My US History classes are doing significant work on Thomas Jefferson right now. Thinking so much about Jefferson and his complexities keeps bringing Charlottesville to mind. That led me to dig into the archives for this reflection on Ferguson. We keep seeing. When do we start changing?
FDO- 9.21. 2017
There’s a massive difference between being seen and being invisible. That’s why I’m glad Ferguson has become not just a place but a thing. Ferguson is now qualitatively different than every other incidence of police brutality. Mike Brown’s murder was the catalyst for something bigger and potentially transformative.
In the past couple weeks the whole world has begun to see what Black people have experienced for decades; the use of state power to intimidate and suppress populations. The police are the clearest example but much of the infrastructure of our society has done the same thing for centuries. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ invaluable article ‘The Case for Reparations’ provides the clearest explanation of the mechanisms behind this reality.
Ferguson demonstrates that the police do not always work on behalf of the citizens. In fact, for many in law enforcement, people of color are presumed to be an enemy force. This reality has been astonishing to many Americans but entirely unsurprising to people of color. Very few people of color can really be shocked when we hear the story of Mike Brown or Eric Garner or Ezell Ford or Tamir Rice.
What separates Ferguson from previous police violence is that the public response has been handled in such an absurd fashion. Everyone should be appalled at the way the police have brutalized and intimidated citizens who have not done anything wrong. Perhaps more than anything else, it’s the scale and openness in Ferguson that has garnered such attention. However, the idea that this style of policing is new or limited to a single police force is ludicrous. There’s already been some amazing reportage on this.
The biggest difference between the public recognition level of Rodney King (an instantly recognizable name for most Americans older than 35) and Sean Bell (who?) ….. is not that King lived but that we saw happened to him. It’s not the outcome of these situations that creates public recognition, it’s the coverage of the situation. Even in the murder of Mike Brown, the authorities have attempted to create a counter narrative that reduces the level of blame for Darren Wilson. Since we didn’t see Brown being shot, we don’t know precisely what happened.
Fortunately, we do know what the response to the mostly peaceful protests in Ferguson has been. Those images will linger because they are chilling and astonishing and might well be repeated in dozens of communities across America. The overwhelming militarization of the police makes the visuals more stark and citizen fear more understandable. That clarity matters. Ferguson is likely to provide the most important visuals of 2014 in America. We are Mike Brown and we are Afghanistan and we are Iraq and we are not far enough from being Pakistan or Guantanamo.
America is still intensely separated when it comes to race but that often has little to do with where you live, what you like or how you spend your time. Instead, that divide is usually about understanding and experience; the lenses through which you view the world. Those lenses often aren’t chosen by any of us individually; they are usually provided for us. None of us choose what America will expect of us or how America will respond to us.
It’s very hard to say this and I need to be clear that I’m deeply grateful that Mike Brown is the only person to have died at the hands of the police in Ferguson. But I am very happy that White America has the chance to see more of the realities of being a person of color in the USA. Now comes the hard part.