Archive for December, 2014

This Column Is Not About Ferguson

December 1, 2014

From the Arkansas Democrat Gazette 11/30/2014 Perspectives section

(Well) Written by Philip Martin


This is not a column about Ferguson, Mo.

This is not even a column about the United States of America, and its original sin of slavery, or how its failure to redress the past has resulted in the seemingly intractable problem of a permanent underclass. This is not a column about the grievances of the poor or the failure of political solutions.

Most of all, it is not a column about me, though my own experience seems a natural and perhaps not atypical starting point.

I do not live in an ivory tower; I spend part of almost every day in the world, standing on line, walking my dogs, attending to the little things that most of us attend to. I am around people, I know how they talk. I listen. I eavesdrop. Sometimes when I hear people saying things I believe ignorant and/or repugnant I will gently try to engage them, but rarely do I challenge them. Usually I just let things go.

I rationalize that this is probably for the best because although they are saying these things within my earshot, they are not addressing me. And if they were, it’s unlikely that they would appreciate me trying to educate them. They might try to hit me in the face. And if they did that, I would probably hit them back. As much as I believe bullies must be confronted and called to account, I am painfully aware of my limitations.

One of these limitations is my inability to read minds or to know the motives of every person who does something notorious enough to make a blip on our national consciousness. For example, I do not know what Darren Wilson was thinking when he killed that teenager. I do not know his state of mind in the moments before the incident, what he was thinking when he pulled the trigger. I cannot say I would have done differently had I been in his place.

It probably goes too far to suggest that most competently trained police officers could probably handle an unruly 18-year-old walking down the middle of the street without having to shoot him dead. Because maybe Michael Brown was, as that officer told the grand jury, “a demon.”

But a young man is dead. Let us stipulate that this young man may have been uncivil, he may have stolen. Furthermore he may have failed to comply with a police officer’s orders. He may have attacked the police officer. Is it too much to feel sad for that young man, who may have been a dangerous individual, who may have been a punk, but who was someone’s son? Is it too much to have a little respect, to lament the loss of this young man’s life?

Because we don’t know what the demonized Brown was thinking either. We don’t know what he had to put up with. We don’t know what his experience had been.

Just because you watch the television news doesn’t mean you know. Just because you skimmed the grand jury testimony online doesn’t make you an expert. It is easy for people like me to sit in their offices and write words about how the rule of law ought to be respected and how irrational it seems to us for disgruntled people to smash windows and burn police cars in their own neighborhood. But what is the proper course to take when the law so obviously does not respect you?

I’m not saying I know. I don’t endorse burning police cars. But I can understand why some people might feel compelled to do that sort of thing. There is hopelessness and mistrust, and there is something deeply wrong when people receive the police as an occupying army.

And there is evidence that a lot of people in Ferguson, Mo., have good reason not to trust the police. They have good reason to be suspicious of government. Poor black people have especially good reasons to believe America has failed them.

Because America has failed them. We have failed them. And we have failed each other and ourselves.

Like most of you, I do not think of myself as especially privileged. But I understand I have had certain advantages. I was expected to go to college and I did. Though I lived like a student through my early 30s I was always able to support myself on the wages I was paid. I didn’t avail myself of it, but I always had a safety net.

The police have generally been very helpful to me. People do not perceive me as a potential threat, even when I wear a black hoodie in public. I have a reasonable expectation that in most situations I will be given the benefit of the doubt. I take these real advantages for granted.

I am far more alert to whatever minor slights I have endured; the world is not and will never be a meritocracy. It’s worse these days than when I was starting out; these days hard work and talent cannot guarantee you a place in our vanishing middle class. I do not know how long the American myth can be sustained–our government increasingly serves its corporate sponsors and oligarchs at the expense of the governed. Few of us are genuinely secure, but the less you start out with, the more fragile your position is society. To believe otherwise is naive.

Yet it is ultimately not the failure of bureaucrats that damns us, but the failure of our own hearts. We so often profess to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave, but the truth is we are often cowards eager to exchange our autonomy for the illusion of security. Fear, the prime American vice, is the most efficacious weapon of demagogues. For all our tough talk, we scare easy. That’s one of the reasons we want guns.

But this isn’t a column about guns.

It is a difficult thing to live as a good person in a corrupt world, and I’m not sure I’m up to it. It’s easy to tell people what they want to hear, that we’re the best and the brightest and the greatest hope for humanity, especially if you often believe just that.

But while individually people can do wondrous things–they can sacrifice themselves for those they love and even for high-minded abstractions–people suck, man, they really do. Any time you get them in a crowd, they’re likely to turn into a mob, and then the mob develops its own reflexive panics and superstitions, its own illogic. They’ll trample their own interests to conform; they’ll invariably follow the loudest and craziest member of the herd just because he’s the one that seems most certain.

John Lennon once mused about there being no countries, and in a way, I’m down with all that hippie-dippie nonsense. But I’m pragmatic too, which means I understand the only real hope we have of unsticking these problems is by busting our knuckles. We simply have to endure all the disingenuous braying by those who seek dominion over us. We have to try to move the needle incrementally. We have to fight the good fight, even though we cannot believe we will live to see a perceptibly improved world.

But first of all, we have to change our hearts. We have to accept and acknowledge the full humanity of people we believe very different from ourselves. This column is about the necessity of loving Michael Brown. And Darren Wilson.


Editorial on 11/30/2014


Thanks Philip!! Well said!