The news has felt especially heavy lately. Between the ebola outbreak, the fighting in Israel and Palestine, the crisis in Iraq, the refugee children on the US border, and Robin William’s suicide, the world feels frighteningly bleak. I try to follow the news closely, but sometimes I feel so overwhelmed by all the sadness, pain, and suffering that I retreat. So when the story first broke about an unarmed teenage boy being shot and killed by police in Ferguson, my heart instantly fell–and I turned away. As the atrocities continue in Ferguson, it is clear that Michael Brown and his community deserve for us to pay attention, to hear their voices, to care. These kinds of gross abuses of power only continue and flourish when we turn our backs on those in need.
All morning, I have been riveted by the unfolding events–the death of an unarmed black teenager, the arrest of two reporters and a city alderman, tear gassing and shooting of rubber bullets into peaceful crowds, terrorizing black communities by shooting these materials directly into neighborhoods–in short a complete disregard for the lives of the community these police officers have sworn to protect. And I realized I’d heard this whole story before; Ferguson, MO mirrors familiar and tragic stories of Jim Crow south–an era that clearly does not live as neatly in our past as we’d like to believe
Earlier in the year I read The Devil in the Grove, the story of four young black men falsely accused of rape and the NAACP’s fight on their behalf. Two of the four men are murdered by the cops, an advocate and his wife are killed their house was bombed, reporters, lawyers and everyday black civilians were threatened and terrorized–and the sheriff at the heart of all this terror? The establishment closed ranks around him and he went on to serve as sheriff for many years to come. The remarkable thing about this story is how unremarkable it was; this treatment was everyday reality for black Americans–and is clearly the present day reality in Ferguson, MO.
We have such a tidy, white-washed history of race in America. Slavery was a terrible thing, but then Abraham Lincoln and the 13th Amendment happened and solved everything. Then racism was really bad in the South (always only the South) and that was bad, too, but Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat on a bus and then MLK talked a lot about being peaceful and ended racism forever.
I distinctly remember watching a film with my parents when I was in 5th grade about a white man who learns on his mother’s death bed that he has a half brother who is black. The movie is about their relationship and the white brother dealing with his racism. I will always remember this movie because it was when I learned that racism is still a problem. I understood it so completely as something that ended with the Civil Rights Movement. MLK had a dream, and hadn’t that dream come true? I turned to my parents halfway through the film, confused, and said, “Why is the main character driving a new truck? Isn’t this supposed to be a set a long time ago?”
But this isn’t in our past. This isn’t something that was fixed. This trauma is in the very fabric of our nation. Ferguson isn’t an aberration; it exists as part of a very long history of state-sanctioned violence against black Americans. The fight for civil rights is not something that lives in history books; we need to continue to fight. These images are taken 50 years apart; the one on the left is from present day Ferguson, MO.
I certainly don’t know what to do or, really, what to say. I remember after Treyvon Martin was killed and then the George Zimmerman verdict came through I felt a profound desire to do something, but I didn’t and still don’t know what action looks like. Sometimes I think I turn away out of a sense of helplessness, but importantly also turn away because, as a white woman, I can. Ultimately, though, if we want a different image 50 years from today, to turn away is to be complicit.