It happened, again. Another incident which, on its face, looks like the latest example of police brutality against a person of color. This time it was in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. On August 9th, 2014 Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a White police officer.
In the aftermath, many of the details remain unsettled. What caused the initial struggle between Brown and the Officer? Did Officer Wilson try to choke Brown or was Brown the initial aggressor? Were Brown’s hands raised in submission before Wilson fired the fatal shots or did Brown, who had allegedly just attacked the officer, run at Wilson?
The facts are so muddled at this point that each person can choose the narrative they like best. To some, Brown’s killing was racially motivated; just as usual, they might say, Blacks are treated as a threat even when they’re unarmed, as though they’re guilty until proven innocent. Memories resurface about people like Oscar Grant, who was shot and killed by an Oakland cop while Grant was lying facedown on the ground. To others, Officer Wilson was merely defending himself against a 6’4, 292-pound guy who probably didn’t want to be arrested for the strong-arm robbery he’d committed less than 15 minutes before.
I am really concerned about this incident, but probably not in the way that most are. It obviously hurts me to see another young Black man dead. However, the truth is that the protests, marches and rallies that result from this incident won’t bring the change that Blacks really need.
To be clear, I believe that there is a problem in this country with the way Blacks are treated by the police. Even though I’m usually the first to acknowledge that Blacks commit a disproportionate amount of the violent crimes in this country, I also believe that the vast majority of Blacks are law-abiding. Nonetheless, the Black experience seems to be that police are very anxious when dealing with Black people and are more likely to view anything less than full compliance as resistance that justifies the use of additional force. The sad truth is that most Blacks are victimized twice. They’re more likely to be victimized by a member of their own race than other groups and are also more likely to be treated as a criminal when the cops show up.
So how do we bring about change? How do we get police departments to reconsider their approach and make substantive changes in their training? The truth is that this is a tough goal. I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but crimes in major cities like New York are at historic lows. Thus, many might feel that cops are doing something right. Based on polling by Pew, though 80% of Blacks think this incident raises issues about race, only 37% of Whites feel the same way. How can Blacks convince the country that crime shouldn’t fall at the expense of harassment of innocent Black Americans? In short, you’ve got to make better decisions.
Here’s an illustration. Everybody knows who Rosa Parks is and many credit her act of civil disobedience as symbolic of the Civil Rights Movement. However, she wasn’t the first person to get arrested for resisting bus segregation. On March 2nd, 1955, nine-months before Mrs. Parks, Claudette Colvin did the exact same thing. Colvin’s case went to the Supreme Court and Montgomery, Alabama’s segregation laws were held to be unconstitutional. So why does Rosa Parks get so much credit, you ask? Well, at the time of her protest Colvin was a pregnant, unmarried teenager so the NAACP made the strategic choice not to use her to represent their movement.
If you can see where I’m going with this, please don’t get me wrong. Even if Brown had just committed a robbery and charged at Officer Wilson, we should still mourn over the loss of yet another young Black man. Regardless of the circumstances, Brown was somebody’s son, sibling, friend and, as I believe, still a human being made in the image of God. However, if we want to make an impact, we have to throw our support behind clear cut examples of our plight. The problem with how this incident has been handled is that the media, race-baiting public figures and looters have jumped at the opportunity for personal enrichment at the expense of advancing the movement forward. As a result, I think Blacks have lost credibility, just as the polling indicates. To many people, Blacks have “cried wolf.”
Any successful social movement needs strong leaders, a clear direction and calculated moves. In the middle of yet another controversial incident, this movement seems to be lacking all three.