Behind the smoke and ash, behind the shattered glass, a groan in Ferguson remains. Whether justice was served or injustice actually occurred, the perception of injustice surfaced a real and present pain. On August 9, 2014 protesters erupted after Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, a black teenager. Three months later on November 24, a St. Louis County grand jury ruled not to indict Officer Wilson based upon evidence and testimony that Brown forcibly threatened him, causing Wilson to “fear for his life and use lethal force in self-defense.” The verdict set off a wave of angry demonstrations and riots.
Behind those raging fires of night and peaceful protests of day, an invisible grief sustains. Ferguson felt like a Band-Aid yanked. Whatever the true events of that fateful day, the verdict ripped a new bandage off an old wound. Despite forensics, toxicology reports, and countless sworn witnesses, when the 12 member jury determined that Officer Darren Wilson would not face trial, Michael Brown’s family was devastated. They felt that their son’s voice would go unheard and undefended, like he was not even worth a trial. Many within the African American community resonated with the Brown family by proxy. If another black voice was silenced, then many people of color felt invalidated all over again.
Maybe Ferguson is less about an 18-year old boy that most protesters never knew and more about the deep-seeded, long-standing grief of a community that resonates with his story.
It hurts to feel unheard and under-valued. And real pain demands a voice. Ferguson has spoken out from Manhattan to L.A. through St. Louis, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Denver, Dallas, Cleveland, Portland, and even London. Grieving hearts have communicated in both constructive and destructive ways. While M.L.K. wouldn’t be too proud of the torched buildings and Molotov cocktails, his words offer a meaningful explanation:
“Riots are the voice of the unheard.”
While “riots are the voice of the unheard,” it has been argued that this isolated case is “not the time” to cry racism. If forensic evidence corroborates the officer’s testimony, then many in the media are arguing that protesters are picking the wrong battleground. While jurors believed this isolated case did not warrant a trial, statistics overall suggest an additional interpretive lens: less than 1% of white officers are charged in the murder of black civilians.
Certainly, officers should receive higher levels of protection considering the dangerous nature of their job description. Male and female law enforcement alike deserve respect and high honor for putting themselves in harm’s way in the process of protecting American communities. Even so … no one is immune to error. There are some who carry a badge, white privilege and a presumptive history that warns them to suspect, fear, even target African Americans. It is within this context that Ferguson replied to the verdict with gunfire and demonstrative grief:
We are hurting.
We are tired of still hurting.
No, the discussion is not over.
We will not pretend everything is good enough.
#BlackLivesMatter, and we will stay the course toward dignity.
We feel unheard, unprotected, at times targeted in our own country.
This outcry has given way to fresh debate into the American airwaves: Why doesn’t law enforcement wear body cameras? What about tactical training that requires options before lethal force? Is this verdict really about race? Don’t we have a two-term black president? Couldn’t some communities of color be conjuring up a heightened sense of paranoia about a phantom prejudice that doesn’t exist anymore? Possibly, but certainly not always.
Is it possible to support our law enforcement, value their sacrificial service, and simultaneously acknowledge that many African Americans still feel unheard, under-valued, and at times unsafe? If one person does not fully relate to another’s pain, does that negate that problem really exists? Can someone listen to another’s grief, even if it’s far away? And does one person have the right to ignore another’s hurt if it’s communicated in angry, even destructive, ways?
Sometimes people hurt because the injustice of the moment. Other times people so deeply hurt because the present situation reminds them of a past and often greater injustice or injury. Division can loiter far longer when we get stuck in the throes of our own hurt feelings. It can worsen when we start throwing verbal accusations and hammers in retaliation. When pain runs violently deep, it can feel impossible to fathom anyone else’s perspective. We may never be able to fully relate each other’s vantage point, but if we are going to maintain and grow in unity, we have to at least be sensitive enough to keep considering it.
Perhaps this dynamic is going on in Ferguson. America has a past bludgeoned by racism, and certain situations, symbols and verdicts resurface that trauma. Certain moments trigger the memories of feeling unprotected, threatened, and even hated. A movie can resurface visceral feelings. So can a disparaging look, a certain word or symbol.
For example, it may be within someone’s legal right to don a Confederate flag from the back of a pick-up truck, but when those rebel stars and stripes fly by me and my African American sons, I grieve. My pain quickly turns to anger. That flag may just be an image, but so is a swastika. To some, the Confederate flag represents the protection of states’ rights, but there’s a second message latent within that symbol. To deny this same flag doesn’t still drip with blood-drenched memories of war fought to retain slavery is to forget our full American history. And to parade this symbol about without a care to other’s interpretative feelings, I find rather myopic and rude.
My African American study buddy told me that just seeing that flag “takes her backward.” Still, she and I are both trying to fathom that someone throwing on a Kappa Alpha t-shirt with that flag might have absolutely zero intention of ever hurting anyone else’s feelings. They may simply love their fraternity and want to boast in generic southern pride.
Individual and communities interpret the same symbols and situations so uniquely. Ultimately, only God can see heart and intentions of man. That is why we need to be slow to anger and slow to give up on each other.
Some heated conversations have hit the airwaves: When can America move on already? Why don’t we start enforcing body cameras for every police officer to gather accurate accounts? Has America taken the race-bait again on Ferguson? Why are some African Americans still crying when there are kindergartners in American who have never known a day of life without a black president? The collective questions beg answers to a deeper problem still at hand. Based on reactions in Ferguson and across our country, our nation is still healing.
Of course, there has been great progress in our country, but there are still infected pockets. We have residual problem areas with prejudicial hiring practices and a residue of division on both sides of church aisle. Not all churches, but many prove Sundays are still the most segregated hour of the American week. So, while we have taken long strides, we cannot yet throw out sensitivity, mercy, and listening.
So should people advocate for a civil trial for Michael Brown in federal court? Do we take sides and defend the unwavering honor of America’s law enforcement instead? What if it’s not about picking sides, but about holding another’s heart, vantage point, and emotions just a little tighter than our own? Often it’s less about a flag or the luggage or one isolated verdict and more about the a heart interpreting messages of indifference, invalidation, fear and antagonism behind them. Feelings are real, and we don’t stop listening because America has made great progress.
It still hurts to feel your voice isn’t heard. It hurts to feel like it takes a riot or a rally to gain attention. It hurts to feel few are even listening.