Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Few Thoughts On Ferguson

It's hard to really get one completely coherent thought regarding Ferguson written down, partly because the whole ordeal hurts my heart and makes physically difficult to do so, and partly because there are so many issues at play here, there is not one single statement that can fully summarize everything. Here's a few semi-understandable things I would like to say about Ferguson:

1) The killing of Michael Brown is an absolute tragedy. No matter if you believe he was a dangerous youth, fought with the police officer, was a legitimate or lethal threat to Officer Wilson, or whatever, the fact that in one moment an actual living breathing human being's life was ended should make you sad. I don't care who you want to blame for the killing, but the fact that it happened and was completely preventable should pain you, I hope.

2) This particular incident, while completely awful, is not the issue here.  This may be what frustrates me the most about Ferguson. If we learn tomorrow that Michael Brown was a legitimate, mortal threat to Officer Wilson, and the shooting was completely justified to save his life, even if we learn without a doubt that this shooting was 100% on the level, the core issue remains. To hear about a situation such as the shooting of Michael Brown and immediate equate it with systematic abuse of black men and boys by police is a good sign that something bad is going on. I noticed a few people on social media bringing up the shooting of unarmed white men by police officers and were asking why we weren't discussing that in addition to or instead of the events in Ferguson. Why indeed? If changing one simple detail such as the color of the dead person's skin is enough to invoke a completely different emotion in some people, then that feelings warrants some sort of investigation and discussion. Why are black Americans under the impression that police officers discriminate against them and whites don't seem to feel the same? This cannot be the result of some sort of shared delusion by all black Americans, nor can it be a completely invented problem. Even if you believe that somebody is drumming up anger over this incident, the fact that it's even possible to drum up anger for such a thing is a clear sign that something is going on, and that something needs to be looked at.

I don't want to skim over this point. It's as though someone noticed smoke billowing from someone's house and suggested that it may be on fire. Even if the smoke isn't bothering anybody, it's still a good idea to make sure nobody's burning inside.

3) The decision to not indict Officer Wilson is wrong. Look, I wasn't in Ferguson, and neither were you, probably. We don't know what happened there, so we can't say whether or not Wilson is guilty. A lot of us are going into this thing with preconceived notions about what happened, including myself. That's why a trial is a good idea. Even if the result doesn't go the way you or I want it to, or believe it should go, it restores trust in the rule of law, and the idea that if a police officer shoots someone unarmed, it will at least be scrutinized, evidence will be presented, and a grand jury will decide based on that scrutiny and that evidence. To summarize, an indictment would
A) Show people, especially the citizens of Ferguson, that the killing of unarmed citizens will be duly investigated
B) Show people, especially the citizens of Ferguson, that the system can work as long as it is allowed to
C) Establish a precedent for the behavior of police officers. They do in fact have the right to shoot and even kill someone if their life or someone else's life is in danger. That is indisputable. However, it is a right that should only be employed in the most dire of circumstances. An indictment would at the very least reinforce the idea that shooting an unarmed citizen is a unique situation that cannot be glossed over very quickly.

4) He's kinda already indicted. I want to get into the current situation re: riots/protests in a second, but one of the reasons this "no indictment" business is getting people riled up is because he was already "indicted" in the public eye anyway. An indictment is not a death or jail sentence; it isn't even acknowledgement of wrongdoing. The only thing it is is an accusation. Whether that accusation is correct or not is for someone else to decide, but I feel safe saying that Officer Wilson was accused of exercising poor judgment by shooting Michael Brown, at least. A great many people would be satisfied if all evidence presented in a trial pointed to a legitimate shooting or if the evidence was insufficient to convince a jury that Wilson was in the wrong. However, not being formally indicted after being informally accused by the public is incomprehensible for those eager to learn the truth of the situation.

5) Riots are not the answer if you believe the system works. I'm such a movie nerd that even when I'm talking about current events, my mind can't help but think about movies. In this case, I'm thinking about Mookie from Do the Right Thing, specifically the moment when he throws a trashcan through the restaurant window. When I first saw this movie, I didn't understand that decision. To this day, I still don't fully comprehend this movie and this reminds me that I will never, ever understand what it's like to be black in America. But the events in Ferguson remind me of that seen, and maybe I have at least a tiny bit of insight into Mookie's mindset now. Riots occur when lawfulness and lawlessness are equated. That is, if you believe that your lawful actions will be negatively punished as though there were unlawful actions, then a riot has no effect on your status. Conversely, if your unlawful actions are still interpreted to be lawful in whatever system your in, you're unafraid of breaking the law.

Couple examples of this: If you have a black teenager who buys Skittles and then gets killed, his lawfulness is still regarded as lawlessness. Belief in the system weakens or even fails. I remember a story from Tim Wise's White Like Me, where he recounts smoking marijuana in college. The white people would flaunt it openly while the black students were scared of getting caught. In this case, unlawful actions are the same as lawful ones for the white students, so there was no change in behavior. Perhaps I'm oversimplifying here quite a bit, but I'm pretty sure people who have a strong belief that the system works for them will be hesitant to tarnish their legal records.

6) Comments about rioters justify the anger rioters feel. Black citizens of the US are feeling like less than people right now. People who deride them as "savages" or "just looking for an excuse to steal" are helping to reinforce a terrible, terrible idea. Do you believe that these riots are unjustified? Well then say that instead of dropping the n-bomb, because if you do, you're just making it worse.

 7) Please don't hurt anyone or anything. The death of a single person is a tragedy. The death of another person because of that is a tragedy greater than the sum of its parts. I know, I know. The system is broken, and I can't tell you not to be angry about that, and I can't tell you to do nothing, and I can't even tell you not to walk out onto the streets and express that anger. All I can do is sit here and hope that nobody dies.
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