At times like this, with the raging protest in Ferguson, an implication hangs in the air that these events are leading somewhere, that things are about change.
The saddest thing, however, is that this is, indeed, a “time like this”—one of many, before and certainly to come. It is impossible not to conclude that what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson is now status quo, not a teaching lesson to move us forward.
Last week’s events must seen in view not just of the entire history of black people in the United States, as many have suggested, but also in view of, well, last summer. The protests in the wake of the exoneration of George Zimmerman included the exact same kinds of expressions of dismay, fear, and rage, and more importantly, claims that this time was “it,” that black America was “fed up,” complete with furious empathy on the part of much of white America.
Remember the T-shirt, Al Sharpton, transnational vigils, the name of an obscure town suddenly becoming common coin (Sanford, Florida then; Ferguson, Missouri now), the symbolic gestures of defiance (hoodies and Skittles then, arms up now), the President making a quiet statement and getting roasted from some for timidity and others for rabblerousing?
It might as well have been ten minutes ago, especially as all of it is instantly viewable on line. And yet here we are.
As tragic as Brown’s death was, there is no reason to suppose that this time is “it” either. This time is just more. Birmingham and Selma had such an effect because television and its power were new; that novelty can never be brought back. The 24-hour news cycle helped make the Amadou Diallo case in New York a national cause celèbre, and it indeed made police profiling into a “thing” enlightened people became more aware of than they had been. But that awareness did not save the lives of Patrick Dorismond, Patrick Stansbury, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, or Jordan Davis, the black boy shot dead in 2012 by white Michael Dunn for refusing to turn down his music.
One may have supposed that the power of Twitter made the Trayvon Martin case different, but it only did so in terms of getting the word around. What we were hoping for is that this time, the mass indignation would make white Americans, especially ones with guns, re-examine their tendency to see young black men as inherently violent. It was supposed to be a teaching moment. It wasn’t.
We don’t know the details yet, but it’s apparent that, in spite of all we went through with Martin so recently, in a clinch—the mean, messy place where these things always happen—the Ferguson cop Darren Wilson assumed that a big black guy was trouble, serious trouble, and shot him dead. It’s what happens in that clinch that matters, and we can now see that no amount of articulate protest can cut through such visceral human tendencies as bias and fear.
In that clinch, grim facts such as that black men commit about half of the murders in this country certainly influence our Darren Wilsons, regardless of the causes that explain the statistic itself. However, what we need our Darren Wilsons to learn is that despite the fact that statistically, black men commit a disproportionate amount of murders in this country, we cannot suspect individual black men as murderers.
That would seem to be a reasonable expectation, especially of professional peacekeepers. It would appear, however, that it is not. I doubt I am alone in finding it difficult to imagine any further “training” cutting through this; that training has been happening nationwide for eons now. It only works so much.
In any case, we must note that our problem is larger than the cops—Martin and Davis were not killed by cops, but just citizens carrying guns. We’re talking about bias even beyond policemen.
Here, we run up against the tragic fact that there is no visible solution to our problem. Obviously it would be great if we could keep guns out of the hands of people like George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. However, if a tragedy like Newtown can’t make a difference in our gun laws then there’s no point hoping that the deaths of a few black boys will pop the lock.
Meanwhile, black rage, no matter how justified and no matter how well expressed, will not turn the tide either. I’m the last one to say there should be no protest, but I am dismayed that we are at a point that it can serve only as a statement, not as a tool. The rage is no longer such a novelty that white America will be scared into some concessions as it was in the late sixties. Watching black Ferguson burn and wreck its own neighborhoods is not going to make America suddenly “get it.”
If the looting and anger are the “it,” if that’s what we have up our sleeve as an indication that Brown’s death was “the last straw,” then we’re nowhere. The “it” would have to be backed up with something that truly affected business as usual.
With Dr. King that meant, for example, boycotts—but it’s hard to see how that would work now (are black people across America ready to stop using public transit for months?). Or, it meant embarrassing America on TV by allowing the Russians to see blacks being beaten in the streets. But I’m afraid we have much less reason to care what Putin thinks of race in America now than we did 50 years ago.
So, what will really make a difference? Really, only a continued pullback on the War on Drugs. Much of what creates the poisonous, vicious-cycle relationship between young black men and the police is that the War on Drugs brings cops into black neighborhoods to patrol for drug possession and sale. Without that policy—which would include that no one could make a living selling drugs—the entire structure supporting the notion of young black men as criminals would fall apart. White men with guns would encounter young black men much less often, and meanwhile society would offer young black men less opportunity to drift into embodying the stereotype in the first place.
But that’s the long game. In the here and now, we are stuck. Michael Brown was not “it.” The journalists assiduously documenting the events in Ferguson can serve as historians, but not as agents of change.
We can be quite sure that by next summer, another unarmed black boy will have been shot dead by a white cop scared in the moment. Upon which in another hitherto obscure town there will be protests, something about the episode will be enshrined as a totemic gesture, the right-wing will hope the cop turns out to have been black (as they did this time for a blink) or will revel in predictable evidence that the victim was not always a choirboy in his behavior, and good-thinking people will hope that this time is finally “it.”
I don’t know—just maybe I could forge a life without the New York subway for a while …