Context gets lost in Ferguson Discussion

In the wake of the tragedy over the Michael Brown shooting and the grand jury declining to pursue an indictment of police officer Darren Wilson, context for the discussion seems to have been lost. Some who look at the failure to indict as vindication for a beleaguered police officer are focusing more on the event and not the underlying causes, in other words, the context. I am not going to sit in judgment over the people serving on the grand jury. They saw testimony and information the larger public did not see, so for me to question their decision, would be an uninformed or partially informed opinion. I do lament that a young, imperfect man is dead and that is unfortunate.

The part that should be looked at more is the expectation of the African-American community that an indictment would not be forthcoming. They hoped for an indictment, but knew in their hearts that Wilson would not be so charged. What does that say? It validates that there are two Americas, one where opportunity exists, and one where opportunity is limited or non-existent. It validates that African-American people expect to be maltreated. We should be asking why have these people lost hope.

Yet, it is not just race that is a factor, although a high percentage of those disenfranchised are of color. We have a poverty problem in this country that impacts people off all races, ethnicities, political persuasions and geographies. Poverty exists in rural towns, just as much as it does in urban and suburban settings. And, America is no longer the land of opportunity like it used to be, as we have greatly fallen in the ranks of socio-economic class mobility. So, this context is important. This type of disenfranchisement is debilitating.

Also, we seemed to have lost sight that we live in communities. The law enforcement officers should represent and reach out to the communities. There are great examples where community policing has done marvelous things to reduce crime. The proactivity and accessibility of law enforcement officers provides a calming service to the community. I read a great example as it relates to drunk driving which applies here. Rather than stop and cite drunk drivers once they got behind the wheel, a community police force started positioning officers outside of nightclubs and sports bars. These officers would suggest to obviously inebriated people that they should not drive and would call them a cab.

Right now, with more Americans armed, the police have to be more armed and more adept at using the weapons. Per Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book “Blink,” officers need to be taught to be judicious with the use of force when confronted. The premise of “Blink” is there is a predisposition to act based on gut instincts and it is crucial that officers are trained and re-trained to not act rashly or based on biased expectations. This is a key reason why African-American males are at greater risk than other males. This is key reason African-American mothers have the “talk” with their male children (that white mothers do not need to have) about being extra careful with any movements when approached by the law.

This issue is complicated and deserves good dialogue about the underlying context and potential solutions. It does not deserve politicians, pundits and leaders arguing over misconceptions and innuendo. I do not like that some have resorted to violence, looting and destruction. This does not serve a good purpose and the wrong people are punished. I do not like that Brown’s body was treated so poorly after his death. I do not like that questions may still exist about the circumstances of his death, but smarter people than me will need to look into what the grand jury may not have seen. And, I do not like people short-changing the disenfranchised, by not understanding fully the context of their disenfranchisement. Unless someone has walked in their shoes, they truly do not understand why hope can seem lost.

And, it should not be lost that other African-American youth have died recently, as before, at the hands of the law no matter how justified the act. So, Michael Brown has not died alone. Let’s remember that context, as well.




19 thoughts on “Context gets lost in Ferguson Discussion

  1. This is, indeed, a very thoughtful post. And I agree with pretty much everything you have to say. Growing up in the rural south, I watched a lot of the interactions between blacks and whites in the 60’s and 70’s, and was caught more than once in the brutality that can occur. Things “should” be different now…. but they simply aren’t. As you said, the grand jury sees more than we, the public, will ever see. We cannot judge. Then again – – the whole attitude of “black vs. white” will never go away until we have a media that doesn’t continue to push their own agenda of “if it bleeds, it leads”, and a political system that seems determined to tear down everything this county has ever stood for in an attempt to ascertain that all wealth is held in the hands of a chosen few while the rest of us suffer. I can’t help but compare the US of today with Communist Russia – a few powerful people holding all the wealth and making sure that the rest go hungry, living in the streets and living without hope.
    Until we, the people, stand up and say “NO MORE” – until we understand that we are all the same, and we all are being trodden on, not just people of colour, but ALL Americans except for the “chosen few” – we are screwed.

    • Great comments. The media is biased toward conflict. Your quote says it more dramatically. I agree with the need to treat people well and provide opportunity. We have a large uphill battle to spread these truths. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful explanation of the context of the Brown case. The outrage over Brown’s death stems from much more than a single incident. The rage is over a system in which black lives matter less than white lives, over a system in which young white men can behave foolishly without being killed for it, but young black men cannot.

    • Thanks Debra. That was one point of the book “The New Jim Crow,” which is about incarceration levels. Blacks have no higher propensity toward drug use than whites, yet blacks are incarcerated more. Part of it is bias, part of it is not being able to afford good counsel on a relative basis.

      In New York, I must confess surprise the grand jury did not come down with an indictment given the footage and that a choke hold is not condoned in police work. But, like Ferguson, I am presuming the grand jury was privy to other information. Nonetheless, given the footage this is more of a surprise. Yet, this feeds into the larger contextual issue. Take care, BTG

  3. To the New York case, there was explicit video of the act, of the illegal choke hold by the officer, of the victim gasping for breath, and yet he still got of. So what in gods name does Obama expect to achieve with body cameras? If clear video doesnt change things, neither will $50 million of body cameras.

    Yes, there are two systems, but I’m also concerned as to where the two systems are headed. Today it is white power versus blacks. White officers versus male blacks. But in the long haul, I see it being a standing, militarized police/army, against all of the poor, the former middle class, labor, and of course, racial minorities. We are just setting up the system of the Kings court where the nobility is free to rampage, commit crimes, and run roughshod over the “paupers,” and where the majority of individuals have no rights, no freedom, no value.

    Great post, as usual

    • Good comments. I share your concerns. Unlike the Ferguson case, the existence and revelation of the video would seem to support that a trial was warranted. As to the two Americas, Leonard Pitts editorial notes that police in Michigan calmed an older white man threatening people with a rifle over forth minutes. Yet, within two minutes, they shot and killed a 12 year old boy with a stun gun. His question is why could you not calm the boy and talk him out of the weapon? And, listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “41 Shots” may be in order for some. Thanks for your comments. BTG

      • I think we kid ourselves and become quite smug thinking that we have minded and closed the bias gap, that we have come so far in establishing equality and justice for all. However, it is recent incidents brought to us in “living colour” that prove the gap is still there, always has been there, and remains there steadfast and strong. Proving we haven’t come that far at all.
        At. All.

      • Thanks Raye. The book “The New Jim Crow” is telling about relative levels of incarceration. Yet, these young men and boys never made it to jail. I think the gap from the 1960s and before has closed, but it is still much wider than it should be at this point.

      • It’s interesting that Lincoln, for all his support of freedom for the slaves, was convinced that the two races could never live together amicably. I do wonder sometimes….

      • It is nice to see many whites protesting with blacks on these issues, as was done with the civil rights movements. One of the dilemmas with the charter school push adding to parochial and private school existence is elected segregation. This is the key reason my kids went to public schools. To answer your wondering, we can, but some choose not to and that will increase the gap in understanding and amicability in my view.

      • There is no doubt about Lincoln’s sincerity in wanting the slaves to be free — it was a moral issue for him as it was for hundreds of abolitionists, such as his close friend Seward. But deep down he questioned whether the two races could live together because he realized the hatred for the black race was very deep in a great many people — especially in the South. Thus, while you are right about the steps we have taken, there is still the question whether enough whites can grow out of their prejudices to make it possible for the blacks to no longer live in fear — the fear that Z felt in Mississippi when she was over here.

      • Hugh, you have hit upon why it is important for less prejudiced whites to stand up to more prejudiced white people (and this goes for any group that has unfair prejudice). Prejudice exists everywhere, which has to be carefully taught from an early age. On the good side, younger folks are more diverse and welcoming because they have witnessed multi-cultural interaction up close. I saw where 74% of young adults felt an indictment in Staten Island should have been forthcoming, where only 41% of older adults did. So, there is more hope in this area for the future. Great comments and cautions. BTG

      • There’s n question the young are far more tolerant than their parents and grandparents. It would be interesting to track them as they grow older. I suspect our prejudices grow on us like barnacles on a ship as we pass through life.

  4. I don’t know why I drifted back two years to this post, but thank you so much for being such a thoughtful, calming, voice of wisdom. This incident still breaks my heart. As a teacher I knew Michael Brown. Not this Michael Brown. Not even named Michael Brown. But he was a an archetypal student that keeps coming in the classroom door. And I found each of him to be a complicated and exceptional human being. No one, it seems, values a child like that… except maybe the parents. And there in lies our failure. I always feel like it is my fault, because I know a secret… that people like this, so feared and vilified by others that they have to be shot multiple times, are actually wonderful, worthy human beings. I still agonize over why I haven’t been able to share that secret with everybody… even officer Wilson.

    • Many thanks. And, therein lies the problem. We have been taught our biases and even bigotry from a young age. So, the perception of an imposing Black youth by the police may have predisposed them to act. That is the essence of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink.” Our police need constant training to minimize biases – we all have them. If someone is predisposed to act, they will tend to do so.

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