Last night after the announcement that a grand jury had failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year old in Ferguson, Missouri, I read a comment on Facebook that said, “White privilege is me being outraged and angered by the #FergusonDecision rather than utterly terrified.” It took some time for that to sink in but, once it did, it made me weep.
The simple truth is this: I have a young son but I have no reason to fear that he will be shot to death by a law enforcement official even though he presents no imminent threat. And the only reason that is true is because he is white. That is the sort of thing that white people can come to understand and sympathize with in the USA but we are never forced to feel the visceral terror that comes from fearing your child could be murdered by a cop.
Unfortunately, throughout the night, the white privilege was in full display on social media. “He wasn’t a ‘boy’!” people proclaimed. Because he was 18, tall, and weighed nearly 300 pounds, the fact that Michael Brown had just graduated from high school the week before is irrelevant to these people. And, because he’s not a “boy” by their rationalizing definition, it was okay that he was shot 12 times despite being unarmed.
The violence that the announcement spawned in Ferguson is unfortunate but you will never hear me say that it is incomprehensible or inexplicable. Because I get it. I understand why the African American community went off like a stick of dynamite. The way the situation was handled by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch and Missouri Governor Jay Nixon before, during, and after the announcement is a case study in how to ensure a violent response.
First, Gov. Nixon put the entire community on high alert by announcing state of emergency a full week in advance of the actual announcement. This ratcheted up the angst and anxiety quotient to 11.
Second, despite promises otherwise, McCulloch failed to notify Michael Brown’s family before the announcement was made. They learned of it on CNN just like the rest of the world. He couldn’t even afford them the decency or courtesy of personal notification. This family has been through a nearly indescribable ordeal from learning their son had been shot to having to deal with the fact that his dead body laid in the street for hours after the murder. But Prosecutor McCulloch seemed to be unable to care any less.
Third, McCulloch inexplicably made the announcement after dark. As CNN commentator Jeffrey Toobin put it, this was “foolish and dangerous”:
The grand jury has made its decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown last August in Ferguson, Missouri. But another verdict became clear last night, too. The decision by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch to announce the decision at 8:30 p.m. CT was foolish and dangerous.
Here’s the thing about that time of night: it’s dark. Anyone — anyone! — should have known that the decision in the Brown case would have been controversial. A decision not to indict, which was always possible, even likely, would have been sure to attract protests, even violence. Crowd control is always more difficult in the dark.
The grand jury’s deliberations concluded around lunchtime on Monday. It would have been simple to make the announcement while it was still daytime. Still, McCulloch said that he would not announce the grand jury’s decision until 8 p.m. CT.
The hours between the decision and the announcement gave law enforcement officials the time they needed to amass a huge army to respond to violence, putting the community even more on edge.
Finally, during his McCulloch made this jaw-droppingly tone-deaf comment:
[The jurors] poured their hearts and souls into this process … gave up their lives.
Let’s be very clear here: only one person in this tragedy gave up their life and that was Michael Brown. The response to McCulloch’s insulting remark was swift and furious.
McCulloch’s strange press conference – which looked far more like a defense team’s press conference than that of a prosecutor – focused extensively on his absurd blaming of “the 24-hour news cycle ” and “social media”. This prompted this oh-so-perfect tweet from author and Twitter goddess Maureen Johnson:
Social media isn't the problem. Shooting children is the problem.
— Maureen Johnson (@maureenjohnson) November 25, 2014
What McCulloch did through all of these actions was to take a situation that was already very clearly volatile and ready to blow up and make it far, far worse than it needed to be. A community that already feels disrespected by and even under threat from law enforcement officials was disrespected further and made to feel even more threatened.
This is not something most white people can understand and, even if they understand it, they don’t really FEEL it the way the African Americans who live in Ferguson and other communities just like it across the country feel it.
We’re not made to feel like second class citizens whose lives are less valuable than those of white people.
We don’t watch our own children gunned down by cops who walk free.
We don’t have to have “the conversation” with our sons about how to walk, talk, and act if they come into contact with law enforcement.
We don’t have CNN reporters like Don Lemon making crass statements on live television like, “Obviously, there is the smell of marijuana in the air.”
As white people, none of this is part of our every day experience like it is for black people. We are blessed in that way but with it comes the responsibility to be sensitive to it and, when possible, to use our privilege in positive ways that IMPROVE situations we encounter instead of making them worse. As President Obama said in his statement last night, “Communities of color aren’t just making these problems up”. These experiences are real.
The older I get, the more seriously I take that sense of responsibility and obligation.
These are the days of the Civil Rights Era 2.0. What are YOU doing to be part of the solution?
UPDATE: It’s worth reflecting on the words of Michael Brown’s parents. Rather than wallowing in their grief and sorrow, they are calling for proactive, effective action:
We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions. While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.
Join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera. We respectfully ask that you please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction. Let’s not just make noise, let’s make a difference.
Also, I commend your attention to this most-excellent essay titled “12 things white people can do now because Ferguson” which gives white Americans some action items of their own to embrace:
- Learn about the racialized history of Ferguson and how it reflects the racialized history of America.
- Reject the “he was a good kid” narrative and lift up the “black lives matter” narrative – “[Michael Brown’s] death isn’t tragic because he was a sweet kid on his way to college next week. His death is tragic because he was a human being and his life mattered.
- Use words that speak the truth about the disempowerment, oppression, disinvestment and racism that are rampant in our communities.
- Understand the modern forms of race oppression and slavery and how they are intertwined with policing, the courts and the prison industrial complex.
- Examine the interplay between poverty and racial equity.
- Diversify your media.
- Adhere to the philosophy of nonviolence as you resist racism and oppression.
- Find support from fellow white allies.
- If you are a person of faith, look to your scriptures or holy texts for guidance.
- Don’t be afraid to be unpopular.
- Be proactive in your own community.
- Don’t give up.
Read the whole essay. It’s worth your time.