Life After Ferguson
When passion speaks, reason doesn’t listen.
This summer, a tragic event occurred in Ferguson, MO. An unarmed young black man was shot and killed by a white police officer. Tonight, a grand jury verdict was returned and they decided not to indict the police officer. In many sectors of our country there is anger, regret, and a conviction that the lives of black people are worth less in the eyes of the law. In other sectors, there is jubilation, the belief that a police officer wrongly accused has been exonerated. As you might imagine, a lot of those viewpoints split along racial lines. From its inception, race defined our country. Today, no less so. You believe what you believe because of who and where you are. I wasn’t in Ferguson when Michael Brown was shot and wasn’t witness to the tragedy. Nor was I a member of the grand jury that presumably heard all of the evidence and the cross-examination of all witnesses and surviving participants. Michael Brown remains dead, no grand jury verdict can change that sad fact. It’s true that he is the victim in this case, as we are all victims in another way, victims and prisoners of the belief systems imparted by our environments, our shared and personal histories and our day to day experiences in life.
Growing up in a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, a neighborhood primarily policed by white men, I developed my own feelings of fear and loathing for the police, I was convinced that they were out to get me, and sometimes I was right. But not always. Once, years ago, my wife and I were in bed and thought we heard someone trying to enter our house. I told her to grab the kids, go into another bedroom and call 911. I armed myself with a knife and prepared to die defending my family. The police arrived quickly and surrounded my house. We determined that the door between the house and the garage wasn’t completely closed and the sound that we’d heard had been it clicking shut. I was thankful for the police that night and it changed the almost blanket condemnation I’d carried with me since leaving Philadelphia. My passion had been balanced by reason. Passion demands that we listen to our heart, and the feelings embedded there. Reason requires that we utilize our brains in a way that is coldly dispassionate. What are the facts? What seems likely? What can I reasonable believe is true? It was easy that night in the safety of my home, hard to maintain that intellectual rigidity when a young man lies dead. But the truth cannot be uncovered if passion immediately asserts a position.
Young black man – must have been a thug trying to kill the cop. White police officer – must be a racist eager for the opportunity to take a black life. I didn’t know Michael Brown but I used to be him, bold, rebellious, immune to and often unaware of the consequences of my actions. I was never Officer Wilson, a white man on an overwhelmingly white police force overseeing an overwhelmingly black population, a minority with the power of the gun and the badge, maybe a man who – for a horrible interval – truly feared for his life. If Officer Wilson is a decent man, the burden of the life he took will forever weigh on him, a perpetual second-guessing and wondering if there could have been another way. I hope he’s had those thoughts, but I’ll never know. Michael Brown might have grown up to be someone truly special, someone who changed lives through his words and actions. We’ll never know.
What we should know is that only a passion for reason can start to heal the divide that makes it inevitable that, when similar tragedies occur, we rush to judgment with fire in our hearts and leave in our wake the cooling effect of reason.