Considering three factors at play in Ferguson

I want to consider three things in this blog: first, the harm that has been done; second, our white gaze; and third, nonviolent direct action.

The harm

Michael Brown is dead at 18. He graduated from high school and was headed for college. The promise of his life is gone. He leaves behind parents and brothers and sisters, extended family, friends, neighbors, teachers. His body lay in the street for hours and the watchers, standing outside the yellow crime-scene tape, must have been harmed by that experience. For all of them, Michael's death leaves a lifelong void. What can be worse than the death of a child?

Michael's death has stirred deep emotions, some conscious and some never recognized until now, among African-Americans who have endured humiliation at the hands of police. His death has raised the new fear in younger children that they, too, could be shot suddenly. Some of the released anger has been expressed in looting and burning, and overnight Monday, two people were shot. And so the harm widens in the community, reaching businesses and workers and neighbors afraid to come home from work in the dark. Schools are closed, a learning loss, and it will be a while before some of those children are able to focus on reading and arithmetic.

The police have been harmed, too. The community has lost respect, trust and confidence in them. They probably disagree among themselves about what could or should have been done and about what to do next. Officer Darren Wilson, who shot Michael, is, I imagine, also suffering, as is his family.

In these short paragraphs, I can only hint at the deep suffering of the Ferguson community, which has also lost its reputation as a quiet, comfortable residential township. But this is what we must do first, each of us: Consider the harm that has been done.

Our white gaze

I wrote a blog about the reverberations in the black community over the death of Trayvon Martin. George Yancy's "Walking While Black in the 'White Gaze' " that appeared Sept. 1, 2013, in The New York Times chilled me to the bone. He writes about how it feels to be black and be looked at by whites and the efforts of blacks to express the "lived interiority of racial experiences." I know the facts of many of those racial experiences, but I don't know the lived interiority, no matter how much I listen and read.

I thought about Yancy's piece right away when I read the responses to my first blog about Ferguson, published Aug. 15. My blog was about the struggle and the suffering of the community. But the comments focused on whether Michael Brown was guilty of stealing a handful of cigarillos and attempting to intimidate Wilson. Nobody even asked if death was the appropriate punishment for these offenses or considered whether Wilson used excessive force. The comments are the comments of white people making judgments.

To focus on the robbery or looting or to imagine, as one respondent did, an entire scenario of how the shooting could have played out is distancing behavior. Instead of considering the harm and suffering -- including the suffering of the police -- most of the comments deny the existence of police oppression and instead blame the victim.

What do we see? Yancy reminds us of President Barack Obama's reflection that Trayvon Martin could have been his son. Yancy says: "I wait for the day when a white president will say, 'There is no way that I could have experienced what Trayvon Martin did (and other black people do) because I'm white and through white privilege I am immune to systemic racial profiling.' "

Nonviolent direct action

I feel some bitter amusement when pundits complain that protest actions are not nonviolent. Why should we expect nonviolence? Do the schools teach the history of labor union strikes and sit-ins? Do they teach about Gandhi's march to the sea to make salt? Is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" required reading in American history?

Here's a link to a heartbreaking series of a dozen tweets from St. Louis City Alderman Antonio French. Antonio and I ran together on a school board slate eight years ago. He's 32 now, and I have enormous respect for him. But he's flying by the seat of his pants, trying to create a safe and respectful space for the voice of protest.

I'm not much of a champion of private property. Life is more important than property. Human rights are more important than property. But I do know a lot about nonviolent direct action because I have had a lot of opportunities both to deliberately risk arrest myself and to work as a peacekeeper and as an observer at actions. What I see in Ferguson with my white gaze is a community unprepared for the shock of Michael Brown's death.

The police thought that they were prepared, equipped as they were with Pentagon cast-off body armor and weaponry. Their solution was to get tougher, then feel surprised and offended when the protesters didn't obey their orders, sort of like the Germans invading Belgium a hundred years ago who were surprised and offended at the resistance.

The community, like Antonio, flew by the seat of their pants. They are still flying blind, testing the effectiveness of prayer, of rallies, of marches, of Molotov cocktails. They are attempting to make an indelible memory. They are trying to make Michael Brown's death a sacrament that has the power to change white behavior.

Yes, I'm looking at the scene with a white Catholic gaze. But that's who I am. That's what I bring.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here