Today, as I was preparing to board an early morning flight to Minnesota, where I will join my family for Thanksgiving, I heard the news of the St. Louis grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. After briefly summarizing the prosecuting attorney’s 45 minute statement, the reports centered on the response of the crowds in St. Louis and Ferguson. While mentioning the appeals by Brown’s parents, African American leaders and even Pres. Obama to protest non-violently, the reporters went on to focus on the looting and shooting that occurred. I was struck by the contrast by the news reports and individual interviews of people on the ground who said that had heard some gun shots, but had not seen violence or guns. More disturbing than this skewed reporting was near lack of analysis of both the case itself and the larger meaning of these events.
No doubt many authorities, as well as a majority of White Americans, will want to say the grand jury’s decision has been rendered, let’s pack up and move on. However, to many African Americans ˘ this case is representative and symbolic of what it means to young and Black in America. Many will rightfully ask: Had the roles been reversed (a Black teenager shooting a White police officer) would the prosecutor and grand jury needed 105 days to render a decision? While it is good that the grand jury took such care to examine all the evidence and we must recognize the conflict of accounts between eye witnesses and Officer Wilson himself, but we dare not miss the larger issues at stake.
In a brief review of the history of Black America in the 20th century, one can’t help see parallels between Ferguson and lynchings of the early 1900’s and the state violence against protestors in the 1950’s and 1960’s. These are not isolated incidents but part of a larger historical pattern where young black bodies are expendable in the pursuit of “law and order.” Yes, we have come a long way from lynchings and Bull Connor’s dogs and hoses in Birmingham, the riot gear and the National Guard being called out in Missouri should cause us to wonder if we have come as far as we think we have.
Just days before the verdict a 12 year old boy was shot by a police officer in Cleveland for waving a toy gun around. In Philadelphia and cities across the country, school districts that serve the predominantly low income Black and Latino students are underfunded and provide substandard education despite heroic efforts by teachers to make up for scarce resources. Lawyer/authors like Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy) have documented that the criminal justice system disproportionately and more severely sentences Black and Latino men. Whether talking about education, housing, health care, employment opportunities and general quality of life issues, if you are poor, Black and/or Latino/a your access to the opportunity in this country is circumscribed by your race and class status.
Michael Brown’s death occurs in this context, and while the legal case may have been dismissed, the larger meaning of this event remains…. and must be addressed by a new Civil Rights Movement. One of the promising thing in Philadelphia is in response to the verdict, youth-oriented organizations led a peaceful march that their elders supported and praised. While I was not able to be there several leaders of POWER, the interfaith social justice network, were. Every death is one too many; every injustice is one too many. However, if these events can galvanize young people to address these injustices with the support of those of have lived thru injustices before, there may be some good yet to come from this tragedy.