Ferguson: Doing the (After)Math

I’m tired. I didn’t sleep well.

Last night, I watched the twitter-verse blow up after the Ferguson grand jury decision, and this morning, as I read of the peaceful protests and rioting that followed, a sense of weary dread and déjà vu deepened. In fact, from the moment last summer when I first heard of the shooting, I have felt myself witnessing the most predictable of dramas.

Police everywhere face the potential for harm—even death. On most days for most officers, that potential isn’t realized. But because of it, we give them wide power to protect us and themselves: to watch us, stop and question us, search our property, search our bodies, and even to take life. To protect us from misuse of that power, communities retain the authority to review and question police actions and to hold officers accountable if they can’t justify those actions. The problem arises because, though the power of police officers everywhere is more or less constant, the power of individuals and communities is not.

For some, the events in Ferguson are about what happened and whether a police officer’s actions were appropriate; but it’s also about—and has to be about—who has the power to determine whether they were appropriate. It’s about who those with power serve, and to whom they are accountable.

Arguments rage between the defenders and critics of police about the influence of race. Many don’t seem to understand that issues of race are, at root, issues of power and how it gets distributed (or doesn’t). When people feel they lack the political power to control their community’s treatment, when they feel they lack the economic (in the form of jobs), social (in the form of respect), and political power to achieve what they want for themselves and their loved ones, they become frustrated and angry, they protest, and sometimes they become violent.

Like it or not, acknowledge it or not, race helps determine who gets power. So do gender, money, fame, and material possessions. So do education levels and the neighborhoods in which you live. How can you tell these factors matter? Take a drive through your town or city. Look at the quality of the schools from neighborhood to neighborhood; look at where the streets and sidewalks get fixed; look at the parts of town where the big box stores and freeway interchanges get put in, and at who gets displaced; look at who gets charged with what, who receives what kind of sentence, at what kind of lawyer defends what kind of client. Or look, in your community, at the faces and race and gender of the people in charge culturally, economically, and politically.

Of course, these factors get mixed and matched. I have brown skin, but I’m also a straight male; I have three college degrees, and have often been told that I don’t “sound Black” (as if that’s supposed to be a compliment), but I’ve never individually made more than $45,000 in a given year. On the power scale, I fare better than many, probably than most. And here’s the problem: none of those factors justify my having more power than anyone else. They say nothing about my sense of right and wrong, my loyalty to the community or the common good, my compassion. They say nothing about me as a human being, yet they have a tremendous impact on how and where I live, on what opportunities I have.

Inequity is the infection coursing through the body of this country, and has been since, with soaring rhetoric about God-given rights, a group of white men founded a nation and simultaneously rendered a large portion of the adult population—male slaves and women of every race—politically invisible. Only since 1920, when the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, has universal suffrage even theoretically—that’s for 96 years, less than half of our country’s existence. As a practical matter, taking into account various legal impediments and intimidation and violence, the scope of this right has been limited for much longer.

We pretend we have operated as a representative democracy for more than 200 years. But that doesn’t reflect the reality of our political, social, or cultural history, and we have to face our history, however much it interrupts our national narrative of universal opportunity and equal justice under law. Our democracy has always been evolving. If we are going to progress, we have to stop pretending that we live in an equitable society, and we have to figure out what we’re going to do about that. Because the demographic shift in our population and the current distribution of power have rendered doing nothing a non-option.

No, I didn’t sleep well last night. I hope none of us did.

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