It was with deep sorrow that I awakened to morning in America today.
Fires burned on the streets of Ferguson overnight and there is fire in my soul this morning. I am angry, I am saddened, I am moved. It feels to me that everything about the Michael Brown case has either been incredibly inept or carefully planned for effect.
Let’s put it this way. It seems to me that if one hundred or even three or four hundred protesters showed up on the streets of any city to protest and there was no police presence and no media presence they would conduct their protest, recite their speeches, commiserate with each other, take pictures and post online about the event, and then go home after having made a statement. They might meet again to plan actions and to bring change to the world. But last night was set up–either intentionally or from bumbling bureaucrats–to incite a violent reaction. It could have led to no other result.
Calling in the National Guard a week before the announcement about the grand jury’s decision trumpeted the idea that those in power expected (wanted?) a violent reaction. Having the FBI put out a press release about a potential powder keg in Ferguson added to it, as did the local police preparations. These things also reinforced the idea of angry and violent blacks we have to fear. Very little was reported about the activists working toward peaceful demonstrations and working toward a more just justice system.
Announcing in advance that a decision would come sometime in November without giving a specific date caused additional tension because no one knew when the decision would ultimately come. It added to the stress.
All of this brought in more press to document everything that might happen. All the news cameras and reporters were ready on the streets, near the site of previous protests. When President Obama spoke the screen was split and showed him asking for peace and meaningful protest while on the other side of the screen we watched police firing smoke bombs and attempting to disperse the crowd. It was surreal.
The coup de grace was the timing and delivery of the announcement. Protest organizers were prepared for peaceful demonstrations all day long, but did not expect an announcement deep into the evening, effectively leaving them out of the immediate reaction. Protests and demonstrations rarely turn violent in the light of day. Late in the day the press conference was announced for 8:00 p.m., which seemed awfully late to hold it. The press conference could have been held at 8:00 a.m. today. The 8:00 p.m. time was scheduled after we had already heard 4:00 and then 5:00, leaving everyone on edge for exactly when it was going to be. Robert McCulloch then showed up late, took the microphone, droned on for about half an hour while clearly trying to justify a decision he knew would be received poorly (and which many believe he wanted all along) and he unfortunately did not add anything new to the law enforcement version of the story.
Michael Brown’s family had earlier asked for four and a half minutes of silence after the decision was announced, to represent the four and a half hours he lay in the street, but I think they expected a press conference with a brief announcement of the grand jury decision. McCulloch did not give them that. His speech did not allow for a clear recognition of when the four and a half minutes would start–was it when he started his equivocations and justifications and everyone recognized what the decision was going to be, when he actually said it near the end of his speech, when the speech ended, when the Q & A was done? I’m not sure if the four and a half minutes happened. If it did, it was not noted by the media.
What did happen was not unexpected. Angry citizens, mostly young people whose lives are discounted on a daily basis, reacted in anger. Most of them expressed their anger with signs and loud voices. A few set fires to buildings and police cars, fired guns, threw bottles, and otherwise created havoc.
What occurs to me today is that for oppressors a violent reaction with good television visuals like burning police cars and buildings is not necessarily a bad thing (unless the demonstrators had first marched from their neighborhoods to those of the power brokers). Think about it. What is the media talking about this morning? The reaction, not the injustice. All the demonstrators who have been there for months and wanted to use the announcement as a way to explore deeper issues, the Brown family who wanted to use it as a launching pad to push for body cameras on all police officers, all the downtrodden citizens who hoped to engage the ruling class in discussions about all that needs to be fixed–all of them have been silenced by rage and raging fires. The story is the reaction, not what caused the reaction.
We can’t let McCulloch, the police, the government, and the media co-opt the narrative in Ferguson. Yes, it is sad that local businesses were burned, but it is sadder still that in general in this country black lives do not matter. It is not good that police cars were burned; it is worse yet that a young unarmed black man died for no apparent reason. It is far worse that this happens about once a day in cities all over the country and that most of the time it goes unnoticed and the officers involved face no consequences.
Those who want to see the dismantling of oppressive power, those who know that black lives matter, those who want to bring a new and better morning to America must take control of the conversation. We must talk about the systemic racism in this country. We must talk about the violence perpetrated upon people of color–and this includes economic violence as well as physical violence. We must talk about the fact that there is no American dream for countless people but an American nightmare of inequity and injustice. We must hold the police and the government accountable and we must somehow lead the unwilling to an understanding of the issues. Along with the conversation there needs to be action. There needs to be pressure put on legislators and police departments to make change. Young people of color need to run for office. Laws must be enacted or changed to make lives better for all. Economic inequality needs to be faced. Police must be made to wear body cameras. The justice system needs to be fixed.
We need to do this together. We need to join hands, African-Americans with white allies, Asians, Latinos, straight and gay, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. We are all in it. We are all responsible and we must all accept the responsibility of creating the changes that are needed to make the American dream a reality for all.