Something is different. I’ve been staring at the footage of Michael Brown’s body, lying there in the middle of the Ferguson, Missouri street. I’ve spent hours talking to local residents, activists, and law enforcement. I’ve watched the clips, studied the reports, read the analyses about race and power. I wonder what has changed. We’ve been through this before: a killing, an audio-video clip, a media flurry, protests, riots, accusations/counter-accusations, obsequious politicians, waning interest, repeat cycle. But something is different. Every person I spoke to said the same thing: this is the beginning of something big.
Another young black man leaves us as a fleeting memory. We would never have known Michael Brown’s name, known any of his dreams, now deferred, but for what transpired in the final ten minutes of his teenage life. And for those ten minutes, he joins a dark list—a Blacklist—first made for Emmett Till, but filled with many young men. Trayvon. Oscar. Troy. Amadou. Eric Garner. Sean Bell. There are so many names that I had to ask friends to remind me. We’ve been through this cycle so many times.
We’ve seen both sentiments in response to the murders. Two very distinct opinions: the Third World America vs. Atlas Shrugged. Most fascinating about the two sides is their opposition to government.
Take almost any Dystopian film about a future America or almost any American film about any so-called Third World country, and the images are almost identical. Crowded housing. Economic disparity. Garbage. Scarce nourishments. Few luxuries and many vices. Thugs in uniforms (wearing either badges or bandanas) imposing vengeance and brutality under the illusion of justice. For many, that Third World stereotype, that Dystopian future, is the American urban present day. That is, frankly, how Hollywood often depicts the inner city anyways. The Third World country, by the way, is never White.
As a mentor to some Chicago Public School mothers, I am privy to a unique fear. So many of these women of color nurture their young boys with a type of loving, despondent sternness: raising them to be men, steering them to walk the footsteps of the great predecessors, while fearing that they will be gunned down before getting the chance to do so. A father once came to me for help with his 18-year-old; what turned out is that nobody in the family knew how to grieve over the murder of his other son, when mistaken for a rival gang member, a year earlier—shot twenty times—in front of their house, in front of them. He didn’t even think to mention it. It is a style of parenting I’ve seen among survivors of war and genocide: everything is the same as it is for every other parent, except that these parents are always conscious about the disease that hovers around their children. I am speaking of mothers trying to protect their children from a deadly plague, of which the germs are bullets. Bullets do not grow on trees; they are manufactured. These are not parasites seeking a quick dollar for tobacco and Angel Dust. Rather, they are a dignified families getting crushed by a government machine that perpetuates an impossible domestic life, yet funds X numbers of wars overseas.
On the flipside, there is the contrary view, seeing this
event as a phony controversy over an unfortunate killing, especially when
expressed through another camera: the surveillance video of the convenience
store. A man with the same khaki shorts,
t-shirt and physique as Michael Brown pushes the store owner as he
leaves. In between the surveillance
footage and the clip of his body, there is the void that will take weeks or
months to completely fill. The police
report mentions Brown allegedly stealing Swisher Sweets Cigars. A St. Louis law enforcement agent told me
that these cigars are used with PCP. Though it was not yet available in any of the reports I read, Brown and
the officer were in some sort of physical altercation. Moments later, following procedure, the
officer unloads his bullets into Brown. Death is not a punishment for stealing a pack of stogies, but will
definitely be the result if someone—sober or stoned—wrestles with a
cop. Well, definitely if you're a poor black kid in St. Louis.
Those of this second view do not have kind words to say about the government. Politicians, bound by community demands, impose themselves on Police administrators, resulting in officers who have to work with minimal physical or legal protection against criminals. Simply put, there are parts of St. Louis city, and St. Louis County that cops now refuse to patrol, because they do not want to get censured or killed for even minimal work in the line of duty. Like Atlas holding the earth on his shoulders, he is stuck, while the financial elite have skipped town to escape excessive regulations.
But, the two opposing views do not end here, because the first begets protests, and the second sees riots. And, here we see the differences compared to the cycles of the past.
Numerous coalitions are already in place in Brown’s neighborhood, to improve quality of life. With his murder, however, they launched nonviolent, organized protests. I asked what is different about Brown’s murder, compared to every other murder for the past few decades. The answer: now people are ready to die if they have to. When we see similar consciousness overseas, death is not a hope, not as a plan of any sorts, but a final resort. People are still pushing forward in disciplined peaceful protest and will do so for the foreseeable future to reach the quality of life they deserve, but they are ready to pay the final price if they have to, for they have nothing left to lose.
And again, there is the other image: riots of gangs and looters. The very first thing a law enforcement agent told me was that we are witnessing the start of the problem, that this crowd is not afraid of them in the neighborhoods they actually do patrol. The crowd fights them physically as well as with lethal weapons (he rattles off a series of gun names, and the only ones I recognized were AK-47s and Uzis) on a regular basis. Their vests cannot protect them against these firearms, so the officers have to give way to other troopers. To complicate matters, among the gang members are Veterans: among our soldiers overseas are gang members (including White Supremacist gangs, not just Bloods and Crips) who return from Iraq and Afghanistan and teach their comrades military techniques, which they use. So, law enforcement responded to the military grade assault with military grade response, which we saw in many pictures.
It almost feels as though many people are waiting for that final straw to present itself. Some told me that the bullet that killed Michael Brown was that straw. In any case, I think about the quarter century that has passed from “Do the Right Thing” to “The Interrupters” and “Fruitvale Station.” Young Black men continue to die. The Civil Rights movement launched a series of events that eventually put an African American family in the White House. Yet, statistically speaking, the future of the African American male in terms of education and that pipeline to incarceration, seems to yield nothing but an annihilation. Speaking plainly as a Muslim who is himself so often hit with existential threat that it’s been my “norm,” speaking about African American men: that is not supposed to happen here.
And what of the religious thinkers in the Civil Rights movement. I reflect that mine is the religion of Malcolm X; he is one of the first filters through whom I understood my Islam. Through Martin Luther King and his own brilliance, I also developed appreciation for Reinhold Neibuhr and Abraham Joshua Heschel: perhaps two of the most important American religious thinkers, Christian and Jewish, of the 20th Century, who were critical of American tyranny. Meaning, everyone was and is concerned.
Still, a colleague once reminded me that regardless of who may have sent them, Malcolm taught “Love your self” and was killed by his own kind. King taught “Love your enemy” and was killed by an enemy. So, looking at that body lying there in the middle of the street, I wonder about those perpetually deferred dreams of those theologians, those civil rights leaders and those dignified mothers. When Langston Hughes spoke of Harlem, he asked:
What happens to a
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?