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#Ferguson

August 18, 2014

“So… what exactly is the problem in Ferguson?”

This was a sincere and genuine question someone asked me earlier this week, and a question I myself have been pondering all week. It is a truly difficult question to answer because the truth is there is no specific singular problem in this situation but rather a myriad of different problems all intertwined and interlaced into a complex web spun into greater entanglement by the various voices (both boisterous and silent) in both media and social media outlets. I will not pretend to be an expert on anything, nor will I pretend that I understand or know enough of the details surrounding the incident or the events since the death of a young man named Michael Brown. But here are my humble attempts of sharing my reflections on what some of the pieces of the “problem” might be for those who might have this question but be afraid to ask it.

The problem is… someone is dead.
Let us not run too hastily to political arguments either in defense of the deceased or in defense of the police department so quickly that we forget to acknowledge this. A Human being…. Someone’s child, someone’s brother, someone’s best friend, someone’s sworn enemy, someone’s cousin, someone’s classmate…. Has lost his life. That is already a problem. And we need to pause and mourn the loss of his life.

The problem is… he was unarmed.
At the expense of sounding naive and trite, there is an age-old adage that says, “go pick on someone your own size”. And while that is a dated (and honestly a pretty weak) come back line, it reveals our basic human agreement that it is unfair and unjust to not fight with the same weapons. It is an unspoken understanding we have that when one person’s weapon is their fist and another person’s weapon is a fully loaded firearm, there is an imbalance and injustice at the foundation of any altercation that might ensue.

The problem is… the man holding the firearm that released a bullet that ended a young man’s life was a police officer.
The problem is an incredible imbalance of position power. Incredible power comes with incredible responsibility. But positional power? Positional power comes with a profound obligation for incredible restraint. Not being ready for any moment that justifies using the upper hand you have (in this case, a firearm) but being disciplined enough to, in every moment, refrain from using that upper hand and looking for another alternative.

The problem is… the media.
The most powerful character in every good novel is neither the protagonist nor the antagonist. The most powerful character is the narrator. The narrator tells the story, controlling which details are emphasized and which details are forgotten. The media is our modern day narrators, controlling which details are given and how they are given to give the general public a sense of who the victim is and who the villain is. Michael Brown was a high school graduate on his way to college. But the problem is, the picture painted for the general public was not of a college bound man, but of a troubled teen who appeared perhaps to have brought this on to himself. The media has choices. They have choices which photographs they release. And which photographs they release literally create a picture or a caricature of who that person in the photograph is. The problem is the media created an immediate caricature of a “trouble-maker-up-to-no-good” rather than a “teenage-about-to-enter-college”. This was a choice. And the fact that they made that choice, is a problem.

The problem is… social media.
Social media, for the stereotypical, facebook frenzied audience, depends almost entirely on one’s own social networks. Meaning your view of the world will be as narrow as the diversity of friends you have. And lets be honest… we do not tend towards diverse crowds of friends. A conservative republican will likely fill their facebook newsfeeds with the opinions, news article shares, and buzzfeed quizzes of other conservative republicans. And vice versa. And this is also true of ethnicity. Someone’s immediate network of friends consists of people who are much like them. This means that there is a shadow looming over a vast majority of the social media world where thousands upon thousands of American people have no idea what “Ferguson” is nor any reaction to the name “Michael Brown” or “Trayvon Martin”.

The problem is… information gaps.
Within 7 minutes of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I could go on facebook, google, twitter, cnn.com, and have all kinds of information available at my finger tips. Police statements and interviews releasing the name of the person responsible, what he was wearing, what weapon he fired, how many bullets were released. That was within 7 minutes. Within 7 days (10,080 minutes) of the death of Michael Brown, the only information available is the name of the police officer who fired the shot (and mind you, this was not released until 5 or 6 days later) and irrelevant video footage from an entirely separate incident involving stolen cigars and a frightened store clerk. This is a problem because information is power. And while the American public might not be entitled to full or even partial disclosure, I have to believe that the mother who lost her son deserves to have access to the information that will give her a picture of the final 20 minutes of her son’s life.

The problem is … police response.
It is so very puzzling that the police response was to arrive at a candlelight vigil dressed in full riot gear, adorned with gas masks. (please forgive me if I have this information inaccurate and refer to the previous point as to why I might be unclear on the details …) The Police Department seemed to believe they were walking into a war zone, long before it became one. And why is it that the assumption that a gathering of impassioned, emotional people would most likely turn into a riot? I have not seen police roll into gatherings hosted by Westboro Baptist Church with the same concern. Could it be possible that the difference between a gathering of Westboro Baptist Church Members and a Gathering of Michael Brown’s Community and Supporters is the ethnic demographic? Absolutely. The problem is the assumption that a gathering of Black demonstrators requires a riot intervention plan because that reveals the underlying belief that “black people are violent” and a large gathering of “black people” then must require a strong military response. This is institutionalized racism.

The problem is… Eric Garner. John Crawford. Ezell Ford. Dante Parker.
In the past 2 weeks alone, 4 other young black unarmed men, have lost their lives … the shooters responsible? All police officers. And the problem is for every one of these stories that catch media attention, there are hundreds of others that do not. The problem is how inhumanely normal the lens of suspicion is on individuals because of the color of their skin. Please do not misunderstand me on this point. I am in no way trying to “make this a race issue”, however I am trying to point out that it is ALWAYS a race issue because race and ethnicity are irreversibly a part of who we are. It is in our biological and sociological DNA and the more we ignore it, the more we subconsciously apply our biases to the policies we create in the positions of power we are granted.

The problem is… the silence of the church.
I am not saying that Jesus is not hanging out right now with those hurting from painful church splits and pastoral controversy. (It is clear to me that the majority culture evangelical church is there.) But one place Jesus definitely is right now is Ferguson. That’s the biblical Jesus I know. He marched into a synagogue one day and proclaimed that He came to set the oppressed free and comfort those who mourn. To break the chains of injustice. And then He walked out of the synagogue doors and lived those words into a catalytic reality for the rest of His life on earth. Will the majority culture main line evangelical churches go there this week? We were silent during the long painful battle our black brothers and sisters endured in remembrance of Treyvon. Perhaps the Lord is giving us a chance to try again with Michael?

The problem is … me.
I have the luxury of sitting in my comfortable home at a computer screen typing up this commentary from afar. The problem is that I can turn off my buzzfeed and facebook apps, open Netflix and watch as an angsty 30 year old tries to find the love of his life while telling his children the story of how he met their mother, while others can never turn off this reality in their lives.

I will not forget Trayvon. I will not forget Michael. I am committed to let the lives they lived and the deaths they suffered alter my perspective and challenge the ways I use my platforms of influence and my own privilege to create access for others. Will you join me?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2014 3:59 am

    Thank you for writing this!

  2. August 19, 2014 2:26 pm

    This was a valuable read for me. I appreciate your thoughts and their organization. All I seem to be able to do is splatter my emotions all over my laptop screen. I am shaken by the fact that the problem is me, the Church, and especially that this has happened four more times??? since Mike Brown. Thank you for writing this. I wish a zillion people could read and absorb it.

  3. David permalink
    August 19, 2014 7:58 pm

    Thanks. This help a lot

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  1. Ferguson in the Moment | A Thousand Moments

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