When I wrote the last post in my diversity series, I didn’t expect to be writing another related post so soon, but I feel so strongly about this, it’s practically writing itself.
I’m horrified and angry at the news coming out of Ferguson, Missouri. If you haven’t been following, this is the most concise summary I can give:
Michael Brown, age 18, was walking to his grandmother’s house when he was fatally shot, multiple times, by a police officer. Witness and official accounts diverge dramatically on what exactly happened during Brown’s killing, but it’s clear Brown was unarmed and his body was left in the street for hours after his death. Protests ensued, some peaceful, some not. The police are using tear gas and rubber bullets (and perhaps worse) on the protesters. Members of the national press have been ejected from Ferguson, sometimes forcibly, and the airspace has been declared a no-fly zone. Brown and his community are Black, but much of the county is white; the local police officers are more than 90% white. Much of the news coming out of Ferguson is via social media and alternative news outlets, like this livestreaming site.
It grieves and appalls me to be watching these events unfold, so much like similar incidents we’ve seen before. There is a long and heinous history in this country of the devaluation of Black life. It is related to the devaluation of the lives of other people of color (and other marginalized groups), but it is worst and most systematic for anyone who is Black (or appears so). Photos from the protests in Ferguson look distressingly like photos from the 1960s segregated South. Some things have improved since then, but it is clear from all these unnecessary deaths — and countless other incidents of aggression nearly anyone of a certain skin tone can recount — that not enough has. When citizens can’t walk the streets in peace and safety, freedom has failed.
Perhaps it’s that I’m a writer, but the press coverage (or lack thereof) of this situation has particularly upset me. Words aren’t everything, but they matter. How we tell stories matters. And the mainstream narrative here, and in other such cases, always pits official accounts against witness accounts, which, because we are a racist society, already reflects bias. Sometimes the stories actively portray the witnesses as unreliable (um, yeah, they’ve just seen someone killed), but the key point is, they don’t have to. We as a society are already disposed to see young Black men as thugs, Black women as angry and in-your-face, Black communities as ghettoes, Black autonomy as dangerous. Any time the word of Black witnesses is placed against the word of a nonracialized (but usually white) “official” line, there is already complexity being suppressed. It sickens me that the family and friends of killed Black youth are always having to prove that they were good kids, good students, hard workers, responsible citizens. It shouldn’t be relevant. The reason we have police at all, the reason we have law, is so people can’t just go around killing anyone they deem suspicious or unworthy.
There is a normalization to stories like Mike Brown’s death, to the events playing out in Ferguson, as if dying and being shut down are simply what Black people are here to do. This normalization mirrors what happens with stories from Gaza or from Syria, from West Africa, from anywhere that isn’t right here right now. It is as if we accept that certain people just have to bear the burden of suffering, while the rest of us get to enjoy our lives. People, injustice concerns all of us. If it’s not you today, not in your neighborhood, it may be tomorrow.
I am not a protest-goer, and I have limited faith in petitions (though I often sign them anyway), so I write and speak because that is what I can do. As I wrote in my last diversity post, the power of the status quo is toward maintaining itself. If I don’t speak up, the dominant narrative will go on without me. But if I say something, even if it’s only seen by a hundred people, even if it’s only seen by one, I have done something to disrupt that dominant narrative. I’ve come to believe that change can begin that way. There are things going on in our world that should not be happening. See them. Ask why. Know how you feel. Tell people. Do something.