'My Country, 'Tis of Thee'... and Then There Was Ferguson... and Staten Island

Instead of arguing about whether Mike Brown had stolen cigarillos, or whether Eric Garner should have allowed himself to be arrested, we should adopt the language of "Black lives matter -- all of them." We all have a stake in creating a better system. But for that to happen, we have to be in this together.
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Fannie Lou Hamer said, "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired." Her words capture what I am feeling after last week's decision by a Staten Island grand jury not to indict a police officer who used a departmentally prohibited chokehold on Eric Garner for selling loose cigarettes, with fatal results. This injustice comes on the heels of watching recent events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri. It is impossible not to extrapolate the connection between the two incidents and others.

For many, and in so many ways, it was Americana exemplified. In both cases, what we saw was akin to "theater of the absurd," exhibited for the world to see, not unlike one of those numerous tawdry and banal Real Housewives-type shows that people watch to see who will do what stupid thing next, and then who will attack whom. The sad fact about Ferguson and New York City is that the incidents were real and played out on national and international news outlets and were blasted across social media.

Many people watching both occurrences did not and continue not to understand that these were not verdicts of innocence or guilt per se but decisions by the grand juries not to indict the officers in question, which then precluded the cases from moving forward to trials in open court.

We really need to be clear about that.

A verdict would indicate that there had been a trial, and there was no trial, nor, according to the decision, was there ever to be one.

Missing, for many, was the fact that the obligation of both grand juries was to be representative of the victim. The victims in these cases were Michael Brown and Eric Garner, not the police officers. As someone who believes in the rule of law and as a human being, witnessing the abdication of this process was most disturbing.

However, I think that if we look at this more carefully, what we are really seeing is yet another example that is occurring with far too frequent regularity in this country, an instance where an unarmed African-American male is dehumanized, tried for a "crime," found guilty and summarily executed -- all by the individual(s) charged with protecting the general public and Mike Brown's rights to due process and a fair trial.

Without question, people of color, particularly African Americans, have never been "safe" in our society; the legal system has been used to enforce legalized discrimination. That discrimination that is documented by Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness did not end with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the modern civil rights movement or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or, for that matter, the election and reelection of President Barack Obama.

To this day, the "justice" system is used to redistrict people of color out of electoral power and to limit voting rights; to over-police communities of color; to sentence people of color disproportionately for crimes in which Whites would receive a lighter sentence; to incarcerate at the highest levels of any country in the world; to use the death penalty in a discriminatory manner; and if a prisoner is lucky enough to be released eventually, to ensure that "ex-cons" cannot participate meaningfully at the ballot box or get jobs.

In the case of Ferguson, the United States' history of racism, slavery, the state-sanctioned and legalized apartheid of Jim Crow laws, violence, and Missouri's inordinately complex relationship with race have served as a the backdrop for many of the events that have occurred in this country since August 2014. Now what is currently happening in Ferguson and in protests in more than 137 cities to date and on numerous college campuses across the nation has to be looked at through the aforementioned lens, if we have any hope of understanding what is occurring and why.

The rioting that followed the Ferguson announcement was particularly excruciating and depressing to watch. Besides being destructive and really not helpful, it also played into the hands of the waiting media and "the powers that be" who were camped out for a moment such as that, and served only to validate, for those watching from the comfort of their homes, that indeed these were individuals without any real humanity, reinforcing their belief that these were people unable to "control" themselves and follow the rule of law. For me, there is no question that what ensued was counterproductive, but so was what led up to the fallout.

The rioting that occurred in Ferguson, both this past summer and after the announcement of the grand jury's decision, can best be described as an episode of "Black rage," a term first coined by the Harvard-trained African-American psychiatrist Dr. Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s. Equally important to be addressed is what Emory University's Dr. Carol Anderson refers to as "White rage." Anderson, in an August Washington Post op-ed stated that "White rage" has been historically cloaked in the niceties of "law and order," but it is rage nonetheless. It is rage that happens in the voting booth. It is rage that goes unnoticed for the most part and is accepted for the most part because White rage does not have to take to the streets or, with great regularity, face the onslaught of rubber bullets. White rage carries with it an aura of respectability. It has access to the courts and to our police. In fact, the perpetrators are often the police, or other agents of the state, such as legislators and governors. Often, their efforts are being seen as being just and noble. White rage is central to American history.

As an American, I could argue that the genesis of this nation was caused by an act of civil disobedience -- a riot -- now known as the Boston Tea Party. The Tea Act was experienced as the "final straw" in a series of unpopular policies and taxes imposed by Britain upon her colonies. In May 1773 demonstrators, some disguised as Native Americans, boarded the ships and threw the chests of tea overboard into Boston Harbor, ruining the tea and destroying an entire shipment of tea sent by the East India Company, in defiance of the Tea Act of May 10, 1773; the British government -- the greatest military and global police force of its time -- responded harshly, and the episode escalated into what we now call the American Revolution.

What is at the core of each of these incidents, as was also the case in Ferguson, Missouri, and, though without the explosive aftermath, New York City, is the fact that the ultimate eruption was cumulative in nature, and not necessarily related to the more easily identified "spark" or immediate incident -- in this case the death of Mike Brown, which ignited the enormity of the blowback by individuals. Riots historically have been the language used by individuals and communities who have been beaten down and oppressed by those charged with their protection and who have more often than not abused and misused their power.

It is not necessary to vilify the police. I have numbers of friends who are police officers, and I myself have worked with trained police officers across this country, many of whom are just and serve ably. I have a great deal of respect for the police and the work that they do, and an appreciation for the circumstances under which they do their work. However, that does not mean there isn't a need for improved and ongoing training, and a need for increased accountability.

As a social worker I am continually working with people who have been historically disenfranchised; I go into communities where people are afraid, where people are depressed or unhappy; where children are not attending school if they are not sufficiently challenged and inspired. I talk to young people and adults of all ages about the reality of their lives. We as a society need to talk with people with whom we don't always agree and where the answers are not always easy or glib. We need to speak to each other across our differences, and we have to lead by example. The world, literally, is watching... and time is not necessarily on our side

For us to move forward as a society, I believe we must adopt a more social-justice- and social-action-oriented perspective and way of existing with one another.

So instead of arguing about whether Trayvon Martin looked threatening in his hoodie and was in a neighborhood where he "shouldn't" have been, or whether Michael Brown had or had not actually stolen cigarillos and wasn't an "innocent" victim of police overreaction, or whether Eric Garner should have allowed himself to be arrested when surrounded by officers, we should adopt the language of "Black lives matter -- all of them." We all have a stake in creating a better system. But for that to happen, we have to be in this together.

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