I don't know what to tell my 27-year-old son to do when the police next accost him. Put your hands up? Surrender? Or keep running until you are out of reach of the bullets that are sure to follow?
I so wanted to believe that this time would be different; that this time a black man would get the benefit of justice. But I was wrong. There would be no indictment of Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown.
For the months since the shooting, I have been a lonely voice among my church, friends, family and colleagues, expressing a firm faith in the inevitable indictment of Wilson for killing the unarmed Brown. But I could find not one companion in my hope. Not one. Among those with whom I dared share my faith, my naïve conviction was politely tolerated but mostly pitied. Everyone I talked to about the case expected that the grand jury would fail to indict this white police officer for killing a black male. They had seen too many other circumstances where justice was twisted, distorted and denied blacks to protect white killers from any consequences of their actions, especially white police officers.
After all, the Zimmerman jury allowed an armed white neighborhood-watch civilian to kill Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. What hope was there that an actual police officer would be punished for killing an unarmed black teenager? That was all the evidence they needed to predict the outcome of the Ferguson grand jury. But I persisted in my optimism.
Witnesses had testified that Brown was in the act of surrendering. How could the officer not be held accountable? "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" became the mantra of those calling for justice for Mike Brown. It is an expression of the utter futility felt by black people in this country that there is anything like "equal justice under the law."
Then came the crushing decision: there would be no indictment for Wilson. I was struck with numbness at first. Then a sense of growing despair that seemed to be unleashed from deep inside until it encompassed my whole person. That nagging doubt in the back of my mind that I had decided to suppress now exploded into full view.
I wanted things to be different. Fourteen years ago, I wrote my first commentary on the killing of a black man by police officers. An innocent African immigrant in New York, Amadou Diallo, was mistaken by white police officers as an African-American suspect in a recent series of rapes. When he took out his wallet in the vestibule of his apartment building, the approaching officers thought it was a gun and opened fire, killing him in a hail of 41 shots. A jury found the four officers not guilty of second-degree murder. Protests preceded and followed the trial. This is what I wrote then:
The protests in New York are misplaced. They protest because the killing of Diallo was wrong. They should protest because it was 'right.' They should protest because it was legal. Because if it had been wrong, we could hope that it might not happen again. But because it was 'right,' because it was legal, we can start counting the days until the next Amadou Diallo.
I look back at those words and don't know whether to be more embarrassed by my cynicism then or my naiveté now. Or embarrassed that the criminal justice system has failed to make any progress over the last 14 years. In fact, the killing of Michael Brown is evidence that things have gotten worse.
The killers of Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin and Rodney King were all tried in open court by a jury. Now, we don't even get a trial. And prosecutors hide behind the closed doors of a grand jury to conceal their overt bias in favor of police officers and against young black men.
Some have responded to the ruling with rage. That's what we see in the burning, looting and rioting in Ferguson. Incredulous commentators, reporters and others ask the perennial yet irrelevant question, "Why do they burn down their own community?" Rage is not rational. Rage only asks, "How do I make you understand the pain that I am feeling?" Rage burns where it lives; it does not travel well. Rage is more a form of self-flagellation than a strategic attack on injustice.
I asked my son, Madison III, how he felt about the verdict. He said, "I feel like I'm wearing the jersey of the losing team the day after the Super Bowl." The jersey, of course, is black skin. A jersey we can never take off.