Witnessing America's Original Sin
400 Years of Systemic Racism in One Decision
Why rioting in some of the hundreds of protests across the country of the Ferguson Grand Jury decision exonerating Ofc. Darren Wilson in the killing of Mike Brown but not in others? Carey McDonald's insightful reflection points toward an answer. -Ed.
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After experiencing Black Lives Matter Boston rally and having time to reflect, here are my thoughts on Ferguson:
If you’re talking about the indictment, you’re missing the point. I’ve read so many comments about what the grand jury knew or didn’t, who is guilty or innocent, and who gets to judge anyways, and it’s just a symbol of a larger problem. Mike Brown’s death was tragic but Officer Wilson wasn’t going to get indicted and, even if he had, would never have been convicted. That’s how our policing system works, it shows great deference to the actions of officers in the course of duty.
Talk about the reaction of the Ferguson law enforcement authorities, and you’re getting closer. Why the tanks? Why the state of emergency? Why on earth would you deliver a decision at 8 pm? By contrast, the cops in Boston last night had no riot gear, treated peaceful protesters respectfully, and Boston had no looting at all. So why do some officers antagonize, even when it is a less effective policing strategy?
If you answered dehumanization, social distance and a culture of violence, then congratulations, you’re almost there. Decades of cynical politics and destructive social policy created the police state in minority neighborhoods everywhere that generates situations like the ones in Ferguson. This isn’t the fault of any single officer, or even any person who committed a crime. But it’s pretty clear who suffers, evident in the mountain of psychological and health research showing that growing up in the ghetto is the equivalent of living in an actual war zone.
Had you been in Roxbury last night, or at any of the other dozens of demonstrations across the country, you would have witnessed the legitimate rage that arises from the heart of Ferguson. It is the legacy of 400 years of slavery, oppression and marginalization. The bitterness of bad schools, crappy housing and no job prospects. The system that brought Darren Wilson and Mike Brown face to face on August 9, one feeling hopeless and the other terrified. The fear of difference and strategic trampling of black and brown Americans that makes up the face of racism today, and the apathy towards questioning how things got to be the way they are. All concentrated into a single symbol, one grand jury decision, that is fraught but still the (latest) compelling example of the extreme disproportionality of how systemic racism functions. Racism has been called America’s original sin, and I think that’s about right. For a primer on how racism did NOT end in 1965, check out Ta-Nehisi Coate’s article in The Atlantic last May. We chanted #blacklivesmatter exactly because it hasn’t always been the case.
I went to the vigil, the protest, because I wanted to be with people who saw the whole picture. Who saw the truth of Ferguson. I also wanted to show up to make sure that the news stories conveyed the depth of what was happening. It was cathartic, but were we changing anything? I don’t know. I’m not an “overthrow the man!” kind of guy, so that kind of rhetoric doesn’t do much for me, either.
It feels like the gears of justice and democracy have been stripped and, try as we might to pull the levers of change, nothing seems to engage the engine of social transformation.
I have hope because I have faith, in people and in the long arc of the universe, but the path forward is anything but clear. I stand on the side of love, and of compassion, for my kindred spirits. May we all discern how to sift through the chaos to improve the lives of those in our communities, and those whom we’ve never met, in the name of a more perfect union.