Like so many, I’m very disheartened by the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri. A young man killed by a young police officer. I sympathize with the pain of loss. I have some understanding for the frustration of family, friends and community. America has a huge race relations problem that stains us all, generation after generation. The legacy of slavery lives and a collective guilt runs deep. What was done to Africans and Native Americans was a monumental crime that deserves, even demands, a monument alongside our obsessive and incessant memorials lining the capitol.
I’m discouraged by what happened to Michael Brown, and what happens to so many young men of color in our towns and cities. Where there is injustice grown from the wound of prejudice, there is a systemic infection in the nation. Yet, I am also deeply troubled by the “story” of Ferguson that reveals much more than another shooting of one more person in one more city. The story-line we hear is dramatic and when stories are driven by drama and emotions, even justified emotions, the truth suffers. And when the truth suffers any honest lessons are lost.
Having just read Michelle Alexander’s Times article, “Telling My Son About Ferguson,” I reflect on what I would say to my daughter, and what I discuss with her now since she knows much of this already. I’m not hearing some of this rational thought anywhere, and, in my mind, that’s a big problem. This means that countless children are not being taught basic reasoning skills to face very real problems that demand that we be reasonable–and truthful.
I have something to say to my child as well about healthy community, safety, truth-telling and being a responsible person.
My daughter is grown now. She grew up in integrated schools where she was a minority. The friends she brought home and invited to birthday parties were children of beautiful colors from many lands. In those early years she learned that children are children, people are people–human beings one and all. I’m proud that she continues to see the world through the experience and appreciation of diversity.
My little girl,
What I say to you here will not please the people who choose to take sides in these things. Whatever others think, these are only my thoughts for you to consider, because I think this matters.
-America has a terribly divisive “race issue” that must be confronted in the “justice system,” schools, streets and everywhere including the individual conscience. Prejudice is a poison and cures are hard to find. It is a poison that can infect people of any color. So don’t let yourself or others “play victim” when that can distract from the truth, create even more division or deflect larger issues. “It’s all about me” and “it’s all about my skin color,” cheapens any life lost. Make “the content of a person’s character” the true test of who they are.
-Young african-american men are much more likely to be poor, jobless and imprisoned in this country. That’s the sad and unacceptable fact. I saw this up close visiting prisoners and working on the streets for thirty years. Take the time to see what’s really behind this. Yes, a broken society and legal system led by fallible people that often seem to ignore the meaning of justice. But not always. When people break laws they need to expect punishment. Thousands of young men (and women) are not being parented and have few good role models. Many turn to the “numb and dumb” of drugs. This is a reason but not an excuse for violence. We can understand without excusing the behavior (“Oh, they’re just robbing, looting, beating people up because they had a bad home life; they’re bored, angry and don’t feel heard”). People doing bad things need to be arrested. Reasonable people know that locking troubled people up, locking them away out of our sight, isn’t the end of our responsibility. Prison bars can be necessary but they shouldn’t bar us from finding real answers. Solutions are difficult but they must be cooperative and inclusive, compassionate and very realistic.
-America also has a large “violence issue” that transcends race, but often impacts minority groups much more. We’re gunning ourselves down in the name of “freedom” and personal “rights.” That’s madness. It has to be stopped. Disarming the hatred and distrust, as well as the ignorance that undergirds prejudice, is the beginning. But it needs to lead to real disarming, to common sense laws and a decisive letting go of our addiction to the murder-machines we call guns. Our foremost weapons should be truth and education.
-Be safe, my daughter. Don’t put yourself and others in dangerous situations. It can almost be as simple as that. Be awake and aware of your own actions. Also be aware that many people live every day in unsafe areas, but that’s not always about poverty. It’s about the whole environment of community. . .or the lack of community. Healthcare, housing, jobs, education–these are essential to stability and security for all of us.
-Be responsible for yourself. Don’t do stupid things. Sorry to say it this way, but please learn from the example of Michael Brown, what he was apparently never taught or simply forgot: Stay clear-headed. Don’t steal or try to harm others. Use your head and common sense. It’s very alarming that we don’t hear people saying, “We wish Michael hadn’t been shot; and we wish he hadn’t done some foolish things and made some poor decisions to get in that situation.” Learning shows responsibility and vice versa.
-Some police foolishly become officers for power and control. Most police seek the job to serve the community and protect us from those who do stupid, harmful things. They should act as “peace officers.” We know that some forget that and they should be held accountable. That said, always obey what officers say, even if you disagree. It’s not just about Your safety, it’s public order. Save your arguments for the newspaper or the courtroom. Never threaten or attack a police officer. You will likely be arrested, hurt, shot or even killed.
-When the police shoot someone, try not to jump to conclusions. Gather the facts, if that’s even possible. Don’t allow yourself to follow the herd to Trial by Media or emotions. Officers make mistakes and do stupid things too. Excessive force cannot be allowed by any community (I too wonder why Darren Wilson had to fire so many shots, why he didn’t have backup, and. . .I will always wonder why police do not carry more effective “phaser” stun weapons that do not kill). However, those men and women are a front line out there confronting troubled people we don’t want to face. They aren’t perfect, but there is often a good reason for what they do. What would We do if someone was attacking or pointing a gun at Us (as in other recent shootings)? Give the true story time to be revealed. Witnesses (and cameras) can see things differently and emotions run high. And never let the specific persons involved and the specific details be buried in preconceptions, assumptions and outcomes that are “just what I expected.” See if the system works. When it doesn’t, question it, try to change it if you can. When it does–and I think it often does–show support for the hard work of “protecting the peace” and “keeping justice” in our communities.
-Be aware of those who will exploit tragic events for their own purposes. We all want the spotlight sometimes and cameras are everywhere now. Remember: it’s only television; it’s only one person’s view. And be very aware that words, especially spoken in anger, can fan the flames of violence (it was irresponsible and maybe criminal when one of Michael Brown’s parents yelled “burn this down” in front of a police station). Many innocent people are hurt by self-serving microphone-grabbers who try to turn grief into aggressiveness or tragedy into entertainment (think Al Sharpton or Bill O’Reilly).
-Most of all, my dear daughter, never be afraid to ask the hard questions, to seek and speak for truth and reason no matter what the subject or situation. Don’t allow others to tell you that “you don’t understand” because you’re a different color or you’re not “one of us,” that you have no right to express your view, your thoughts, because you’re an “outsider,” that you must be a “racist” because you don’t agree 100%. You know that you are not a race-hater, that you have lived and worked with people of different races and various viewpoints all your life, that you are good and reasonable, thoughtful and compassionate person. You can’t know everything another person is experiencing or feeling, but you share their humanity and want the best for them. Justice requires the hard work of collaboration and respectful communication. Otherwise, it is simply a fantasy, a cruel dream.
I love you, daughter. As your father, I know you will consider what I say. I don’t expect you to agree with all of it, but to hear it. These are not easy issues. A young man was killed. His parents loved him too. If his death will mean anything more than violent division and destruction, we all must make that happen. Many others are being killed by violence in our world, on our streets. We must do something, beginning with reasonable reflection and conversation. There are overwhelming issues in our land, our cities, our lives. But I know you will do the best you can, as I do, to practice peace-making and peace-keeping in our daily lives. Be wise and always look for the good in yourself and others. That is the content of your character.