Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The language of the unheard

It is not my intention to write about rioting, looting, and other criminal mischief that occurred last night in Ferguson, Mo., after the decision of the grand jury empaneled to investigate the death of Michael Brown was announced.

Neither is it my intention to write about that decision, the "no bill" result, that means that for now Darren Wilson will face no charges in connection with that death.

As to the latter, as I wrote last night on Facebook, there was a process followed.  Process produces justice, whether or not we like the result.  In any criminal matter, no matter who is being investigated or accused, the process, when followed, produces justice.  Injustice results from the failure to follow process.

As to the former, to the extent that those actions were taken in actual protest of the grand jury's decision, those actions are wrong and should be prosecuted as criminal acts.  To the extent that those were the actions of opportunistic criminals, they are irrelevant to our purposes here.

Everything that has occurred in connection with this case--the riots, the protests, the candlelight vigils, the political entanglements, the efforts of the police to discredit Michael Brown, the racial disparity between the Ferguson police force and the community it serves, the handling of the long-term investigation, the handling of the grand jury, the prosecutor's half-hearted presentation of the case to the grand jury, the handling of the immediate investigation, the statements of the witnesses, and so on, up to and including the killing of Michael Brown, are symptoms of a much larger problem.

Symptoms, not the problem.

This problem is one that few people want to discuss honestly, because they are so entrenched, so dedicated to the idea that they must prevail in the controversy, that they cannot recognize the problem.

A quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., from a 1966 interview with Mike Wallace has gotten considerable exposure in recent days.  In that interview, King was seeking to explain the context of race riots across the United States, most famously in the Watts district of Los Angeles but elsewhere as well, where the "Black Power" movement pushed back against King's advocacy of nonviolent resistance.  He said:

I will agree that there is a group in the Negro community advocating violence now. I happen to feel that this group represents a numerical minority. Surveys have revealed this. The vast majority of Negroes still feel that the best way to deal with the dilemma that we face in this country is through non-violent resistance, and I don't think this vocal group will be able to make a real dent in the Negro community in terms of swaying 22 million Negroes to this particular point of view. And I contend that the cry of "black power" is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.
In the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11/01, when American jingoism hit a fever pitch, we engaged in very little self-examination and focused the entirety of our attention upon striking back at our enemies.  Those attacks were given a status in American lore equal to that of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941--namely, that the terrorists who attacked us had unfairly and unreasonably targeted a nation entirely innocent of wrongdoing against them, that it was an unprovoked attack, undertaken from pure hatred of Americans for who we are.

Maybe all of that is true.  But few Americans were interested in testing the hypothesis.

The problem with the quintessential jingoist battle cry--"My country, right or wrong!"--is that it excludes the real possibility that we can be wrong.

Do not misunderstand me:  The 9/11 attacks were wrong and utterly unjustifiable.  I am not suggesting in any way that we deserved those attacks.  But as humans we have to live in the world.  We have to deal with other humans as they come to us, not as we would like for them to be.  To be the most effective at protecting ourselves, and in a broader sense to execute our morality,1 we must seek to understand those who hate us, and why, and if we can reasonably modify our behavior to neutralize that hatred, we owe it to ourselves at least to consider doing so.  This is true regardless of the merits of that hatred.  Even if it is entirely irrational, we must first seek to reform ourselves.

1 Regular readers of this blog know that I do not equate morality and religion at all, but I am reminded of this passage from the Sermon on the Mount that I find particularly instructive as one of the keys to being a good human:  
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." 
(Matt. 5:43-48 (NIV).)

Qualitatively, the problem we as Americans must face today is the same.2  There is a seething hatred and resentment for law enforcement among minorities.  We can treat that hatred as a disqualifying condition.  The result of that will be more of the same thing we have seen for the last fifty years (or maybe for much longer).  Racial minorities will continue to live in a peculiar combination of a lawless community and a police state.  Genuine criminals will continue to act with impunity to persecute those in their communities who are less willing to pursue violence as an economic tool, while law enforcement will continue to treat members of those communities uniformly as subhuman predators.

2 I am not equating racial minorities with radical terrorists.  This is merely a question of the normative approach to an intractable problem, not a value judgment about the participants.

In the last day, I have read a great deal of commentary from law enforcement sources who seek to justify Darren Wilson's actions, to uphold the decision of the grand jury as not only a just result but a proper one, and to focus upon building up the law enforcement community as a great bulwark against the lawlessness of minority communities.

What I have yet to see is a single person ask the question:  Why do black people hate cops so much?
Or, at least, when the question is asked, the focus is on what might be the defect in black people that causes them to hate the brave, honest, and true police officers who are only there to help the community.

Never is the question asked:  What, if anything, is it that cops are doing that creates distrust in the black community?

Even if you believe that Darren Wilson's actions were justifiable, have you stopped to ask yourself, is it possible that a cop in his position could be trained to handle that situation better than it was handled?

If you refuse to ask that question, isn't that really the same as saying that we want a cop in Wilson's position to kill Michael Brown?

What the law enforcement community has done over the last few months since Brown was killed has been entirely focused on justification for the killing.  Apart from the use of body cameras,3 there has been no real talk among law enforcement about what to do to make that kind of situation more rare, to improve the professionalism of police officers, not only through the improvement of their policing skills but also by teaching them to defuse controversies and to resort less often to deadly force.

3 While I think body cameras are a good idea, law enforcement officials should not need to be scared by the possibility of scrutiny into doing the right thing.

Can we legitimately say that the Ferguson community got the best outcome it could reasonably expect on August 9?  And as this scenario plays out time and again on our American soil, are we as Americans getting the best outcomes we could reasonably expect?

I don't think so.  I think we can do better.  In fact, I know we can. And it starts with holding those who have power responsible for the way they exercise it, maybe not in a criminal sense, but through the improvement and professionalism that can only come from introspection and correction.

It is time to stop apologizing for Darren Wilson.

Even if you believe that Michael Brown was a thug whose death has left this world a better place, it is time to stop apologizing for Darren Wilson.

It is time to stop using the violence that has resulted as an excuse for inaction or, worse, as an excuse for what has occurred.

Likewise, it is time to stop using the inaction that has occurred as an excuse for violence.

I am not nearly as concerned with what happens to Darren Wilson, or to those who have burned stores and cars, as I am with what happens to Ferguson's police department, or to the broader law enforcement community, or to our nation as a whole.  Wilson is one man, and the problem is far bigger than him.

We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by what happens, or doesn't happen, to him.

We have bigger problems to deal with.

But, why law enforcement, you ask?  Why shouldn't the black community go first with introspection and reform?  The reason is simple:  We need to start with law enforcement because law enforcement has the power.

No meaningful reform has even been undertaken that did not begin with the decision of those in power to relinquish that power in some respect.

Just now, as if on cue, one of my closest friends texted me that she had been crying all day.  Her commentary shows where her heart is--right where I expected it to be.  "I'm afraid the place I want to leave for my children will never happen," she wrote.  "I hate to be that way but until people learn that events don't happen in a vacuum and [no longer] refuse to have open and truly honest discussions, we will keep reliving this nightmare over and over."

This is true, of course.  We have to start somewhere, so let's start here.

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