In some ways I’m not a stereotypical Englishman. I don’t have that legendary English reserve, or much of a discomfort with feelings. I try to live my life like an open book, and when I’m happy, grateful, excited, or in love I want to share that. I try to be a joyous influence in others’ lives, so I let people see my bright side. I’m a big crier in movies and at the theatre, and my laugh is legendarily loud: if a film or play doesn’t get an emotional reaction from me, something’s really wrong.
The stiff upper lip thing, though – that I’ve got down. For whatever reasons – perhaps it was my years as a schoolteacher, maybe a decade in the closet, or years and years of acting – if I want to lock down my emotions, I can. When I’m afraid or angry now I tend to go into emotional lock-down, a sort of detached, icy-cool state, and often people can’t tell what I’m feeling. I’ve become skilled at hiding my more troubling emotions, and presenting a happy mask to the world. I don’t want to add to other people’s troubles. I’m the happy one.
So when people start to ask me “Are you OK?”, it’s a sign that something is wrong. People have been asking me that a lot recently. They’ve been approaching with that worried, slightly nervous look people get around me when they can tell I’m emotionally off-balance, and asking. “Are you OK?”
The truth is I am not OK. I haven’t been OK for quite a while. The truth is that I am filled with rage, and I’m struggling to deal with it. The truth is that the things I’ve seen in St. Louis after the shooting of Michael Brown have challenged my worldview and my perspective.
The announcement of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the shooting of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown was a farce, a politically-motivated charade in which St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch managed to ramble for almost half an hour without giving any indication as to why Michael Brown’s family should be denied the opportunity to see their son’s killer on trial. McCulloch’s description of a case impeded by multiple differing witness accounts and inconclusive physical evidence sounded precisely like the sort of case which should go to court, where we would benefit from a dedicated defense and prosecution working to present the most plausible case.
Officer Wilson’s description of the fatal encounter, released after the non-indictment announcement, paints a truly incredible picture: Brown was a “demon” who, despite being only an inch taller than Wilson, seemed to the trained officer of the law a “Hulk Hogan” to his “5-year-old” frame. The punches Wilson claim Brown threw – which he said had the force to kill him – seem, from photos taken shortly afterward, to have hardly raised a bruise, let alone caused a fracture or serious trauma. Wilson even expressed surprise that it looked “like it was making [Brown] mad” that he was shooting him. Wilson’s account is literally unbelievable, totally impossible to credit – and yet there is to be no trial. Not even a trial.
Then there is the treatment by police of peaceful protesters. Yes, there have been some limited acts of property damage occurring in the vicinity of protests. But in the 115 days since Michael Brown’s killing there have been countless protests in the St. Louis area, the vast majority completely peaceful. This has been a remarkably restrained and well-organized protest movement. Yet the police, under the direction of our elected representatives, have taken the presence on the streets of large numbers of people – predominantly people of color – as an excuse to declare war on the citizenry. How else can we honestly describe the armored cars, the rifles, and the chemical weapons? The almost fetishistic attachment to excessive armor and weaponry displayed by the police? The indiscriminate arrests of members of the media, legal observers, and helpful bystanders – let alone peaceful protesters themselves?
I took calls from these people myself as I volunteered with jail support, as they were being arrested and as they were released from prison, some with bail bonds of tens of thousands of dollars. They described charges being handed out essentially at random, while police denied medical aid to the wounded and suffering, laughing at their discomfort.
I used to trust the police. I used to be one of those people who smiled and nodded at these brave public servants as I went my merry way. Once I would have found these stories hard to credit. No longer.
Last Thursday my friends were gassed by their own government, trapped in a designated sanctuary space while police filled it with tear gas and effectively prevented people from leaving. Amnesty International human rights observers (yes, they sent human rights observers to this city in the United States – think on that awhile) report being fired upon by police.
This may have been planned, the safe space targeted by the very forces designated – and paid – to protect us. Cops and ex-cops writing on St. Louis Cop Talk, an online space for police to discuss their experiences, expressed the hope that the sanctuary space would “burn…down, and that our fire department can’t get there in time to help”. One writes “Hope they burn that $h!t coffee shop to the ground! Then I’m gonna laugh when you call 911 and they don’t show up.” Apparently the word “shit” was more troubling to this person than the prospect of protesters burning alive.
These are representatives of the institutions we entrust with public safety.
Perhaps worst, though, is the apathy and inaction of many of my peers. We live in a transparently racist society – one in which people of color are targeted for unjust treatment at every stage of the criminal justice system. Yet most seem to be quite content with this, while others actively support it. What does this say about us, as people? What does it say about us that we have allowed this to continue? I fear it reveals us to be baser than we would prefer to imagine, unwilling to risk our privilege to secure others’ basic security. I am disgusted and ashamed.
I do not want to live in a society like this. This is not the sort of world I dream of. This is unworthy of America, my adopted home. My faith in the human capacity to face down oppression – our ability to improve our situation – has been battered by what I have seen and heard in St. Louis. I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t. The unrest in St. Louis has spurred an outpouring of the most vile forms of explicit and unapologetic racism I have ever seen, while the powerful who control this unjust system have closed ranks, their backs toward the people they are meant to serve.
I know that at some future date I will look back at this time and feel thankful for it. I know that this is one of the most profound learning experiences of my life, and at some point I will be able to summon gratitude for the friends I have made and the lessons I have learnt while protesting in Ferguson, and Clayton, and St. Louis. I know I will be able to look upon this as a necessary loss of naive innocence, a step to better recognizing the sort of society we have created.
But today is not that day. Today I feel hot fury and cold rage. My eyes are open now, and they are filled with fire.
I am not OK.