Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson, MO

[Captain's Note: This blog post appears both here and at "The Itinerant Minister". On this both the Captain and the Preacher agree.]

Last night, all eyes were on CNN as St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced the Grand Jury decision in the case of an unarmed black teenager being shot to death by a white police officer. In anticipation of this announcement, Ferguson store owners boarded up their shops, and the National Guard was called in. Riots had ensued following the shooting in August; more were feared should the Grand Jury’s decision not please the crowds

And it didn’t.

Not surprisingly, the findings of the Grand Jury were significantly different from what we’ve been fed through the media these past three months. And while it chaffed some in the news media, I believe the county prosecutor was justified in his scolding of the media for its often inflammatory reporting, unsubstantiated assumptions, and innuendo.

Over the last three months, this case had been tried – and tried badly – in the court of public opinion. The Grand Jury’s decision was different from the public’s perception because the Grand Jury had the opportunity to see actual evidence and to interview actual witnesses.

So last night the media descended on Ferguson, MO, prepped and waiting for a riot. A riot they knew would come. A riot they helped to create.

And they were not disappointed. With cameras rolling and anxious correspondents looking feverishly for the first signs of trouble, it wasn’t long after the decision was read that the angry crowd began vandalizing cars, torching buildings, and looting stores.

But why all the attention on Ferguson?

--In February of this year, a 17-year-old in Euharlee, GA was shot to death by a police officer when he answered the door holding the remote controller for his Wii video game. The nervous officer thought the remote was a gun.

--In May, Las Vegas police detectives shot to death a teenager suspected in a gruesome murder. Swuave Lopez was handcuffed but fleeing when shot.

--In September, an unarmed 20-year-old was shot and killed by police in Salt Lake City following a confrontation at a 7/11. A small group has held protests there, likening the killing to the Ferguson case, but those protests have not gained traction.

--And on Monday, as the world was awaiting the decision in Ferguson, a 12-year-old boy was shot and killed in Cleveland for carrying a pellet gun on a playground.

Oddly, prior to researching and writing this blog, I had only heard of one of these incidents. Where was the continuous media coverage on them? The clips of outraged citizens? The autopsy reports? The rioting?

The truth is, if the issue is simply the shooting of an unarmed teen by police, there would be rioting all across the country. This happens way more often than I am comfortable with.

But the media seems focused on Ferguson. Why?

The answer may be because of the rioters. The violence – and threat of violence – has drawn the media’s attention to Ferguson. Scenes of an overly-militarized police department facing off with angry citizens make for good drama. Video footage of buildings burning at night boosts ratings.

Yes, I believe the rioters have kept this news story in the media. Intentionally.

And here’s why.

The people of Ferguson are angry. They believe an injustice has occurred. One of their children has been killed by a person sworn to protect them. They are making some noise, lest this tragedy be forgotten, and Michael Brown is simply added to the growing list of injustices the black community in Ferguson has had to endure.

And this is the source of the real anger. It’s not simply about last night’s announcement.

As former Missouri Senator Jeff Smith has indicated (writing for New Republic), there is a long history of racial tension in the greater St. Louis area. He reminds us that 100 years ago in nearby Kinloch, black citizens were not allowed to own property. Nonetheless, a white real estate firm bought up the land, marked it up 100%, and sold it to blacks anyway. And those residents turned Kinloch into a bustling little town, with black business owners, black doctors, etc. Despite school segregation, a black man was even elected to the local school board.

But in 1938, when a second black man sought a seat on the board, white residents sought to split the school district. When that failed, the white citizens succeeded in splitting the community, with the northern part becoming the new municipality of Berkeley. But Kinloch continued to thrive as a nearly all-black community.

In the 1980s, Lambert International Airport began buying up property in order to build a now-unnecessary runway. Kinloch was at the epicenter of that project and lost 80% of its residents.

Many of those citizens displaced from Kinloch ended up in Ferguson.

Ferguson. Where black citizens make up more than 25% of the community, but where there is only one black police officer on the force. Where black citizens feel they are singled out and unfairly treated simply because of the color of their skin. Where the court rooms are filled with white judges and white lawyers, but a disproportionate number of black “offenders”.  

And so the black citizens of Ferguson are angry.

In most cases, I would argue that anger is not rational. It is an emotion that builds within a person and ultimately erupts when injustices are not addressed.

But in the case of Ferguson, I believe the anger we are seeing is also strategic. The rioting is not simply about the Michael Brown case. It is about injustices that have been handed out to the black citizens of that community for more than 100 years.

To some onlookers it seems extreme to destroy your own town just to get attention, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.

And now the black voices in Ferguson are being heard. The city of Ferguson is on the minds and lips of almost every American man, woman, and child. It is mentioned on every news telecast. It is mentioned all over social media.

But is the right message being heard?

As Rev. Jolinne Balentine-Downey, a colleague in ministry, pointed out this morning: “Can’t help but notice that my African-American friends are praying for justice while my Caucasian friends are praying for peace.”

Peace. “Don’t make waves.” “Don’t cause trouble.” “Don’t disrupt our quiet little town.” “Don’t interfere with our way of life.” “Accept your situation and make the best of it.”

Where have we heard that before?

Was justice done in Ferguson, MO this week? In the case of Michael Brown, a Grand Jury has determined that it was; the shooting was lawful and justified.

And as American citizens, we should respect the decisions of our courts. Despite what the media would have us do.

But what about all of the other injustices that black citizens of Kinloch / Ferguson have endured in the past – even the recent past? How will justice ever be done? How will past injustices ever be made right when the people live in fear? How will justice ever prevail when the lives of some citizens are considered to be of less value than that of others?

Take to heart the words of Michael Brown’s family, in a statement released in response to the Grand Jury’s decision on Monday night:

            We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequences of his actions.
            While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.