Darren Wilson shoots Michael Brown, dead. His body lay in the street.
Family and friends ask why.
The shooter says he was under attack, afraid, defending himself.
Trained as a reporter, I think, “OK, maybe.”
But that’s not enough, is it?
It wasn’t so long ago I watched Fruitvale Station, a true story now truer.
Officer Johannes Mehserle kills the unarmed Oscar Grant, detained only because he was a black man in the vicinity of a fight on a public-transit train. Grant resists arrest. Mehserle says he reached for his Taser but fired a gun instead. He gets off with involuntary manslaughter. Two years jail time.
Grant is still dead. So is Brown.
Victims are marching, shouting, rioting, looting.
They’re taking it too far. It’s anti-social, misdirected, counterproductive.
But who am I to say? I’m not one of them, am I?
A victim, I mean. I trust the cops.
I trust the cops! Maybe you do too. Do you know how lucky we are?
I believe in justice. I believe in equality. I should be outraged, but I’m not.
“We can’t breathe together,” says my friend John, a black pastor. “There’s not enough oxygen to wail and to laugh.”
How do I find the oxygen to wail? Where do I fit in? How do I make this my story?
What a luxury: Straight, white male, unaffected, needs to feel something.
“I can’t breathe.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“I can’t breathe.”
Officer Daniel Pantaleo choked the life out of Eric Garner.
Caught on camera.
The victim made no threat.
He tried to walk away.
Still, no indictment.
Pantaleo can’t claim self-defense.
Garner’s crime: so poor, it’s worth his time to peddle loose cigarettes to people too poor for a whole pack; asking Pantaleo to leave him alone; trying to walk away
(Philip Morris still allowed to manufacture cancer)
They’re protesting. New York. Berkeley. St. Louis. Here in Durham.
They block the freeway.
They disturb the nice people watching the nice show at the fancy theater.
The peace officers armor themselves like warriors, knock down women, cuff them, jail them.
I know some of these protestors. They pour my coffee. They volunteer at my kids’ summer camps.
My friend Kym, a bar owner and singer, has marched with them.
“It’s really important to hold onto to each other in this time, ‘cause it’s really crazy out there,” she prophesies between songs, speaking to hundreds of other white people who also know not what to do. “Let’s tear it down.”
Let’s tear it down. Apocalyptic talk. The Virgin Mary’s Song
In Bethlehem to bow as Caesar’s conquered slave, and this is her revolutionary song of praise to God:
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
No, the mighty are still enthroned, protected by soldiers in riot gear.
No, the rich are still full, the hungry waiting for good things.
That radical little deity in the feeding trough hasn’t torn it down yet.
I watch another movie, looking for answers.
MOVE bucked the system in Philadelphia in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The cops bombed their house and Let the Fire Burn.
MOVE – or its leaders at least – weren’t very nice people.
They shot a cop. They megaphoned obscenities into the street. They used kids as human shields. They built a sniper crow’s nest on their rowhouse roof.
Anti-social. Misdirected. Counterproductive.
But testifying to a city commission that found police negligent in burning down a city block, a black minister said he knew MOVE members as human beings, outside their political activity.
Human beings. That’s what I see, in the looters in Ferguson, in my barista blocking the highway, even in that crazy man who shot those two officers in New York City – human beings reacting aggressively, criminally, insanely (in the NYC case), to a system that has diminished their humanity.
We have to ask: What drives them to it? Why hasn’t it driven you and me?
In general, they’re people who weren’t born straight and white and male and American – characteristics that aren’t inherently better, only beneficial in a society built by straight, white, American men.
The worst thing a cop has ever done to me is to have given me a speeding ticket I deserved. The system doesn’t threaten me because the system was built to protect me from others.
You don’t need to protest and riot if the system protects you. You don’t need to take risks that might be perceived as anti-social, that might miss the mark, that might turn out to be counterproductive.
You don’t always make the right call. When there’s more at stake, the chances of error go up. I’m not saying I condone every tactic, but it’s too easy to write off a person or a movement you think colors too far outside the lines. That’s the point: The lines aren’t working for them.
“Just as a human being myself, I’m just trying to imagine myself in that situation,” says the pastor, talking about his neighbors who barricaded themselves inside a Philadelphia rowhouse while it burned.
He could imagine, because he listened.
That’s all I can do. It’s not much. Or it’s everything.