July| Vol. 22 No. 8.02 | Christian's Chronicles © 2015 – All rights reserved.
Today’s headlines are all about the violence erupting in Ferguson in wake of the grand jury’s decision not to indict. What to say? Seldom are we at The Chronicles lost for words, but maybe we ought to take a look at how some other news outlets describe it:
“A grand jury chose Monday not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, in August.” NBC News
“A white police officer will not face charges for fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager in a case that set off violent protests and racial unrest throughout the nation.” USA Today
“A St. Louis County grand jury has brought no criminal charges against Darren Wilson, a white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, more than three months ago in nearby Ferguson.” The New York Times
“The demonstration in Oakland is just one of the rallies taking place in several U.S. cities after a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer who killed a black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri.” ABC News
What’s the common theme? That a white officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager. This, after all, is the big story because that’s what fuels the rage: the ‘racial tensions’ and ‘distrust between law enforcement and communities of color.’ This is the big picture that needs to be addressed, because ideals of justice are bigger than the tragic loss of life of an one person. Right?
This incident, like so many others, has been hijacked by various agendas who exploit passions and mob mentality for their own purposes. Whether it is the self-appointed saviors who put themselves in the spotlight to address every injustice, whether real or imagined, or the simple looters who jump at the chance to rob, steal, and wreak havoc on a community whenever the opportunity presents itself.
The fact that this incident has been described in the above racially divisive terms from the get-go is telling. A sentence such as “white police officer shoots and kills unarmed black teenager” has certain connotations. It begs the question – why did that officer shoot an unarmed teenager? It suggests a picture of a brutally one-sided encounter where a ruthless murder takes place with one side completely overpowering the other, armed not only with a weapon but with the color of legal justification. It screams injustice. Moreover, the racial undertones are explicit – the officer isn’t just an officer, he is a “white officer” and the victim is an “unarmed black teenager.” This single sentence, common to all four descriptions in the aforementioned quotes from several prominent news sources, tells a tale of the worst kind of ‘white privilege,’ the type that excuses or even legitimizes oppression and murder of not just an “unarmed teenager” but an entire race of people.
This is what will be remembered from the headlines. This is partly what fuels riots; at least the part that is motivated by outrage, as opposed to the opportunistic looting.
The wording of those headlines was a setup and a preemptive excuse for today’s riots. Headlines are the marketing gimmicks of the news business. And, to be sure, news is business. Whatever grabs the public’s attention is valuable; and our attention spans are stunted by sound-bytes, commercial interruptions, and a culture that caters to our wants and inclinations – whether we want to allow ourselves a second of entertainment through a viral video on social media, or whether we want to allow ourselves to be swept away by our passions stirred up with the most potent and combustible fuel: righteous indignation. (A topic we at The Chronicles have covered some time ago)
Well before the looting and riots began, the writing was on the wall; the proverbial wall, Facebook walls, and in those headlines. But the writing on the wall is a lie. This incident is not about ‘distrust between law enforcement and communities of color.’ This incident is a tragic set of events between one officer and a young man. Any time a life is lost, it is a tragedy, especially when it is the life of a young person whose life was cut short. This incident is not a statistic, it is not a case-study, and it says nothing about community relations with law enforcement. It was something that occurred between that officer and the young man he shot. While the headlines suggest a confrontation between ‘white aggression’ against an ‘unarmed symbol of black oppression’ the encounter was between two individuals. One was a law enforcement officer. The other was an 18 year old young man. Through the events that unfolded, the young man ended up dead. Unlike those who have made up their minds at the outset, and unlike the underlying premises of the headlines, it is entirely possible that the officer was simply doing his job and exercised lawful use of force. A grand jury has determined that there was insufficient evidence to charge the officer with a crime; this certainly is strong evidence toward that conclusion.
But some people have made their conclusions long ago, not based on whatever objective evidence was produced in court, as opposed to the courtroom of public media, and their minds cannot be changed no matter what. I don’t want to be the champion of police officers, nor do I want to appear to take sides at all. I do not want to suggest that police officers are always right; I have seen injustice at the hands of police. But perhaps the Milwaukee police chief’s remarks (about a different ‘racially charged’ incident) ought to give us all pause. Maybe we should not jump to conclusions, and – to go even a step further – maybe we are justified in presuming that a police officer with training and an oath to serve the public for which officers risk their lives on a daily basis (as did the two officers recently killed in the line of duty in the Sacramento area) are acting within the parameters prescribed for them by law.
Maybe we ought to take offense at news coverage that seeks to exploit racial tensions and paints police officers, “white” officers, as symbols of racism and injustice. I am not so naive to suggest that racism does not continue to exist. But it is a two-sided, no, multi-sided story; it is not a clear, black-and-white issue. Nor is it something we should assume is the underlying motivation for an officer of the law, any officer of whatever race, using his or her weapon in the line of duty.
But that is not what makes for good headlines. It doesn’t “inspire…” While freedom of expression is one of our most cherished values, there is no excuse for looting, and frankly there is no excuse to disrupt peace because you are unhappy with what you perceive as justice not having been served. No justice no peace? It’s a bit too simplistic and over-used. Perhaps justice was served. But the fact that some witnesses had ‘completely changed their statements’ when testifying under oath before the grand jury, or the fact that other testimony was ‘completely refuted by the physical evidence’ won’t be remembered, because it is not the stuff of good headlines.
The point is not to champion one ‘side’ over another. Picking a side and repeating rhetoric is easy. In the real world, there are no sides. Was justice served? I don’t know enough about the case to say one way or the other.
But at least I’m willing to admit that.
Those who have bought into the ‘no justice no peace’ excuse to allow their ‘righteous indignation’ to overflow into violence never had their minds open to the possibility of a fair process, untainted by the media-supplied racial undertones.
Precisely because we are not a nation ruled by mob mentality (at least in our ideals), we have an adversarial court system designed to ensure a fair hearing of facts, as much as possible within our human limitations, despite the headline-grabbing miscarriages of justice people rely on as anecdotal evidence of our legal system’s shortcomings. I, for one, have enough faith in the system that I hesitate to believe that the safeguards our founding fathers built into it, as well as those that have evolved over time, can be so easily circumvented.
I question whether the rioters could ever be persuaded that this shooting, or any other where a ‘white’ officer shoots any person of a different ethnicity, can be justified. Perhaps this itself is a sign of deep rooted racism – against ‘white’ officers or people in general.
No justice no peace?
Perhaps the true meaning of that slogan is much different than what is intended. Maybe it is simply saying no to both.
(Note: below is the video of the Milwaukee police chief’s remarks, about a different, but similar scenario, with parallels to the racial overtones fueling the fire in Ferguson.)