I wasn’t going to write about this. Not now. Too much emotion, too much bitterness, too much frustration. Anything I write, I thought, is likely to bring down vilification from one side or another. Later, maybe.
Only, I had to. So much has happened, is happening, that cries out for a statement of conscience. I couldn’t leave it alone.
The undisputed fact is that an unarmed man was shot dead by a police officer. What is disputed, and hotly, is whether the killing was justified. Some eyewitnesses said he had his hands up, in a gesture of surrender; others apparently disputed that. On the face of it, it’s a case that begs for investigation in a public trial.
Normally, either the prosecutor would indict, or he would take the case to the Grand Jury, which would be given a summary of the evidence, hear a few witnesses, and make a decision that the case was worthy of further investigation: in short, an indictment based on the facts presented. Instead, in this case the Grand Jury heard an unprecedented amount of evidence, took months to reach a decision, and decided there was no probable cause for even a charge of involuntary manslaughter, a charge for which you can be convicted for causing a fatal accident by texting while driving.
What we got, instead of a public trial, was essentially a secret trial, the result of which was simply announced, a done deal, no recourse.
It seems the prosecutor, Robert McCullough, not a man known for his humility, wanted to dazzle everyone with his thoroughness; he has released a complete transcript of the proceedings. We can, he is saying, see for ourselves if we want to wade through endless pages of transcripts. None of this matters; Ferguson is burning tonight.
Why, you might ask, would people destroy the town they live in? True, there are the customary “outside agitators,” but they are thriving on the visceral anger of the residents; without it, they would fade away.
It’s about Michael Brown, the young man who was killed; and yet, it isn’t. People are killed, justly and unjustly, every day, and apart from people close to them, no one really cares. Although this killing is the direct cause of these events, it goes much, much deeper than that. It’s about a people who have been harassed and vilified for years upon years, and finally are taking no more.
Imagine a life, where you were stopped by police for the mildest of violations, where you were charged for crimes out of proportion to the general population. Imagine being stopped for simply walking down a street, and ordered to identify yourself and justify your presence. Imagine being carefully watched any time you enter a store in a mall. Imagine ordinary people avoiding eye contact regularly. Imagine being an automatic suspect any time something goes missing. Imagine that the police, who are sworn to protect you, were abusive and threatening, and that any encounter, no matter how trivial, could escalate into tragedy.
Imagine that your people are filling prisons in proportions far exceeding the general population. Imagine indictments far more frequent, almost automatic convictions, and sentences that are routinely longer than average. What would you call this?
In Ferguson, even traffic tickets are disproportionately issued to black residents. Do they just drive faster than white people? When I taught at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, I regularly drove through Ferguson on my way to work along Florissant Ave. The speed limit through town is 30 mph; I rarely saw anyone, myself included, go slower than 35, and usually it was closer to 40. Speeders were easy pickings. Under the circumstances, you’d think a normal distribution of traffic tickets would mirror the proportions in the population in general. Apparently, though, the biggest vehicular offense in Ferguson is DWB – Driving While Black.
Its polite name is profiling. Racism and oppression are other names that suggest themselves. Am I exaggerating? Ask any white person, and you’re likely to get a resounding yes. Ask any black person, any black person, and the answer will be quite different.
We live in a country where the attorney general of the United States was stopped while shopping at an upscale mall. Where the president of the country is regularly insulted in the most obscene ways. There is nothing, apparently, that a black person can do to completely escape being considered subhuman, and fair game for suspicion and innuendo.
This is what Ferguson is all about. This is why, no matter what anyone in authority says, there will be protest and violence. Because murdering a young black man for no reason is just what the police would do, in the minds of a people subjected to such humiliation for so long.