Saturday, August 30, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson

As with anything, there are always multiple sides to a story and several ways of looking at a conflict. But assuredly, no conflict would ever exist without two opposing sides. "It takes two to tango," as the saying goes. Things simply don't happen in a complete vacuum.

And this is how I view situations like the one that has been unfolding in Ferguson, MO. I think "The Truth" of the matter lies between the two extremes. Here are the extremes: on the one hand, all cops are racist and will kill an unarmed black man for the sole reason he is black, and if you disagree with this, you are a racist; on the other hand, all cops are good human beings who harbor no racist thoughts or stereotypes, never fire unless absolute right is on their side, and if a cop shoots a man, it has nothing to do with his race, and to play the "race card" is a form of reverse racism.

If you agree with either of these extremes, I cannot dialogue with you. You've got to be willing to insist responsibility falls where it actually does, which means keeping your mind open and carefully considering both sides of the story.

Now, I happen to be a white person, so I don't pretend to know what it's like to be black in America. That's an experience that is not mine. But, as a lesbian and as a woman, I do know what it's like to have stereotypes flung around about me that aren't even remotely true and to have the law not always give me the same freedoms as others. I also have watched the backlash that occurs when our rights begin to be acknowledged and we begin gaining equality: the majority group fears losing its privileged status (often not even being aware of its privileged status) and starts complaining about "reverse discrimination," "quotas," "preferences," and the like. I also know what it's like to be subjected to a double standard all the time; as an example, women are supposed to be both virginal yet sexually experienced, to dress provocatively but not be a slut. It's a strange balancing act that's impossible to attain, much like the American standard of beauty--blonde, tall, super skinny, big breasts, a flawless face, a curvy booty--is something that is basically unachievable without starvation diets, extreme working out, plastic surgery, and tons of make-up... and even then..... only about 3% can attain "the perfect look" because we just don't have the genetics. But we beat ourselves up or allow ourselves to be shamed when we can't do it. I understand the frustration and weariness of impossible expectations and unfair judgments.

So, I "get," in some small way, the African American community's anger. They've made strides since the civil rights movement, just as gay people have made strides lately in regard to gay marriage, but if you think the America they live in is the same as white America, you're uninformed. Black people are disproportionately represented in Congress and in state and local legislatures. They are disproportionately represented in the media (compare the number of black television families to white tv families). Flip through a mainstream magazine such as, oh, Parenting, and count the number of black versus white people. Folks, "white" is constantly fed to us as the norm. So, naturally, there will be things that crop up such as Ebony magazine or BET (Black Entertainment Network), in order to plug the gap and offer some media more relatable to that audience. (The inevitable response from some white people will be, "We don't have an Ivory magazine, or a WET (White Entertainment Network). Isn't this racist and divisive of them?") No, it isn't. Virtually EVERY channel is the white entertainment network. Virtually ALL magazines have a majority white audience in mind. Disproportionate representation is the key term here. And though there are, certainly, some black police officers, they are outnumbered by white officers. So if a cop trolls through the 'hood, chances are really good it's a white guy: one more white guy in a position of power and authority.

The way of the world is this: cops tend to go where they expect trouble to be. Where is trouble to be found? Usually in low-income neighborhoods; there is clearly a correlation between high crime areas and poverty. (As a white woman, you wouldn't catch me walking through a poor neighborhood alone at night, whether it was a trailer park, the Mission in San Francisco, or the projects in Ferguson, MO.) I'm not saying "it's not crime; it's poverty"--there are plenty of poor folks of all races who don't commit crimes. But poverty is a factor. On the other end of the spectrum are white collar crimes, committed by people who normally aren't poor and desperate and which are not violent, but usually a LOT more money gets stolen than, say, the value of a box of Swisher Sweets cigars. But how often are these crimes prosecuted, or how often does a Wall Street banker get taken down with anything other than a smack on the wrist? The scales are not balanced. Not yet.

Day in and day out, black folks see white little Johnny in college get busted for a bag of weed and Daddy getting the kid off with a fine and community service. Meanwhile, black little Jerome gets busted for a bag of weed and gets the book thrown at him. The one place where black folks are more than disproportionately represented is the prison system. If you think it's because black people have a racial commitment to crime, then your head is in the sand. It has everything to do with racial profiling, a justice system that is often institutionally harder on one race than on another, and we could argue all day long what came first: the chicken or the egg. Fault-finding is more complex than that, especially nowadays with private prisons and a prison lobby. When prisons become for-profit, profits can grow only by incarcerating more people. Those who can afford to hire the expensive team of attorneys are the ones who don't take a maximum sentence on anything. But one race is no more genetically likely to commit a crime than any other race. You wouldn't know that, though, by looking at the prison population.

But the bottom line is this: when an unarmed black guy who was acting like a punk swiped a box of cigars that couldn't have cost more than six bucks was accosted by a white police officer and the guy began mouthing off, did he deserve six bullets and death?

That's why Ferguson, MO, is mad. They're tired of it.

It's called freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

Okay. That's one side.

Now here is the other side, as well as I'm able to construct it, because there is a lot of baloney being posted and tweeted and reported. It appears there was a convenience store robbery and this young man was involved. (And he's a big dude.) The officer stopped him and a friend jaywalking a few blocks away from the crime and the fellow treated the officer with disrespect. Whether he actually punched the officer or tried for his weapon is currently UNKNOWN. (How the rumor about him breaking the officer's eye socket, etc, got started and disseminated can be found HERE.) In any case, the officer felt threatened, so the officer fired. Not just twice, as they are trained to do initially before reassessing. Since he emptied his weapon, he obviously did not feel the threat had been neutralized after two shots. It has yet to be determined whether the officer was overreacting or panicked. It has yet to be determined whether the officer felt threatened for the sole reason the young man was black. But what remains a fact is that the young man was not armed. So, to some it looks like police brutality taken to an extreme, but the officer felt justified, and since right now we just can't know, the officer may very well have been in the right. Race may indeed have nothing to do with why he fired.

Now, I have a tendency to defend the police because they have a difficult and dangerous job. Also, one of my best friends is a cop, and my wife is an ex-cop. They are not racist people. But, officers are trained and trained and trained some more on officer safety. They will protect themselves. So, even if you've done nothing wrong and even if you're sure the cop is being a jerk to you, if a cop tells you to stop, put your hands in the air, lie face down, or do the Macarena, if you don't want your actions to be mistaken for a threat, you should do what the officer says.

Michael Brown very likely did NOT do what the officer said. No, he probably was carrying in his psyche a lot of anger over the fact that white cops always pick on black men and he wasn't doing anything but walking in the street, and why was this officer shouting at him like he had committed a felony, so he did not keep his cool.

What you have is a highly charged situation in which one guy felt singled out because of his race and the other guy felt threatened and his badge disrespected, and those two things don't mesh well. Now a man is dead and some people are having appalling reactions. The officer's life has been threatened. I see white people saying ridiculously insensitive and stupid things. The bigots are overjoyed!

And all America is busy getting emotional and taking sides and blaming whatever the opposing side is, depending on their viewpoint. This is a fruitless endeavor. What we SHOULD be talking about is how to stop these things from happening at all. 

So, how do we prevent things like this? Follow the law, sure. If you break the law, you break the law; be prepared to pay the consequences. But, as with all things, also try to understand the other person's side. I'm reminded of a student I had a few years ago who was a foster mom to several African American kids, and she happened to be white. She was not at all racist. But one day she was in a Mountain Mike's Pizza Parlor and observed a woman who happened to be black steal something. When an employee who happened to be white accused the black woman of the theft, my student piped up and shared what she had seen. The black woman's response was to accuse her of being a racist: "You're just saying that because you're white and she's white!" My message to black folks is this: You're right; things sometimes happen because some people are racist, and I know you're tired of it. But not everybody is racist, so use that as your starting point until that person has given you good reason to believe otherwise.

If you think this is funny, YOU are part of the problem.
And to white folks, stop whining about the race card being played. If the shoe were on your foot, "it's my race" would be your knee-jerk reaction too. And as for using the looting and violence and rioting in Ferguson as fodder to feed racist sentiments, you should know that no matter what the situation or group, there will always be bad apples in the barrel. Stop using the bad apples to describe the entire group. Most people protesting in Ferguson were peaceful, anti-violent protestors who were just as appalled by the looting as anyone. Remember the Occupy Movement? Lots of protestors were peaceful demonstrators, but the rioting white anarchists got all the press. The press goes where the story is.

Alas, there is no story in a non-violent demonstration.

We will never get past race or civil rights issues in this country until things actually are, in reality, truly equal in terms of opportunities, rights, and privilege. One day people really will be judged not by the color of their skin, or by whom they love, or by what religion they practice, but by the content of their character. Until then, we can only dialogue and listen and hold our tempers and stop making ourselves into each other's victims and try to see the other person's point of view. It's more than okay to learn and to change your mind about things. It's also an honorable thing to accept responsibility for your own actions.

There's an expression for it. It's called "growing up."

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