What Riots in Ferguson Should Tell Us About the State of Our Union

What Riots in Ferguson Should Tell Us About the State of Our Union August 15, 2014

Police-action-in-Ferguson-690There’s so much on my mind this week that it will take me at least another week to put it all into words.  I had lunch and an interesting conversation the other day with a minister of one of the largest Baptist churches in my state, and I’m also currently reading through a much anticipated book on “mixed faith” relationships (which you’ll be hearing plenty about from me in the coming weeks).  However, this morning I find that I cannot begin talking about those things until I first take a minute to address what’s transpired this week in Ferguson, Missouri. This unfolding story may not have much to do with being “godless,” but it certainly has plenty to do with living in Dixie.

Images streaming to us through social media have captured the nation’s attention and have shocked us into realizing that a dark trend toward militarizing our nation’s urban police forces threatens some of the freedoms which have defined our national identity since its formation.  Scenes of helmeted soldier-cops shooting canisters of tear gas into chanting crowds evoke dystopian nightmares pulled right out of any number of books currently glutting the national bestseller lists.  In a democratic nation born in protest of non-representative government, we value our freedom to assemble and to disagree with our leaders as highly as anything else we cherish.  But this week a disturbing trend toward top-heavy law enforcement was revealed and it will take some time for us to unpack what is happening and what we can do about it.

But that’s only part of the story.  The other part is that once again the racial fault lines of our country have been exposed in an episode of unnecessary violence, stirring up a justified anger among black Americans who have been talking about this for decades but only seem to gain a hearing when someone is gunned down in the streets.   Like myself, I suspect many writers I know will be suspending judgment on this week’s events until more of the story’s facts can be sorted out amidst the contradicting narratives being bandied about.  At the time of this writing, the Ferguson PD has disclosed that the young man who was killed was a suspect in an unarmed (or as they call it “strong-armed”) robbery earlier that day.  On the surface, that may seem to change how we should talk about what happened in that St. Louis suburb, although later in the day the chief of police admitted that the officer who shot Michael Brown was not even aware that he was suspected of anything other than jaywalking. Either way we still have an unarmed young black man shot dead by another man who was armed, and who used his advantage to unnecessarily end the life of the person who he felt threatened him.  I also have seen enough to conclude that the local police departments monumentally flubbed their handling of this case in response to the social unrest that it caused.

I wasn’t there (and neither were you), so I admit my lack of first-hand knowledge.  But I also didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, and I think I have good reason to suspect which social issues led to this series of unfortunate events.  I also would have to be daft not to see the insanity of the St. Louis County Police Department’s handling of the resulting protests.  Their actions turned an already tense scenario into what appeared to be an urban warfare battleground when all that was really needed was a little more transparency and better PR.  Why didn’t they work harder to handle this better the first time?  I think beneath the answer to that question lies one of the most crucial social issues we face today.

A Dangerous Imbalance of Power

I couldn’t possibly do justice to a subject of this depth and complexity in a blog post fired off between teachers’ planning meetings (cut me some slack; I have a day job), but what we are seeing is another consequence of the strain on the social fabric of our country created by a rapidly growing income inequality which in many communities falls along racial lines.  See, the Ferguson PD wasn’t initially motivated to offer transparency or tact in their handling of this inherently explosive situation.  But why not?  Why did it take a vigilante hacker group to finally scare somebody into dealing with this in a way that made sense?  If the young man who was shot was resisting arrest for a robbery that had just been committed, why not offer that information before the riots and social media frenzy arose?  I believe the answer is that the people who wield the most power in a community often feel they don’t have to answer for their actions.  They aren’t motivated to defend their actions to those who they don’t feel pose a real threat to them.  The county PD certainly was sitting on a massive pile of toys, and I suppose it made them feel really powerful.  It reminds me of an interchange in the (of course, Pixar) movie The Incredibles:

Mr. Incredible:  I was wrong to treat you that way.  I’m sorry.

Syndrome:  See? Now you respect me, because I’m a threat. That’s the way it works.

Now, maybe this isn’t a fair comparison.  Maybe the Ferguson and St. Louis County PD’s were just taking their time conducting the investigation and they didn’t feel the details of this case were anybody’s business but their own.  But there’s a reason we call our police force public servants.  These authorities derive their power from the consent of the people they serve, and they are out of their minds if they cannot appreciate the public’s need for a certain amount of information about how they go about fulfilling their role.  In this case it sounds like the officer used excessive (i.e. deadly) force, which would explain their reticence to be forthcoming about what happened that day.  Either way, the community wanted answers and the police refused to comply until their own safety was compromised.  Eventually it took national outrage, a nefarious hacker attack, and ultimately state government intervention to restore order to the community.  It shouldn’t have taken all that, and the anger of the community should never have been met with military-grade force.

The Roots of Distrust

A few years ago I was teaching at a predominantly black high school in the Atlanta area when a young woman came into my classroom visibly upset.  She was soon followed by an administrator who had been trying to track her down in order to get her to sign a form detailing an altercation which had just transpired in the lunchroom a few minutes before.  This girl was involved in a fight (for some reason it was usually the girls who got in fights) and she was soon to be suspended for it.  When the administrator handed her the form to sign, the defiant girl tore it up and threw it back in the man’s face, saying “My mama told me don’t never sign nothin’ no administrator give you!”  The nods from around the room told me hers was a common sentiment, and one of them even said “My mama told me the same thing.”  Because I was still relatively new at that school, that response initially surprised me.  Why on earth would a parent deliberately teach her child to be so defiant?  It caught me off guard, until I thought for a minute about the history of that parent’s community.

I was born and raised in Mississippi, where racism and poverty are so interwoven into our identity that even on our best day we struggle to override that image.  I returned here a few years ago and currently teach for an inner city school district where the residual effects of multi-generational racial discrimination are still acutely felt on a daily basis.  It permeates the mentality of the community in which I work.  My experience teaching kids like these has made it obvious to me what’s behind this deep distrust for authority:  The gray-haired leaders of these communities still remember what it feels like to have policemen turn fire hoses on them just for wanting to sit down at a table in a public restaurant.  They still remember the way it stings your skin and tears your clothes.  They remember the Jackson Police Department opening fire on a group of Vietnam protesters at the predominantly black Jackson State University, killing one college student and one high school student from another school in my current district.  They learned a long time ago that the cops aren’t on their side, and now even though the JPD is predominantly black, the deep distrust of authority still permeates the culture here.

It’s difficult to communicate what it’s like to feel powerless to people who have never felt what that feels like.  As a preppy white kid from the richest neighborhood in the metro area, I would have never understood that mentality myself before.  But I didn’t choose a lucrative career for myself as many of my old classmates did.  I chose a career which in the South is significantly underfunded so that now I feel strangely out of place among those with the means to take vacations wherever they like and whenever they please.  Times are different now; and while a school teacher used to be able to hold down one job and support his family doing that, most teachers I know have multiple part time jobs like I do in order make ends meet.  My situation is even further complicated by financial obligations which put me at an even greater disadvantage than most of my co-workers, bringing my take-home pay from my full-time job to within spitting distance of the poverty line.  I say all that so that you will send me money.  Just kidding.  I say all that to explain that I’ve seen how both sides live now, and I’m beginning to understand the hopelessness and anger that people without means can feel in a world unfairly tipped in favor of the “haves” at the expense of the “have-nots.”

It eventually affects the way you see yourself and what you’re capable of accomplishing in the world.  It teaches you to think that you can’t, and that it’s not worth even trying something new.  The kinds of poverty that make up the context for the kids I teach locks them into a learned helplessness until many of them decide that the only way to get ahead is to cheat and to steal.  For many of them, that’s the only way they’ll ever get ahead.  There aren’t many viable alternatives in front of them and they’re already predisposed to see law enforcement at their enemy, so it’s a self-perpetuating cycle.  This is a well-known effect of poverty, but the people with the most power to change it just.  don’t.  care.  They’ve got what they need, and their favorite sources of information are telling them this is simply the way the world works.  The people who don’t have what they have probably don’t deserve it, and if you give them things they’ll just misuse it and become dependent on everyone else, or so the story goes.  Thus the haves and the have-nots get further and further apart, and the middle class disappears, leaving only two warring classes which are learning to despise one another more and more with each passing year.

If these courses remain unaltered you will continue to see outbursts and unrest like what we saw this week in Ferguson, only at some point it’s not going to end with state troopers walking arm-in-arm with smiling citizens taking selfies with them.  Eventually a shift in PR won’t be enough to calm the angry voices.  There are some deeper issues that will require legislative, judicial, and executive action to make them any better.  There’s plenty to talk about.  This is only the beginning.


For more articles by Neil, click here and take the Godless Tour.

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