could gather up some caucasian friends and protest in the town square with assault rifles strapped to our backs and we wouldn’t be met with a militarized police force shooting rubber bullets at us or firing tear gas into our gathering.
You know why?
Because we’re white.
We may think we’ve moved beyond racism because we have a black president and racists are obvious because actual racists call black people the N-word, Asians yellow or chink, Latinos spics, or shout about their white supremacy from their backwoods, well-armed, militia camps.
We might not think of ourselves as racist because we have friends that are people of color. Maybe those friends even laugh a little when you drop the word ‘nigga.’ Most of us aren’t racist, but we still have a considerable racial bias that becomes blatantly clear when the black community raises its voices and exercises their constitutional rights.
When black men are victims of violence it is immediately justified by asking what he did to deserve it. Was he being disrespectful to an authority figure? Was he wearing sagging pants? Did he look like he might have committed a crime? Did he smoke weed or associate himself with people that might look or act like thugs or gangstas? These are dehumanizing stereotypes that our culture uses to justify harassment, assault, and murder of black men.
Black women face similar issues (but with an extra layer of misogyny, which is an article for another time). Violence perpetuated against them, often sexual violence, is easily dismissed by whether or not she has children, lives in or near low income or subsidized housing, or has ever received any form of government assistance. She’s written off as a “welfare queen, probably mad at one of her baby-daddies for spending her welfare check on weed instead of letting her spend it on new weave or fake nails,” so she decided to press arbitrary charges and clog up the legal system.
If your response to the last two paragraphs is “I don’t think that way!”
I want to ask you what your first thoughts are when you see a well-dressed black man driving a Range Rover. Do you think “Wow, I bet he is a highly educated business man doing well for himself!” or do you think “I wonder what kind of drug deals he made to be able to afford that?”
Go ahead and clutch your pearls and gasp “Why, I would never!”
Because I know you have at least once in your life made snap judgments about people of color.
This doesn’t mean you’re a racist, it just means you are a product of a culture with roots steeped in racism and have an inherent racial bias.
Recognize that bias, and work to correct it.
Unfortunately, our biases tend to blind us to the experience of people of color and law enforcement. If you or I, as average citizens, have a habit of seeing people of color as possible criminals, how do you think law enforcement sees them?
If law enforcement consistently approaches people of color as suspicious persons, they’re likely to be defensive when they interact. Law enforcement sees this defensiveness and assumes there is a likelihood of guilt even though there is no evidence of a crime. This can lead to constant harassment and violence.
The black community is barely a generation away from the Civil Rights Movement – a time when violence from law enforcement wasn’t just normal, it was encouraged. Peaceful protests for integration of schools and businesses were enough to warrant brutal beatings, being hosed down by high powered fire hoses, or arbitrary imprisonment. That kind of abuse isn’t forgotten in a single generation, nor is it easily forgiven.
We, as white people, are not regularly profiled as possible criminals. We are taught that cops are the good guys. They come to your assistance when you are in trouble. Culturally, we have a very different experience with police. We are not constantly under suspicion, so we have no frame of reference for why people of color would be defensive when approached by police. Law enforcement doesn’t approach us if we’re walking down the middle of the street. If they do – it’s a polite “Hey, you all need to get on the side walk so you don’t get run over.”
It doesn’t end in gunshots and dead teenagers.
Inherently associating law enforcement as the good guys, we easily justify police action by vilifying the victim. Since the police don’t bother us when we aren’t doing anything wrong, they must not bother anyone else unless they are doing something wrong.
Our personal experience drives our perception. So when we see headlines of looters and rioters, no matter how few they are, we accept the need for increased police presence. When the media shows only the worst parts of what is happening in Ferguson, our first instincts tap into our unrecognized racial bias and our personal experience of police being the good guys.
Right now, the police in Ferguson are not the good guys.
Good guys don’t need armored vehicles, assault rifles, riot gear, and tear gas to handle a few looters.
Good guys don’t taunt peaceful protesters by calling them animals and telling them to “bring it!”
Good guys don’t shoot rubber bullets and tear gas into a group of people where children are present.
Good guys don’t arrest journalists trying to do their job and taking pictures.
Good guys don’t obfuscate the truth, vilify victims, and attempt to violently silence the voices in a community that wants honest answers, transparency and accountability from their law enforcement and city leaders.
If the clashing of law enforcement and civilians in Ferguson is to end, it’s up to law enforcement to allow a justifiably upset community to have their voices heard without immediate threat of violence. It’s law enforcement’s responsibility to demilitarize the streets. It’s Ferguson Missouri, not Fallujah, Iraq.
More importantly though, law enforcement, city, and county leaders need work on building trust and start having honest discussions with the citizens.
Camicia Bennett: Founder of The Well Written Woman, Florida Native and cerebral creature, she loves her husband, yoga, red wine, potty humor, swearing superfluously and putting hats on her dog. If given her druthers she’d be surfing the web and writing randomness from someplace sunny and tropical whilst sipping her favorite vino. Oh wait, that’s exactly what she does.You can find her randomly sharing her own brand of slightly pretentious propaganda at her personal blog.