The national conversation about racism and police brutality in America, when discussed at all, has been going on for decades. There remains an ever growing list of young Black men who are no longer with us and police officers whose names have faded from memory as they returned to their lives as if nothing happened. Headlines, if there were any, reminded us that change remains illusive but within days usually returned to other matters and our attentions were focused elsewhere, usually closer to home in both a figurative and literal sense.
And then Ferguson happened.
Michael Brown was killed by a police officer. Many of us prefer the word murdered. What makes this case even more explosive was the promise of an investigation into possible grounds for an indictment against Darren Wilson, the police officer who ended Michael Brown’s life. We waited. We waited. We waited. And we waited some more.
We were all braced for the Grand Jury’s decision, few of us doubting that no grounds would be found to indict Darren Wilson. Even before the decision was handed down, talk began of the reactions to be expected in Ferguson and beyond. As usual, Facebook became a community board and at times, a battle ground of opposing views. News media took their expected positions. The conversation now taking place has an added dimension, that of whether or not the resulting looting and burning outbreaks in Ferguson are riots or the logical and understandable reaction of people who are feeling the ultimate degree of hopelessness that results from having been abandoned by justice and reason. This conversation is a most necessary and vital one that needs to be happening now. The decisions made about how to move forward will have a profound effect on our ability to really make change.
I understand, to whatever degree is possible (and many will say I can claim no understanding at all because of the color of my skin and privileged experience within the system), the rage and contempt felt by communities who are the usual recipients of police brutality. But it isn’t hard to imagine myself in a position of powerlessness and responding violently to a situation such as the Ferguson debacle. I also know that what I am about to write will not be taken too kindly by many who live that reality every day but I hope that it can at least be part of the conversation in which we must all participate.
The scenes of over a dozen building ablaze brought questions that may not have easy answers. What purpose does this serve? How does the destruction of property that belongs to people who are in no way responsible for the despicable behavior of the police do anything to move toward a solution? At least in the case of over turned police cars that were eventually totaled by fire, the target dealt a blow to the enemy. But burning and looting stores only brings more destruction to a community that needs so desperately to stay together, act together, stand together, fight together, resist together, gather allies together. I most certainly support all who resist the insanity that is the Ferguson experience but is it not a waste of energy to burn down a beauty shop when that resistance energy could be used for the occupation of the court house instead? Couldn’t that energy be used to haunt the police department with a daily presence taking the forms of silent protest or civil disobedience? Violent reaction allows momentary release of rage (maybe) while other paths address the problem by bringing the kind of attention that could draw allies willing to join the number. I offer as an example the June 2013 Silent March against New York City’s practice of “Stop and Frisk”. As thousands of us marched the long blocks of the city, holding signs but not saying a word the message was intensely palpable. The police who stood along the route knew we were saying that we would not allow the practice to continue. To be sure, that march did not deliver a panacea of reform but in non-violent silence and solidarity, the people spoke and drew the attention of media and allies from both within and without the city.
Michael Brown’s family issued a number of statements after the murder of their child. Following the Grand Jury’s decision their statement was one of profound disappointment that Darren Wilson would not have to face the consequences of his actions. But their statements from the very beginning of this tragedy called for a non-violent response. Is it possible that further violence is not what the family wants as a remembrance of Michael’s legacy? Is it possible that they are hoping for something infinitely better to result from his death?
I believe this conversation must take place. We must hear more and feel more about the daily experience that drives some to react with such rage following events such as this one and the disenfranchised and system abused must hear from all of us that we stand with them. We must deliver a credible, measurable and immediate message that we are willing to participate in protests in a multitude of forms which, rather than destroying communities, makes them stronger, rid of oppression and respected in ways that are long overdue. We must do this because until we change that daily experience, Ferguson is bound to happen again.
I attended a vigil in Harford CT. We heard from religious leaders, we sang, we filled the church with awareness. But the most important thing we did was to give people a chance to make a statement about what they intended to do starting right now to make change happen. There are things that everyone can do. Give it some thought and if you need ideas, let’s use this space to communicate ideas with each other. I’ll start the process now with an idea we’re already planning in Hartford. If you have concerns about police harassment or worse yet, brutality in your town or city, file a FOI request and get hold of your police department’s policies and procedures for the use of all “lethal and less
than lethal weapons”. Study them. Determine first whether they are reasonable and if they are, whether or not they are being adhered to. If they aren’t reasonable, work to change them. “Power to the People” requires people to act. It’s time.