Temperature hit the 80s on that Saturday afternoon on August 9th when 18-year old Michael Brown, an African-American, was shot dead by a white police officer. All the facts regarding this incident have yet to emerge to determine fault, but it is clear that the increasing high 90 degree temperatures this week, together with the heated passion of Ferguson residents suggest that cooler heads will have to wait their turn. To start, Ferguson is a small town of approximately 21,000 people with about thirty percent whites and almost seventy percent blacks; similar to the apartheid conditions in old South Africa, Ferguson’s small minority governs the majority people; as the mayor and five out of the six council seat members are white; whether a self-imposed disenfranchisement or deliberate design of voter suppression, something is terribly wrong here. Looking at other stats like the poverty line where almost twenty percent of the town’s population falls below; an unemployment rate which rises above thirteen percent overall and much higher for young black men. These numbers tell a tale of economic disparity in this Missouri suburb, a setting ripe for racial conflict; and so, a police encounter with a black teen that ends in death defines Ferguson. What happened next is now recent history, people marched the streets; the protesters were majority black confronted by a white police force controlled by the minority; they shot rubber bullets and threw gas canisters, creating chaos and panic to quiet the masses.
In 2014, this imagery is unAmerican and makes Obama appear disengaged with the signature civil rights issue of this era; his presidency promotes American exceptional-ism. But are we exceptional when we repeatedly fail our vulnerable population? Even tyrannically-inclined nations poke fun at us. Russia, Egypt and China have done worse but they know when to call us out.
I wake up the next day wondering what if the Ferguson protesters were majority white – the Occupy Wall Street movement folks – would the police use bullets and tear gas. The Wall Street protesters caused property damage and resisted police orders for months but a violence response was averted; could it be that the children of the privileged group, those who have the ears of the authority, who reached out to their friends in high places, demanding (not pleading for) police restraint when engaging their kids; mission accomplished as their children’s fairytale social protest is violent-free.
Not too long ago, another Black teen, Trayvon, was tragically killed under the color of law; and like many other New Yorkers I sat on the sideline while Floridians protested. I wore my “Black Dog” hoodie to express muted outrage of my fraternal loss. This fashion-less act did not symbolize outrage. Celebrities and politicians wore their hoodies in response to those who said Trayvon appeared threatening because he wore one the rainy night when he was killed by the volunteer patrolman.
Two years ago, I remained on the sideline plotting a path to show support for the Trayvon movement but, instead, settled to reading news feeds on my smart phone. And now once again I’m back at it, surfing Kayak for weekend fares to Ferguson so I can march with local residents; or should I simply pen a WordPress blog post. (Hint hint) By the time my indecisiveness take a firm stance, the news cameras will be gone, off to the next news headline, and a community abandoned once again; perhaps that’s the time for my arrival, when the national spotlight is gone, providing support without the appearance of an agenda.
It wasn’t always this difficult for me to define my role in a civil right moment. In the 90s, I was a student activist on the frontline, protesting the heinous assault against Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who suffered a brutal sodomizing attack in a NYPD police precinct bathroom. (Google for additional details, readers) We marched the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan, halting traffic both ways on the Brooklyn Bridge one afternoon, to voice our outrage; the earlier crowds were mainly people of color but others began to join in, including elders, parents and children took off from work and school as no one with a tad bit of conscious could tolerate such inhumanity from those empowered to protect our streets. Ultimately, we achieved some justice, a 30-year prison sentence for the offending police officer; though, police reforms such as creating an independent body to investigate police incidents, never materialized; and so the brutality continued in New York City and many more black men were killed, including Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Sean Bell, and most recently, Eric Garner; these black men who did not possess weapons, nor had a prior criminal record, except for a misdemeanor blemish, the latter which many white men have but none died from a firing squad or a deadly chokehold by NYPD cops. It’s no wonder that when a Trayvon or Brown tragedy happens that many of us black men, regardless of our economic or social standing, feel a kindred bond to take up arms, whether metal ones like coins or the digital types like internet blogs, to finance and defend our fellow Americans on the frontline.
I would have liked to be with the people protesting loudly the freedom songs and chanting the lyrical slogan “Hands up. Don’t shoot!” I would exchange that live experience over the one that I have now, the daily drudgery of eyes glued to a computer screen; but, I am not a civil rights leader with a travel budget to be present at the leading social justice event of today; nor, am I a trust fund child who can easily forgo other life obligations to stand a few rows behind the Sharptons; plus, I don’t wish to be blamed as the out-of-town troublemaker causing the violence, as some Missourian commentators have alleged, pointing fingers at Californians and New Yorkers. And so, I will not journey Midwest this season; instead, my voice will be heard right here.