Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Nothing Will Change Until More Americans Dare to Imagine What Life Is Really Like in Ferguson

“I’m dismayed by how quickly – especially in the Internet age – we all dig trenches…throw ourselves in…and start throwing grenades at the other side.” --Leon H. Wolf, RedState.com

One second, maybe less. 

That’s how long it took for the very first person to post an unfiltered unequivocal opinion on the Internet about social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in the moments after a grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.  Then a real “riot” began last Wednesday night, not just one of property destruction, but a riot of words too. Judgment.  Finger pointing.  Condemnation. On social media. On the TV.  In the papers.  Everywhere.

So much righteous anger directed at “those” people.  “Them”: the ones who took to the streets to rail against what they saw as a miscarriage of justice, who experienced another outcome which confirmed their worst fears about the American legal system, embodied in cops on the street and a prosecutor at a late night press conference.

In the blink of an eye, lines were drawn in our nation. Sides taken.  Positions hardened.  “Us” versus “them”.  I’m right. “They” are wrong. I’m good. “They” are bad.  Law and order works for me so what’s “their” problem?  The cop was justified in killing that kid, that thug, that “animal”. “We” didn’t riot when O.J. was acquitted.  The jury decided so the system works.  Just send in the National Guard.    

Grab verbal grenade. Remove pin. Toss. Wait for explosion.

After Ferguson this is what we get in terms of a national dialogue on race, the legal system and life in America for so many people of color.  Too much heat and too little light.  Too much red hot rhetoric and too little thoughtful reflection. Too many images in the press and on the Internet of a tiny minority of looters who selfishly chose to use the verdict as a cover for lawlessness. Too few images of the tens of thousands who marched peacefully in cities across the United States that night and in the days since.

Who wants to see a bunch of clergy led protesters praying in a church?  Who wants to see peaceful neighborhood Moms and Dads or college students non-violently exercising their first amendment rights? Instead let’s get riled up, all hot and bothered about one lone looter running out of Walgreens with a carton of cigarettes.

No: I’m not somehow justifying the violence that tore up Ferguson last Wednesday night. It was and is wrong: no question.  And after reading all I could from the grand jury transcripts it’s not any clearer to me what happened that fateful August day when Michael Brown and Officer Wilson confronted each other on a suburban street. But what’s been lost in all the media coverage and ensuing outrage this week is that Brown’s death, Wilson’s exoneration and the protests are a small part of a much, much bigger story.

For me, here’s the real Ferguson page one story. Until people like me, a person with no reason to mistrust “the system”; a person who has always freely moved through the world with not a worry about discrimination or bias of any kind…until I can truly imagine what life is like in 2014 for so many people of color, what it is like to live in their world: I won’t get it.  I can’t get it.

What’s missing from our national shouting match about Ferguson (there’s been little or no listening) is empathy: the spiritual and rare ability to imagine what another person faces in this life.  To see the world through the eyes of another. To better understand their experience.  Their existence day to day. Their pain. 

Not mere sympathy which feels bad but often stops short.  No: full throated broken hearted empathy: to feel another’s brokenness, anger, frustration, and fear. To put ourselves in the shoes of those who right now are hurting, and feeling so powerless that the only power they see as available to them is to protest.

Can you or I imagine just what it is like to send your 18 year old kid out the door and then the next time you see him is in a morgue, laid out on a slab, shot dead? What does that feel like, regardless of what that young man did or did not do? What’s it like to live in a neighborhood and be afraid to call the police? What’s it like to be a person of color and be stared at or tailed when you walk in a store or drive down a street or stand on the corner with your friends? What’s it like to have to warn your kids to be always extra careful around the police, extra polite, extra anxious, because one wrong or suspicious move and you’ll end up in handcuffs?  What’s it like to live in a down and out neighborhood, with 50 percent unemployment and terrible schools and a dread that there is no way out for you or your loved ones, ever? 

I can’t ever truly imagine what life is like for so many Americans when it comes to race.  But I must try. I must listen more and opine less. Close my mouth and open my ears to hear about what it is like to be “the other”. Because until those of us on this side of the protest barriers imagine what its like to be on the other side of the street, nothing will change. Nothing. Until we can walk in the shoes of fellow Americans who feel like the deck is always stacked against them, Fergusons will just keep happening. The United States will continue to be split along racial and economic lines. The nightmare of racism will not end. 

And what of that long ago dream of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s Jr.? “That my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It will never, ever come true unless people of power and privilege like me, empathize with the people without power, without privilege and, in these post Ferguson days, without hope.

I can’t imagine life in Ferguson today. Can you?  For the sake of our nation I pray somehow, someway, with empathy, we can and we must: imagine that.



1 comment: