The Ills of Now have weighed heavily on me these last days, torment coming from all angles but most particularly the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Mike Brown, in broad daylight in Ferguson, Missouri last Saturday. (Links to articles with information.) It just keeps happening.
Mike Brown is not the only one gunned down this week, no, but he is the one we heard about and the one that people got into the streets for in droves. And my, what we heard: black people in Ferguson and elsewhere, whose lives and children’s lives are strung in the balance every day, pleading for peace and nonviolence and demanding answers in the midst of an explosive police- and society-created powder keg; white liberals, ever surprised and aghast, wringing our hands yet again and unclear on how to proceed (though many of us tried to share information and provide moral support to protesters and put pressure on the government to stop responding with amped-up violence and threats); white conservatives, ever cheered by evidence that their version of end times (and for-profit incarceration schemes) has come to pass and good riddance, gloating and calling for more law and order and campaign contributions; white radicals (namely, the Missouri branch of the KKK), driven by hatred and rage and self-interest, conducting a fund-raising drive for what was (as of yesterday) the as yet unnamed officer, replete with language that reeks of the Third Reich and the lynch-mob’s noose and hanging trees.
Much is at stake and far more thorough commentators are afoot. I have no standing to say one word and yet I cannot remain silent because it keeps happening. Here’s the thing: a lot of white people who are afraid of diversity and difference simply do not know how complicit they are in all of this, and those of us who do know and try? Are often still complicit, way more than we would like to be. It’s clear that Ferguson’s leadership prior to yesterday was utterly out of touch with their own roles in setting up such a death and response on their streets. The state of history education in this nation is so bloody ineffective anymore that many people spend their whole lives in utter historical illiteracy: so clueless that they don’t even know they are clueless. Protected by stereotypes and jokes and consumer culture and fear—and the limiting perspective of personal interactions bathed in this brew and not tempered by wider knowledge—many white people just don’t ever get how multivalent and deadly the racial and ethnic patterns are or how much they themselves are contributing to the mix. I understand this unbudging factor on some level and try my best to engage people who share my skin color about these issues, and to remain compassionate toward them even as I resist their certainties (in no small part because I understand to the bone how problematic I am, too, with the privileges of white skin and the inabilities to ‘get’ how much a part of the problem I am).
The vileness of racist language and actions horrifies me, though, no matter how Zen and loving I am trying to be (or even in the middle of a silent retreat, as I was this week), because it drives me straight back to the 1960s and early-70s fights for civil rights in this country. Many of my fellow citizens who do not have my skin color have never had the few years of reprieve that I used to believe we managed to wrest from all that. They’re on the front lines of the war this society has waged upon them, paying the ultimate price for even the smallest error or none at all, and have no cause for the illusions I held prior to the early 1990s. I and my kind far too easily miss the point. All of ’em.
I was ages one through ten in the sixties, a child of southern Mississippi and never very far out of it through my early teens. Our schools were forcibly integrated in the middle of fifth grade, and I know first-hand what that hell looked and felt and tasted like. My parents, however, were in the minority at that time, for white people anyway, because they belonged to a fundamentalist sect called the Church of God that I disagreed with on just about every single possible line of doctrine, faith, and daily actions . . . except this one: God was no “respecter of persons,” meaning he held no soul of higher value than any other, so neither did we. That means all people—no matter what their skin color or gender—were welcomed to worship and even to preach in our congregation.
To ensure that this happened reliably and we learned it well, Mama and Daddy drove us 60 miles one way three times a week, across the state line into Louisiana, for church. We did not partake whatsoever in demeaning actions or language (the N-word was forbidden in our house), and my mother made a point of helping to care for black elders in our community who didn’t have family help: we took food and clothes and helped mow their yards, whatever needed doing, just as we did for white elders, kin and rank strangers alike. It was a family rule, come straight down from the Almighty himself, and I agreed with it down to the last jot of every letter.
When hell broke loose, however, it swept us up into it, too, and the coming years were a crucible for all of us in my age brackets, and fires felt and were deeply personal. Most white people didn’t agree with my parents and that could get ugly; some black people didn’t like me any more than if I’d been an outright racist (one black teacher was so cruel he wound up getting fired), so I got my first experience of being scared at school; things were terrifyingly complex and shifting moment to moment, and no succor could be found: it was a lonely, bitter road in lots of ways, perfect for developing what my mother’s mother called “a backbone of steel and a heart to match,” valuable organs to possess in such climes (or any other, come to think of it).
No matter what came my direction, I made up my mind early on a single truth and held to it without deviation: that all human beings are equal to one another and that none is higher or deserves more praise than anyone else, and therefore none—not one soul ever—can be considered lower than another. I rigorously applied this personal law from then to now (and took the often not-fun consequences, for authorities nearly always detest such a stance and do their best to deconstruct it using whatever means they have at hand and can get away with), and I am thus a fierce, highly skilled foe of inequalities of any kind and especially racist behaviors and habits of thought. I study history, I teach the history of racial and ethnic groups in the United States, I know the hard, ugly truths of what this nation is to its core and then some, and I care so much about what we are that I dig in and learn even when it hurts my feelings or causes me shame.
But until the Occupy movement, where people began to be attacked by our own government just for exercising constitutional rights to protest and hold authorities to account? And then when the Walker regime started coming down hard on nonviolent protesters in Madison? And then when Trayvon Martin was killed in cold blood and his killer walked free, but the police showed up in full riot get-up when we gathered in horror to protest such a shambles of justice? Whew. I never was one for getting into the streets before. I was in Namibia when the L.A. Riots happened in 1992, however, and that news convinced me that I could not become an ex-pat as I wished to do, but instead had to return here, to do whatever I could to contribute to the end of racism and unfairly distributed resources, and I’ve done that ever since. But I just wasn’t a take-the-streets person. Something started shifting in me since 2010, though, as I understood more and more how much I need my fellow citizens and how many of them face death on a daily basis in their own communities, and as of yesterday morning the shift’s permanent.
When a nation does as ours is now—gunning down some of our own citizens in the street, with little or no accountability, militarizing to the teeth, and then repressing all responses, as the authorities in Ferguson, Missouri did, starting on Saturday of last week? It is rolling hard down the tracks to all-out trouble. I am a fervent proponent of non-violence, have lived it at great personal cost all of my adult life. I am not a joiner, and I distrust crowds even if they’re just out to have a little fun because, in my experience anyway, you never can tell what a passel of people’s liable to do, and I typically would never get into the streets to fight my own government. I’ve even been working hard to study A Course in Miracles lately, and to deepen my longstanding commitments to peace, nonviolence, compassion, and love, and that’s not a skin-deep or Jilly-come-lately effort.
But as I heard the news coming in from Ferguson yesterday morning—still irretrievably threatening and 1600 PA providing no reassurance whatsoever that the ham-handed deadly approaches would be halted? I geared up to go to Missouri. Literally. Had the leadership not changed its approach drastically yesterday evening? I would’ve been in Missouri today, unarmed and as peaceful as I could be, but standing with those who were being attacked. Finally (and most fortunately for all of us), however, the state chose a representative of the law and order community to take charge, and this humble man (black, I must say, so that the racists among us have to reckon with this repeating truth) walked with protesters.
Ron Johnson, a captain in the Missouri State History Patrol, showed up with wisdom: “We are going to have a different approach and have the approach that we’re in this together.” And then he walked among the people in their anguish and their perfectly justifiable anger and desperation, he hugged them, heard them, stood with them, and made it clear that their concerns will be addressed. And the leader of the demonstrators was heard to say, “They respect us, let’s respect them.” And it was done. The protests since Capt. Johnson arrived have been peaceful, opening a road to healing and binding up wounds and redressing injuries, which is how we should and must respond to our neighbors. All of them.
So this morning, after checking in to see it was still so? I stood down. Watchful and alert, but staying home, going on with my life, doing what I can to spread awareness of who we really are as a people, trying to be a decent citizen and neighbor. As I see it, this is what a citizen owes the world. It’s the price of being human. But here’s the shift: I am done, so eternally done, with any of my fellow citizens being assailed and killed by our government in our streets and me sitting safe in my privilege and bemoaning what’s afoot. Done.
This is the key truth that oppressive regimes never figure out. You can beat people down only so long until eventually there is nothing to be gained by not standing up. I am a most ordinary person, utterly unlikely by temperament or preference to ever be caught anywhere near a protest. But when you (my government) come down this hard on our heads and never, ever listen or learn? Well then, you’ve widened the field of your endeavor. Vastly. For you’ve guaranteed that people like me are now in your mix, standing up with all we have in us for peace, nonviolence, love, compassion, and equal justice before the law and the tattered and thoroughly plundered till of economic resources for all, not just a favored few. If you’re going to turn loose a domestic army on my fellow citizens and ignore all our pleas to stop and reconsider and find a better way? I’m going to be there. And here’s the bottom line: no matter how many tanks you have, no matter how well-shod your boots and well-heeled your materiel? You can’t kill us all. That is the raw gut truth. You can never kill us all.
And the more of us innocents you do kill? The more of us that’ll find a backbone, deploy it, and show up: that’s a promise. If I were in a position of leadership in this nation now, I would do my dead-level best to start listening and working hard alongside citizens to shift these patterns that have brought us all to such un-pretty, deadly passes. Elected officials too often seem to zing from one crisis to another, though, and lord knows they and their predecessors have created a slew of them to confront. But if the manhandling—the violent repression of our rights to assemble and express grievances to this government, to investigate and report on what is happening, to be full citizens—keeps up? You (present authorities) leave those of us who still have any smidgens of ethics or common decency remaining? No choice. It’s show up or else time now.
The United States of America is waging multiple wars right now on its citizens and the constitution under which we operate. Our unending global wars on so-called terrorism and drugs are daily used as the excuse for government agencies and departments (like Ferguson’s police force) to wage open war on people just for existing with brown skin. There’s an awful lot of demonizing of the poor, homeless, and mentally ill, as well, of all skin tones. Domestic police forces have militarized to the teeth, with armored vehicles and the weapons of war in our streets and nowhere to turn but on us. All levels of government have been hostile to the few responsible journalists still left when any trouble breaks out (this has happened again and again since 2001); whistle-blowers are pursued with vengeance while the criminals and constitutional floutings they have exposed remain untouched; and corporate misdeeds flourish not just unimpeded but with, far too often, federal, state, and local governmental blessings and assistance. And that’s just for starters. Everybody oohs and aahs and wails every time another case of a merciless, unwarranted killing of innocents takes place—and most of us really mean it, we’re not pretending, we’re scalded and ashamed and know for sure we can do better—but then the whole boat moves on and nothing meaningful changes. This is not okay with me anymore.
So there it is. Y’all have finally done it, ye present authorities: and, if I do say so myself and I surely do, the feat is impressive. You’ve managed to turn a middle-fifties, white-skinned, reasonably privileged, capable-of-remaining-relatively-out-of-any-fray (due to habits, haunts, some means, and a whole life’s peck full of her own preferences) woman? Into an activist willing, if necessary, to die in these streets toward even the slightest whiff of a chance that doing so might give others better opportunities to live unassailed. We have had enough young people die for no good reason in this land. Way the hell more than enough. I will not stand by and watch them be gunned down anymore without trying my best to hold the gunners—and all the rest of us who sit silent and complicit—to full account. And if the authorities attack my fellow citizens for trying to communicate how unreasonable such things are? Then I will show up to whatever extent I possibly can. (And as I’ve looked for organizations to connect with toward this end? I am heartened beyond easy reckoning: there are millions of people in this world already doing this somewhere, leaving easy tracks for those of us who are slower to get on our feet!)
As hard a turn as this has been for me personally, I feel a great peace at last. I can’t do anything meaningful about nearly everything now: how our government is sponsoring oppression in so many places across the planet (e.g. the continuing destruction meted out on occupied Gaza), ignoring merciless oppression elsewhere (because it suits our economic and oil and geopolitical and rapine corporate interests), conducting drone attacks that have killed thousands of innocent people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives (handily creating far more terrorists than we could ever kill in an eternity of wars), harassing journalists and the few people who have enough courage to speak out, repressing dissent and even nonviolent protests. According to a new study, government doesn’t listen to people like me anyway. And so, unbeknownst to the powers that be but in no small part due to their increasingly uncivil actions over the last few years? I am now bestirred more than ever to show up for peace, for nonviolence, for love, for compassion, for justice and equality before not just the law but all our resources for all of us no exceptions . . . and not just to do so on the safety of a page or screen, but in the actual real world. I am just one, and there are many places I can never go, much that I can never help with. But I won’t sit out the world’s troubles just because they’re not on my immediate doorstep and I can. Won’t do that. Yon authorities have ensured that I cannot sit things out, if I wish to remain an ethical being.
Maybe it is all illusion, as ACIM and so many spiritual teachers of all the ages have suggested. Maybe so. I shall then stand in its teeth for as long as I exist in any form anywhere for love, for all. I shall live a death-embraced life, where the loss of any one is as personal as the loss of my dearest on earth ever, for it makes no sense for me to have, to do well, to thrive even, if people alongside me are suffering, doing without, being mown down. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote, “God is a verb.” This makes sense to me. I have to be the change—be the love—I want to see in this world (to paraphrase Gandhi there). Hold everyone in the light, hannah, I told my diary this morning. No exceptions. Hold everyone in the light.
This I purpose to do, whenever possible from my regular life’s haunts. When needed, though, and when I am able to do so, I will go from them to the fray. With enough of us holding the same purpose? There might be considerably fewer frays calling our names before we dis-embark this earth for parts unknown.
Written for the memory of Mike Brown, his family and friends and community. I am so sad that this young man had his life cut short, that his people have grief to carry every breath forward, that young black men in particular have to know that this is the way White America rolls and that change has been freakishly slow (as in never, thus far) in coming. I write also in deep gratitude to Capt. Ron Johnson and all the people of Ferguson for stepping up, for walking through those streets with far more wisdom and love and compassion than I could even know how to have, for braving the front lines of this war that lets people like me off so easy every day. Humans like you all could make the difference, were you ever allowed to lead.
Photographs are as attributed here; please do not re-use without attribution.
Mike Brown, like so, so many before you already, you have gone far too soon from this bitter and un-brave and un-free land. I am so sad that my generation has created the conditions that caused your untimely and brutal death. Please find now some rest and peace and safety and all the love that ever was or can be. We will not forget.
Mike Brown photo shared with the public on FB by Kim Katrin Milan with the following header: “RIP Mike Brown. His momma said she didn’t want anymore pics of him laying dead on the street so she shared pics of him as she knew him. This is one…”
Capt. Ron Johnson and all the many people of Ferguson who have stepped up there: from the bottom of my heart and the feet I have to put on the ground to carry it around, thank you so much for knowing how to hear and bear these gut-wrenching times, and yet still begin to help heal and transform these wrongs. Would God we had hundreds of thousands more of you now.
David Carson / Associated Press
p.s. On easy outs: After I completed the full draft of this entry, police released several seconds of video of an apparent robbery in which Mike Brown is called a suspect. This is the place where even the most committed white people often drop off. A society without laws is frightening, and they do not want to undermine that. The problem, of course, is that the conditions for hopelessness and violence and, yes, strong-and other-armed robberies and the like are created by us, by what we allow, by what we are willing to have pass as our givens. We have organized ourselves and our resources in fundamentally unfair ways to this point, so we cannot afford to ‘drop off’ the conversation or efforts for changing this all.
I hope that people are not going to rip through to the old standby excuses for such things now that a few seconds of video have been released. There’s still a great deal unknown, but the militarization of domestic police forces, repression of public assemblies and protests, and the fact that some of our citizens–especially young black men–pay the deadliest price for Everything anymore? That’s all utterly to every last point. Plus the fact that nobody deserves to die even if they did try to steal a pack of cigars (or whatever)—if that even happened. The police have a duty to try to stop crime and apprehend actual criminals, but not to play judge, jury, and executioner in the street based on generalized information and no real threat. It is a hellacious job, and I bow to how hard it must be every day to walk into that zone, but a police department must serve the public, not function as an army.
At the base of this set of struggles lie generations of systematic racism, deliberate inequalities (applied with fervor not just where the law or justice is concerned, but economic resources as well), and lives that the rest of us either don’t know how to value or simply don’t. All of it needs to be addressed. Seriously. With compassion for every last person involved. And not. It is to that effort that I turn with all the hope in me and in the hopes of honoring Mike Brown and everyone in his community. And ours.
Another update from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, very important as the press in certain circles is quick to run with the guilt of any black man (and are doing the same now with Mike Brown, in effect sentencing him after the fact to what has already happened):
“The officer who shot Ferguson teen Michael Brown stopped Brown and another teen because they were walking in the street, not because of a robbery a few minutes earlier, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson said Friday afternoon.
Jackson said the officer was aware cigars had been taken in the robbery of a store nearby, but did not know when he encountered Brown and Dorian Johnson that they might be suspects. He stopped them because they were walking in the street, Jackson said.”