Associated Press photo
Members of the St. Louis Rams make a political statement before an NFL game in St. Louis with the now-popular “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” gesture, but it’s far from established fact that Michael Brown ever actually put his hands up in surrender on that fateful day in August in Ferguson, Missouri. Oh, well. The Brown case is a flawed-at-best case around which to rally, but if it creates more socioeconomic justice, then it’s worth it, I suppose.
Black America is, I think, in a panic – justifiably and not-so- justifiably so.
Our nation’s first black president* is a fairly lame duck, and even if he weren’t, he has only two years left nonetheless – with both houses of Congress controlled by wingnuts, many if not most of whom are at least somewhere on the white supremacist spectrum. And it’s unlikely, I think, that we’ll see another black president any election soon. Indeed, I put it at no more than 50-50 that we’ll have another black president during my lifetime.
Not that President Barack Obama has done much, if anything, for black Americans – as a handful of prominent black Americans, who have put progressivism above racial-group identity, such as Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, have pointed out – but nonetheless, Obama’s approval rating among black Americans right now stands at around 75 percent, whereas with all Americans it stands only at 43 percent.
It appears to me that many if not most black Americans have felt that Obama has given them some degree of cover, some degree of protection, but I don’t see that Obama has given them (or any of the rest of us) very much of that. At any rate, any cover or protection that Obama has given black Americans will end two years from now.
In fairness, it’s probably more difficult for Obama to do more for black Americans than he has when he constantly is under fire, much of which undeniably is race-based. From the chatter among the Repugnican Tea Party traitors about disallowing Obama to give the State of the Union address (which, if actually carried out, would be, in my book, an act of treason that is the stuff of which civil wars are made, but hey, that’s my book), to criticism of Obama’s teen-aged daughters, for fuck’s sake, it’s obvious that Obama has been disrespected like no white president of either duopolistic political party ever would be disrespected.
At the same time that Obama is being disrespected, black fatherly icon Bill Cosby has fallen from grace, big time, which, I imagine, has shaken the black American community at least a little, or which, at the very least, has come at an inopportune moment.
The movie “Dear White People,” which I’ll probably catch on DVD or streaming, apparently was a product of this time of black American angst, when many if not most black Americans apparently are panicked that their status as the No. 1 aggrieved minority is slipping.
And I don’t think that any other proper noun in the English language packs as much into it as does the word Ferguson.
My feelings on Ferguson haven’t changed: I wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened. Former Ferguson cop Darren Wilson claims that on August 9, Michael Brown attacked him and tried to grab his pistol. If that’s true, well, all I can say is that if you go for a cop’s gun, expect the consequences.
Given that Michael Brown manhandled a convenience store clerk within the same hour that he had his run-in with Wilson – a fact that interestingly conveniently usually is lost in the discussion of the events of August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri (I guess that merely uttering that inconvenient fact is “impolite” at best, “racist” at worst) – it doesn’t seem impossible to me that Wilson’s account of what transpired is true or mostly true, that Brown, hopped up on aggression at least on that day, tried to grab his gun and that Wilson fired upon Brown only when Brown charged at him.
I don’t know what Brown’s state of mind was on that day. Maybe he was in a rage that day. Maybe he wanted to impress his male friend companion and/or the other onlookers by taking on a cop. I don’t know.
My best guess as to what happened on August 9 is that within the context of the mostly black community of Ferguson, patrolled by mostly white police officers, there was long-standing pre-existing tension between the residents and the police officers, which – again, this is my best guess – made both Brown and Wilson probably overreact.
Of course, Wilson had a gun. Brown did not.
While I still believe that cops’ primary function, at least in the bigger sociological picture, is to protect and preserve the status quo, which includes preserving instutionalized racism and socioeconomic inequality (which are so closely intertwined as to be nearly indistinguishable), at the same time I can’t imagine having to do the job of a street cop, knowing that any day could be your last, that you could die at the hands of a real scumbag.
Speaking of scumbags, former NBA player Charles Barkley during a recent radio interview called Ferguson rioters and looters “scumbags” and made other potentially pariah-making comments, such as that “The true story came out from the grand jury testimony,” he asserted, also asserting that “several black witnesses … supported [former] Officer Darren Wilson’s story.”
Barkley also remarked that “[W]e have to be really careful with the cops, because if it wasn’t for the cops we would be living in the Wild, Wild West in our neighborhoods. We can’t pick out certain incidentals that don’t go our way and act like the cops are all bad. … Do you know how bad some of these neighborhoods would be if it wasn’t for the cops?” (That said, in all fairness, many of our neighborhoods are bad in no tiny part because they’ve been abandoned by those who could have helped them.)
“There is no excuse for people to be out there burning down people’s businesses, burning down police cars,” Barkley (who, unsurprisingly, already publicly has been called an “Uncle Tom”) added. I concur with Barkley on that, although I suspect that Barkley and I reach the same conclusion on this through different reasoning: I just don’t see such tactics as being ultimately politically effective.
I don’t see property damage as nearly the big deal that so many Americans do (including, apparently, Barkley). It’s just property. People are far more important than is property, and the fact that property takes so much precedence over people in the capitalistic United States of America no doubt has led to the problems within Ferguson and other beleaguered cities.
As I have written, it’s inexcusable and unacceptable that black men are so much more likely to be gunned down by a cop than are men of other races in similar circumstances, and police forces should, I think, resemble and be representative of the communities that they’re supposed to be working for.
Most of all, though, I still believe that we must devise effective, non-lethal ways of stopping individuals whom our cops deem need to be stopped.
We need to do all of this work and so much more. While I tend not to buy the portrayal of Michael Brown as having been some angel or gentle giant simply because of his race and the race of the cop who gunned him down, Brown’s death at least has started another national dialogue about our persistent race- and class-based societal problems – a dialogue that, I hope, results in concrete, real, permanent changes, such as decreases in racial profiling by cops, decreases in the shootings of individuals by cops, and the demilitarization of our police forces (which would include, I suppose, the part about using more non-lethal methods of neutralizing individuals whom the cops deem need to be neutralized).
In the meantime, when racially charged incidents occur and we’re asked or even told to take a side, we should remember the case of Tawana Brawley, who, when she was 15 years old in the late 1980s, claimed that prominent white men had raped her in New York .
The likes of the race-hustling Al Sharpton flew to Brawley’s side to defend her, even though her allegations – that a gang of not only white cops but also a white prosecuting attorney – had gang-raped her (and scrawled the words “KKK,” “nigger” and “bitch” on her torso with charcoal) were quite unlikely.
Although Brawley, who now goes by a different name, apparently to this day maintains her story, there is ample evidence that Brawley had made the whole thing up. (Wikipedia notes that “Forensic tests found no evidence that a sexual assault of any kind had occurred” and that “After hearing evidence, a grand jury concluded in October 1988 that Brawley had not been the victim of a forcible sexual assault and that she herself may have created the appearance of an attack. The New York prosecutor whom Brawley had accused as one of her alleged assailants successfully sued Brawley and her three advisers [including Sharpton, apparently] for defamation.”)
The Brawley affair should have been the end of the fairly slimy Sharpton’s career as a race hustler, but race hustling remains his bread and butter. He even has his own TV show, for fuck’s sake (a show that I can’t watch because he basically just yells; how he hasn’t had a massive stroke or coronary thus far escapes me).
So when I’m expected to take a side in the Ferguson affair, I take everything into account (in no certain order): The Brawley incident, which demonstrated amply that we really need to wait for all of the facts to roll in before we pick a side. (And we need to be prepared for the possibility that all of the facts of a specific incident may never roll in.) The apparent black-resident-vs.-white-cop context in which the August 9 shooting in Ferguson occurred, which, of course, is going to color the average witness’ testimony, based on which side he or she sits. The fact that teen-aged boys of all races can act like foolish thugs at least at times and that of course cops of all races can, too. (It seems to me that many if not most men under the age of 30 might not be mature enough to be cops, but at the same time, being a cop requires physical ability that older men lose over time.) The fact that most violent interactions seem to occur when two males, hopped up on testosterone, feel the need to out-testosterone the other. (That said, again, I acknowledge that Wilson had a gun whereas Brown did not, so of course Wilson had the upper hand in that confrontation.) The fact that in situations such as these, racist whites tend to knee-jerkedly, immediately stand up for the white parties, and racist blacks tend to knee-jerkedly, immediately stand up for the black parties, regardless of the actual facts of the situation at hand. It’s quite human, but it’s also quite dishonest and unfair. And it’s a lowly thing to do.
We were to pick a side immediately in the Ferguson affair, when even to this day we apparently still have only word vs. word as to what did and did not happen. (On that note, the widespread “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” meme, while clever enough and perhaps at least somewhat effective, very well might be based on something that never even happened at all; it is disputed as to whether or not Michael Brown ever actually put his arms up in surrender to Darren Wilson.)
The range of possibilities as to what actually happened in Ferguson on August 9 run from the possibility that Wilson primarily was in the wrong, that he truly did not need to use deadly force against Brown – that he even quite intentionally essentially murdered Brown – to the possibility that Brown did indeed attack Wilson, tried to grab his gun, and then charged at him after that, making Wilson’s use of deadly force against him at least legally (if not morally or ethically) acceptable. My best guess – again, just my guess – is that the truth is somewhere in between, that both Brown and Wilson acted the fool, together creating a situation that never had to get deadly for either of them.
That’s my best guess, but in the end, I don’t know. But many if not most Americans have an awfully hard time saying, “I don’t know.” They want closure. Some sense of finality. So they pick a side – their side, usually, of course – whether the facts bear it out or not.
Against all of this – as if this weren’t messy enough – is the additional fact and factor that (as Salon.com writer Andrew O’Hehir recently reminded us) race relations in the United States stopped being merely binary – black and white – years ago, yet many black and white Americans still are trapped in this mentality.
Admittedly, where you live in the U.S. matters, because racial make-up in the U.S. varies wildly from region to region. In Ferguson, black and white apparently are the predominant races, but where I live (in California ), it’s not black and white. In California, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated for 2013, only 39 percent are white, 38.4 percent are Latino (Latinos in California are due to surpass whites in their numbers soon if they haven’t done so already), 14.1 percent are Asian American, and only 6.6 percent of Californians are black (about only half of the national percentage of blacks). In Missouri, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated for 2013, at least 80 percent are white, 11.7 percent are black and at No. 3 are Latinos, at 3.9 percent, which makes the dynamics of Ferguson make a lot more sense to this Californian; California is a lot more diverse than are Missouri and most other states.
Another contributing factor toward current black American panic, I surmise, is that Latinos have supplanted blacks as the largest non-white racial group in the United States, knocking blacks into second place for non-white minorities, and the Latinos’ ranks are only to continue to grow over the coming years.
(The U.S. Census Bureau estimated for 2013 that white Americans comprise 62.6 percent of the nation’s population, Latino Americans 17.1 percent of the nation’s population and black Americans, 13.2 percent. [At No. 4 are Asian Americans, at 5.3 percent. Native Americans, the original victims of European colonizers on American soil, were so decimated that they are only 1.2 percent of Americans – so few of them are left that when we list the victims of American history, often they’re overlooked entirely.])
Increasingly, black Americans aren’t the only minority group fighting for a larger piece of the American pie – and many black Americans have shown an unseemly unwillingness to share what I call the American Victimhood Pie with anyone else; the recent political attention that has been paid to Latinos and to non-heterosexual and non-gender-conforming individuals, for example, must drive these me-me-me black Americans – whose motto, apparently is “The Original Victims!” – crazy. These folks need to stop needing to be The Only Victims in the Room, and they need to learn how to share political power. (Ditto for everyone who cares only about his or her own group, at the expense of other groups. Get a grip and grow the fuck up already.)
So perhaps the non-stop Ferguson chatter, at least in part, is black Americans’ attempt to remind the rest of the nation (while Obama has only two more years left): We’re still here! We’re still victimized! We still haven’t been made whole! And we’re still mad as hell!
But as O’Hehir put it in his latest political screed:
… Latinos and Asian-Americans and the growing number of people of mixed race would seem to have no clear position in the old, traumatic story of America as a binary society of black and white. Sometimes we try to convince ourselves we have shaken free of that old dichotomy and have moved into a different era, or are about to do so. (It is mostly white people who try to convince ourselves of this, in fairness.) Yet it remains a central driving force of our nation’s internal anguish, even 150 years after the end of slavery and 50 years after the end of legal segregation, and even when most of us are bored by the fact that the current president sinking into the conventional mire of second-term unpopularity is a biracial man with an African name. …
But, of course, as bored of it all as we (mostly white and other non-black Americans) might be, you don’t tell an historically oppressed group of people to “just get over it,” and the wounds between black Americans and white Americans persist for two reasons: you don’t just get over the atrocities of race-based slavery and continued segregation and discrimination, and the descendants of slaves have yet to be made whole by the United States as a whole in a meaningful way (if making them anything like whole is even remotely possible, after what they and their ancestors have endured).
Black Americans still experience a disproportionate amount of just about everything that’s bad, whether that bad thing is poverty, an inadequate/non-living wage, inadequate access to good education and to good health care (black Americans are plagued by certain chronic medical conditions), inadequate housing, incarceration within the prison-industrial complex or an unsafe neighborhood, which includes the decent chance of being shot by a cop while unarmed, especially if you are a young man.
That said, many if not even most Americans still cling to the black-white binary because it is old and comfortable, it’s simplistic, and it feeds their sense of identity (some, like the aforementioned Sharpton, even make a living at it, as do many whites who also peddle racial division, such as the folks at Faux “News”). And even faux victimhood and faux outrage (outside of or in addition to actual victimhood and quite justified outrage) can feed one’s sense of identity, albeit in a negative way.
We older Americans can fight these old wars to our dying breaths, but our youth don’t always want this wonderful “inheritance,” which perhaps also contributes to what I perceive to be black panic in the U.S. right now: The race-based blood feud might not be carried on after we’re gone! Horrors! What we are losing!
Mostly, though, I surmise, black Americans see that The Obama Clock is ticking, that three-fourths of The Obama Era is already behind us, and that our next president, and probably our next several presidents after that, probably won’t be black. Therefore, I surmise, they want to wring what political assistance they can from Obama over the next two years, which is fine with me if it actually leads to a more just and fair U.S. for everyone.
But all of this messy background shouldn’t color specific incidents between specific individuals, at least where the law is concerned. Darren Wilson, whether he’s an asshole or actually fairly decent guy (yeah, I don’t know him; it’s possible that he actually is not, overall, a blue-eyed devil), shouldn’t be made to suffer for all of white Americans’ sins against black Americans, which apparently is the mentality of all of those who believe that The grand jury got it wrong in Wilson’s case, no question! That’s not remotely fair. Wilson should be held accountable only for his own actions. (And maybe he was and maybe he was not held accountable; maybe the state of Missouri grand jury got it right and maybe it did not. Maybe the way the grand jury was conducted made it fairly impossible for an indictment to be handed down whether such an indictment was appropriate or not. Hopefully, if there was wrongdoing on Wilson’s part, the feds will catch it and act on it.) And nor should Michael Brown, because he was black, be painted as an automatically innocent victim. If the cop who had shot Brown also were black, would the black cop’s account of what had happened (such as that Brown had gone for his gun and then charged at him) be questioned? I rather doubt it.
Ferguson is rich and rife with lessons. Yes, to Michael Brown’s relatives, it’s more than just a lesson or lessons, but for those of us with more emotional and geographic distance, it’s a lot of lessons, because it exposes, once again, our national wounds.
The only question is whether we’ll actually make any serious attempt to heal these wounds this time – or forget about them until they’re exposed again. History, unfortunately, suggests the latter.
P.S. Certainly there is white American panic, too, but, of course, overall it has much less of an actual basis than does black American panic. White Americans right now seem mostly to be panicked over the “illegals,” who “threaten” white Americans not only with their non-white skin and their growing numbers, but also with their foreign language and their foreign customs. (And, of course, we know that the “illegals” are all murderous narco-gangsters! Who all vote illegally, because that’s just what narco-gangsters do: vote!)
And finally, I must note that of course my perspective is that of a white American. A gay white American, and a middle-class and working-class white American, but still white – blue eyes and everything. And of course it’s one thing for me to write about my own perceptions and impressions and opinions as to what’s going on right now in the U.S. and another thing to be a typical black American who has to live the life of a typical black American. I try to recognize that basic fact, but at the same time, national dialogue, I think, requires that everyone participate. Even the blue-eyed devils.
P.P.S. After I composed this piece, I read this news item from today:
Washington (Reuters) – President Barack Obama made a forceful pledge [today] to use his last two years in office to address the “simmering distrust” between police and minority communities as he requested $263 million for the federal response to the civil rights upheaval triggered in Ferguson, Missouri .
Obama said he would set up a task force to study how to improve community policing with an eye toward building trust between law enforcement and communities of color. He also said he would consider imposing tighter controls on the proliferation of military-style weaponry and equipment provided to many police departments.
It was the most tangible response yet by Obama to the events in Ferguson . Protests in Ferguson and elsewhere have raged since a grand jury last week declined to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death last summer of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. …
The $263 million would be spread over three years and would help purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras that could help provide information about incidents involving police interactions. [Hell, yeah! Then, perhaps, we’ll all be arguing much less about what did and did not happen during a racially charged police encounter…] It would also pay to expand training for law enforcement in an attempt to build trust in communities such as Ferguson .
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and Laurie Robinson, a George Mason University professor who is a former U.S. assistant attorney general, will lead the task force on 21st century policing, officials said. …
Again, if concrete, permanent changes stem from the death of Michael Brown, then, I think, we can say that he, and too many more in addition to him, did not die entirely in vain.
*Let’s face it, though: Had Barack Obama come off as an “angry” black man — you know, a “threat” to white Americans — he never would have made it to the White House. Obama is not a descendant of black slaves and he was raised by his white mother’s family, and he always has tempered his words on race. Therefore, he was deemed to be acceptable by enough white American voters to get him into the White House.
I mean, Jesse Jackson once ran for the White House (I saw him speak at my university in the 1980s when he was campaigning), and look how far he got…