Last night, I sat in the living room with my wife, my mother-in-law and my nephew. Secure in the bosom of my family, we turned on the television and watched the reaction of Ferguson, Missouri following a grand jury’s refusal to indict the police officer responsible for the death of Mike Brown. We watched President Obama’s brief remarks, after which my wife commented that our commander in chief didn’t seem very pleased with the events of the day.
She was clearly correct. Not only was the president fearful of the violence likely to erupt in the wake of the grand jury decision, but one could read in his face disappointment over the outcome.
I believe that President Obama got a lot of things right last night. He was right to appeal for calm in a volatile situation. He was right to suggest that peaceful protest, not violence, is a reasonable response to public dissatisfaction. And he was right to state that America was built upon the foundation of the rule of law. Like so many things, the rule of law is a lot more appealing when it yields the results we’d like to see than when it does not. But the rule of law is part of who we are, and it belongs to us, for better or for worse. In tough times, we need to embrace the rule of law, not cast it aside in a fit of pique.
The grand jury agreed with Officer Darren Wilson’s assertions that his actions were in compliance with his training and with the law. If his claims are factual, then we have our work cut for us: We need to change police training and we need to change the law. Those are two things that cannot be accomplished by means of violence. They can only be accomplished by exercising our constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances.
The pink elephant in the room is, of course, race. And as the president pointed out, this is a factor that cannot be ignored. There are those who aver that Brown would not have been killed had he been white instead of black. No one can say with certainty whether this is the case, but it is undeniable that the argument resonates with many.
Obama was correct in pointing out that the racial tensions of today were born of the racial discrimination of our recent past. The president mentioned that he has personal experience with this, and I don’t doubt him a bit. Every person with black skin in this country has encountered discrimination.
It is well known that there has long been an imbalance of power between blacks and whites in America. For the most part, blacks have poorer childhood educational opportunities than white children do, graduate from college in far small numbers than their white agemates, have fewer job opportunities and are paid less than whites, have less access to health care and die earlier than whites. I don’t think it is unreasonable to state that blacks have drawn the short end of the stick in this country.
Another type of imbalance of power exists between the citizenry and law enforcement. Most of us do not carry weapons with us, but the police do. The service weapon of a police officer is supposed to be a tool of law enforcement. The officer’s gun is a symbol of power, a reminder of what he or she can do to us if we break the law. Beyond that, however, it doesn’t take a brilliant scholar to know that when weapons are present, sooner or later they will be used. The police have guns so that they can use them in certain circumstances, not just as window dressing for the cool blue uniform. The prevailing argument is that the police receive extensive training and have it drilled into them that their weapons are to be used only as a last resort for protection of themselves or others.
Other than God, no one but Officer Wilson himself knows what was really going through his mind in the split second that he made the fateful decision to discharge his weapon. But the already significant imbalance of power between police and public is doubled and redoubled when a white officer serving in a largely white police force has to make an immediate life or death decision regarding a black citizen of a largely black city.
Whites have been afraid of blacks for a long time. When I was a kid growing up in the New York metropolitan area during the sixties, there was barely concealed panic about the riots in Newark as well as lots of whispers and knowing glances about which areas of town and which streets to stay away from after dark. We shuddered at the Black Power graffiti and its raised fist logo.
Fear. It’s a deadly thing, a destructive force of massive power. More powerful that a policeman’s gun. FDR knew whereof he spoke when he said that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Anytime there is an imbalance of power between two groups, the more powerful is going to use any means at its disposal to remain in power, while fearing the weaker group and what it might do should the balance of power shift. So whites wield epithets at blacks while blacks yield epithets at whites, while each group fears the other and perpetuates unfounded generalizations that resound down the generations. Stereotypes persist, even though political correctness has forced them behind thinly veiled cover.
In light of the above, the tragedy in Ferguson was inevitable, as was the decision of a grand jury composed of nine whites and three blacks. What is not inevitable, however, is the senseless violence that continues to tear apart Ferguson and other cities. We need to convert the cry of “burn this [epithet] down” to a cry of “vote, hold office, take back your community.” Regardless of the depth of the tragedy in Ferguson, meaningful change will not occur unless we create it. We have to be that change.
I went to work this morning, as I do every weekday, enjoying the opportunity of our commute to catch up with my wife. We spoke of family goings-on, upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities, money, shopping and work. Our conversations often roam all over the place, which is but one reason that they are so wonderful. But neither of us mentioned anything about Mike Brown, the grand jury or Ferguson.
Today was particularly busy at work, and I was caught up in my duties immediately upon arriving. It wasn’t until I took a break at noon to microwave my container of veggies that I remembered. And that’s when it hit me: With the hundreds of people working in my building, and with conversations conducted all around me throughout the morning, never once did I hear mention of Ferguson. I quickly logged on to CNN to see what was going on, whereupon I learned that the businesses along West Florissant Avenue were in flames. Store windows were smashed, looting had occurred, shops turned into fireballs faster than the fire department could extinguish the blazes.
I sought out the company of one of my coworkers and broached the topic of Ferguson and the grand jury decision not to indict Wilson. I asked her whether she had seen the president’s remarks on TV last night. She admitted that she hadn’t. She tries not to watch the news, she told me, as it only makes her upset and angry. My coworker, who is a devout Christian, pointed out that horrors like the situation in Ferguson are prophesized in the Book of Revelation.
“But it doesn’t have to be this way!” I cried out. She agreed, reminding me that Revelation paints a picture of what will happen to all of us when society loses its mind, slips over the edge and willfully refuses to subject itself to God’s discipline. It may not have to be this way, but it will continue to be this way, she pointed out, as long as we persist in our folly, persist in engaging in discrimination, in embracing stereotypes, in accepting imbalances of power.
I must admit that I can see how easily disaster can be chained upon disaster. A black teen is killed by a white cop, a grand jury refuses to dispense justice, a city’s anger and its streets both burn.
Nevertheless, I refuse to give up. Revelation notwithstanding, I stand firm in my belief that it doesn’t have to be this way. The Bible teaches us that the Lord’s anger burns but for a little while, that His rebuke does not last forever, and that He eagerly awaits the day of our return to His ways so that we can once again enjoy the blessings of prosperity bestowed upon the compassionate and the just.
We can divest ourselves of the fear, we can take back our communities, we can update our laws, we can stand together and be the change we want to see rather than waiting for someone else to do it.
Because no one else is going to do it.