On Monday evening, a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson on charges for the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black teenager who lived and died in Ferguson, MO. This was the result of a three-month process, in which the grand jury heard from witnesses of the shooting, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy for Brown, and Officer Wilson himself. Despite the fact that there were numerous facts in dispute about the whole affair, and that both Wilson and the Ferguson Police Department had changed their account of what happened during and after the altercation, it was decided that there was no reason to bring the matter to a trial. I was gutted.
I watched as Ferguson exploded right around the same time as my Twitter feed. Brown’s family had pleaded for loud and forceful — but peaceful — voices, but instead a lot of businesses were vandalized, looted, burned. The next morning people people were talking about the riots as much as what’s caused them, chastising the residents of Ferguson for burning down the stores and buildings in their own neighborhood.
Here’s the thing: I completely understand why the black community in Ferguson responded the way it did. They are a people who have tried to hold their head up through the this long line of injustices — from the Governor of Missouri declaring a state of emergency ahead of the indictment results, to the condescending manner in which the prosecuting attorney read those results, to the fact that it took three months for a jury to decide that Officer Wilson was not guilty of any at LEAST questionable actions, to the reaction of the police during the first round of protests, to the fact that Michael Brown’s body was left on the street for 4.5 hours, to the fact that he was killed at all. Each action and reaction by the system around them has told them that they are not being looked out for, not even being considered, that they will be treated as hostile forces just for speaking up. Why work within a system that had already decided it will treat you like criminals?
This is what Ferguson means to me, and what the results of the grand jury investigation tells me. From my understanding, the grand jury is only there to decide if something was off about the way Officer Wilson handled the shooting of Michael Brown. There have been numerous inconsistencies among the stories of the police department, the witnesses, and most of the people involved. I’m not going to go into the particulars of it — there are so many places online you can find them. But there’s more than enough of a reasonable doubt about it that there should be further investigation.
But the grand jury says that “No, we see nothing wrong with this. A police officer shooting an unarmed teenager in the back five times is not suspicious at all. The system is working as designed.” And that tells me that a police officer can use excessive force against me just because he sees me as more threatening to him based on the color of my skin. I can be targeted, harassed, brutalized, and killed, and that’s supported by the system in place. I can expect to be treated much more harshly by police if they even THINK I might be a threat, in contrast to many white perpetrators who have shown a willingness to use deadly force and yet have been taken into custody alive.
The reaction of Ferguson residents and so many people around the country is not just built around Michael Brown. He’s the final straw. But police targeting of people of color is nothing new. Remember stop-and-frisk in New York? Remember Oscar Grant III, shot by a BART officer in Oakland? Since Michael Brown, there have been so many other reports of police brutality. A black man was shot inside of an Ohio Wal-Mart for holding a pellet gun. A black boy was shot on a playground for holding a toy gun. A black man holding a sword as part of a cosplay costume was shot in Utah. The list goes on, and on, and on. In many of these cases, the police officers aren’t convicted — they aren’t even charged.
Police will often say that they use the force they did because they felt threatened. Why are they so drastically threatened by people of color that “shoot first, above all” is the only acceptable response? What does that mean to someone like me, or any other geeky black guy who might want to dress up like — I don’t know, a pirate, or a fantasy warrior, or Morpheus from The Matrix? Can we not carry swords now? Can we not even touch the fake guns on the shelves of a store for fear of an off-duty police officer killing us right there in the aisle? Are we being allowed to die because the color of our skin makes other people uncomfortable?
Whenever I see open-carry advocates sitting in Chipotle with assault rifles and yet not being shot to death by police officers, what I’m seeing is an unequivocal “YES”. When I see police officers being paid $400,000 for killing a black man and not even being charged for it, I see that the system is against me. That there is no legal recourse for being treated unfairly by an authority figure. That the system is indeed working as designed.
So when the people of Ferguson riot over Darren Wilson not being brought up on charges, it’s not because they’re animals. It’s because they’re angry. They’re being told that they are not going to be treated the same as other Americans because they’re black and poor. They’re being told that engaging with the system will get you nothing but further harassment. They’re being told that the oppression and disenfranchisement they feel is not important. That any one of their number can be shot, at any time, and then be criminalized after the fact….and that’s just the way the system works.
Over the past eight years I’ve seen the undercurrent of racism still alive in America rise up and become an unacceptable part of our national conversation. What Ferguson means to me is that for all the strides we’ve taken towards racial and social equality, there is still a lot of work to be done. It means that there are still people in positions of power who are comfortable with abusing that power to target people like me, and that the system can (and will) support it. It means that I can’t put my faith in the law and trust it will support my rights to life and liberty.
The riots are a forceful, angry, immediate rejection of those realities. I believe in more measured and channeled ways of rejecting them. But I also believe in action. I can’t trust that things will sort themselves out any more; I have to get involved to make sure they do. I can’t live and let live, because the system simply won’t let me. Ferguson means I need to take action, and support those who are taking action to demand their rights. Ferguson means that I need to fight for my place in this country.