Some Thoughts on Ferguson

What has been your reaction to the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri? Did you feel grief that a teenage boy was killed? Anger at the cop who pulled the trigger, the reaction of the Ferguson police, or the racism of the “system?” Did you feel frustration at the rush to judgment? Sadness at the divisions laid bare by these events? Fear that the riots that occurred in the wake of the shooting could be coming soon to a neighborhood near you?

Maybe you experienced some combination of these different reactions. Either way, it is hard to identify anything positive about the last two weeks. There are no winners here. Not Michael Brown’s family, who lost their son. Not the cop, whose life will never be the same – regardless of the outcome of any investigation. Not the small business owners whose stores were looted. Not America, criticized by the likes of Iran and Russia for the flaws in our democracy as we try to restore order and justice to the world at large. There are no winners here.

I read a post on Facebook by an African-American writer asking, where is all the white outrage over Ferguson? The piece began “As we all know by now” and went on to give a particular narrative where Michael Brown was just a boy walking to his grandmother’s house who was shot dead by a white cop, presumably for no reason other than his race.

The problem is we don’t know what happened. We weren’t there. Only Darren Wilson knows what occurred within his mind in the seconds it took for him to fire shots at Brown, six of which hit his body and ultimately killed him. Only Michael Brown, God rest his soul, knows what was going on in his mind when he engaged with Wilson prior to the shooting. If the races of the shooter and the deceased were reversed, would the media be engaging in the same rush to judgment? Or would we be urged to exercise caution and not jump to conclusions? Would we even be hearing about it at all?

Eyewitnesses might think they know what happened based on what they saw. At least one account captured on video moments after Brown’s death has Brown charging at Wilson. There are reports that Wilson suffered a facial fracture and was severely beaten by Brown. Other witnesses, including Brown’s friend and accomplice, say he had his hands up and was surrendering. Even if Brown was somewhat of a bully, as the liquor store robbery tape suggests, or an aggressor, as Wilson’s wounds indicate, this does not justify his death.

It is conceivable based on the available evidence that Darren Wilson feared for his life and used lethal force as a last resort. It is also conceivable that his judgment was clouded somehow by Brown’s race or appearance. Perhaps the fact that he was 6’4” and almost 300 pounds was a greater factor for Officer Wilson than his skin color. We don’t know. What we do know is that despite any new details that may emerge, the death of an 18-year-old kid is a terrible tragedy and we should do everything we can to prevent it from happening again.

One thing is clear after the last two weeks – there is very real frustration on the part of both minority and low-income communities in America that is threatening to boil over, and it cannot be ignored. The way to address this frustration and anger is not with looting and rioting, or provoking a police response by disobeying orders. It is not to change the subject to black-on-black crime or to wait and hope it all goes away. We need to seek practical, concrete solutions to bridge the divide between our dreams of a more equal society and the harsh reality on the ground. In my humble opinion, we should respond to the events in Ferguson in three ways, addressing both our short-term and long-term needs.

The first step must be to handle the immediate crisis and restore law and order to Ferguson. So far local law enforcement and state authorities have tried imposing curfews, using paramilitary techniques, arresting those who do not comply, and calling up the National Guard, none of which has done much to stem the violence. It seems the best solution might be to do what Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson has done, which is to ask that peaceful protestors assemble and march in the daylight, leaving the night for the police to protect businesses from the looters and agitators looking to profit off the community’s misfortune.

The second step must be to ensure a transparent and unbiased investigation of what happened on that August day. Already there is talk of how the riots will not stop until Wilson is indicted. Let’s not have a repeat of the Zimmerman-Martin ordeal. There was probably not enough evidence to indict Zimmerman, certainly not on the charge of murder in the first degree. This is why he was initially released. And yet the special prosecutor caved to the political pressure and overcharged him, leading to a highly publicized and divisive trial with a predictable “not guilty” verdict: not because Zimmerman was a great guy, but because in America defendants are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof rests entirely on the prosecution. So, let’s have an open and transparent investigation, but let’s not sacrifice one man’s life and the rule of law to the political and social pressures of the moment.

The third step must be to have an honest conversation about how to address the needs of the African-American community and other minority communities in the United States. Here are just a few common sense reforms that might make a difference:

  1. Work to establish better relationships between police forces and minority communities by recruiting more minorities to serve in law enforcement and engaging in various outreach initiatives. JROTC is already successful in diverse public high schools like the one at which I teach. Why not pilot a junior law enforcement program? We should also have a separate discussion about the militarization of the police in general as it relates to their ability to serve their communities, not intimidate them.
  2. Reform our criminal justice system to eliminate any racial disparities that may exist in sentencing, reduce sentences for non-violent crimes including those that are drug-related, end mandatory minimum sentencing, and establish ways for ex-cons to have their voting and Second Amendment rights restored.
  3. Reform public school systems to focus on excellence and achievement for all students. I have read that even well-intentioned white educators can sometimes subconsciously lower expectations for students of color. Teachers may think they are being nice or understanding by making exceptions for kids with difficult lives, but this is not always the case. All students need to be respected, challenged, and given the support they need to succeed. It also couldn’t hurt to recruit more African-American educators, in particular African-American males. I have seen with my own two eyes the difference this can make in a student’s engagement.
  4. Reform our economy to create more opportunity for all Americans – especially minorities. African-American men have double the unemployment rate of white men. Imagine if our federal government were to cut the corporate tax rate, eliminate unnecessary regulations, and allow private businesses to develop our energy potential. Millions of jobs would be created for all Americans. Regardless of race, there is no better social program than a family and no better economic program than a job.

Of course, these reforms will do nothing to lift minority and low-income communities out of poverty and crime if a bigger change is not made at the family and community level. I have had the privilege to teach with many such positive African-American community leaders. They truly shoulder a heavy burden, working every day to be positive role models that provide both encouragement and tough love. They will be the first to tell you that government reforms are no substitute for having a father in the home or a culture that values education. They are the ones we need to be asking for solutions on how to ensure equal opportunity for all Americans.

The one thing we can’t do is send the message to black children that it doesn’t matter how much they study or how hard they try to succeed; our racist society will not allow them to advance. This is a bitter and contemptuous lie that I have already seen some of my African-American students swallow, and it might be the biggest obstacle to their future success. We need fewer Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons vying for their moment in the spotlight and more actual community leaders like the men and women I serve alongside, men like Captain Ron Johnson. The ills that plague many minority and low-income communities have both external and internal factors, both of which must be addressed if we are to avoid a repeat of Ferguson.

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