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Ferguson, Missouri: Jesus Wept
Last Sunday, August 10, at the 11:15 service, we had several baptisms in the historic sanctuary of St. David's Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. Part of the ceremony includes those already baptized reaffirming their baptismal vows, both in support of those being baptized, and to remind themselves and each other of what those vows are…what the responsibility is, of those brought into this new life.
One of the ritual questions is this: "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?" To which the answer is "I will, with God's help."
On Saturday, August 9, Michael Brown, an 18 year old African American, was walking with a friend when confronted by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Witnesses say that Brown was unarmed, standing in the street with his hands in the air, begging Wilson not to shoot him when Wilson fired multiple rounds and Brown fell down. Other police officers arrived shortly thereafter. None of the police officers checked Brown's pulse to see if he was alive and they refused to allow a nurse to do so or anyone to start CPR.
Instead, they left Michael Brown's body lying in the street for four hours, without even the decency of a sheet over it, thus angering the community by showing contempt for the victim and potentially contaminating and/or destroying evidence.
Stop a moment and think about that, about the level of arrogance and contempt that reveals. It's not normal procedure. I was in EMS for almost six years, and saw deaths both natural and traumatic, including violent deaths from shootings and stabbings. In every case the law officers on scene quickly collected the evidence they needed; they called the correct official (it varied with where we were—inside or outside city limits) to certify death; the body was then removed in a respectful and proper way. In cases of delay, one of us on the team would sit with the body and a family member if available.
Imagine if it was your son: shot down, but no medical assistance allowed…no one checking his pulse, medical help refused, his body left lying there in the street for four agonizing hours while (I have no doubt) flies buzzed around it, drawn by the smell of blood and death. Imagine seeing the police confiscating cellphones but not taking down witness statements, making it clear by word and deed that their intent was not to find and punish your son's killer, but to protect the killer and disrespect your son, your family, your community.
The police concealed the shooter's name for almost a week, while allowing Darren Wilson to leave the scene of the shooting with his weapon and his car (shattering the chain of evidence.) He was allowed to leave town with his family (his name was not released until after he had left town) further supporting the claim of a cover-up. As the growing crowd and Brown's family demanded answers, they were instead given threats and intimidating tactics, including what amounted to a military invasion of their neighborhoods, even shooting tear gas into private back yards. Heavily armed police officers were caught on TV cameras yelling "Bring it, you fucking animals."
"Fucking animals." These human beings, these black citizens, these residents of the city, these people with minds, hearts, souls, with thoughts, emotions, dreams, fears. These parents, children, students, relatives, friends, elderly. Classmates of Michael Brown's—he had just recently graduated from high school. These are people who deserve to be treated with basic respect, whose dignity had already been shredded…and the police referred to them, addressed them, as "fucking animals."
Was the crowd angry? Yes, with good reason. They had seen yet another black male killed by a white policeman who had no reason at that moment to fire his weapon other than…he wanted to shoot a black kid. They had seen the police attack reporters, arresting them on trumped up charges, confiscating their recorders and cameras, in some cases roughing them up. They had been called "fucking animals" and had been vilified by the police in interviews. Their questions had not been answered, except (a week later) with the police chief's assertion that Michael Brown had robbed a convenience store of cigars and pushed a clerk—showing a video that purported to be Brown to the media. At no point in the situation has any shred of compassion been shown by the police or any other official to the grieving family of Michael Brown, not any acknowledgment been made that Wilson's shooting of Brown was unjustified, illegal, and that the police department's subsequent actions—including the police chief's yammering—had inflamed the situation beyond repair. The police chief even spouted praise of Wilson while blackening Brown's name, saying that Wilson was gentle, a good family man, a gentleman.
Through all of this, right up through last night, the harassment of black citizens, the abuse of their rights, the contempt, arrogance, cruelty have continued from Ferguson's police force. It has become clear that they wanted to make the situation worse, were actually trying to stir up enough anger that some people would respond violently. Because then, that's the excuse for anything the police did. Because a broken window, in their mind, justifies shooting an unarmed person standing with his hands up. Because they feel no remorse, no compassion at all. Because they are white, and have badges, and that make everything they do OK and no one—not black people, not journalists, not anyone-should ever criticize them.
And yes, some people—a small minority of the black people in Ferguson, did break windows and loot stores? Yes. Is that illegal? Yes. Were there repeated incidents? Yes. When people are abused, when they are not respected, when they are not listened to, when their questions are not answered—and when, most of all, they see yet another one of their sons shot down and nothing being done to capture and charge the shooter, their anger may escape their control. This isn't the first case of a black male being killed by a white law officer when unarmed, not committing a crime, not being a clear and present danger to anyone, including the officer. So some property was damaged, some items stolen.
Does this excuse the shooting of Michael Brown, the tear gas, the rubber bullets, the attacks on citizens and reporters? No. Not in any way whatsoever. To think so is to value property above human life, above human dignity, above the respect due every citizen and the compassion due Michael Brown's family and friends after his death. Where, in any act of the Ferguson police force this past 10 days, has been "respect for the dignity of every human being?"
Nonexistent. Nowhere. His parents, his family, his neighbors, his community, were then traumatized further by police actions that were unnecessary, disrespectful, dishonest, and quite likely criminal.
This Sunday, the priest in the church where I sing, just back from a three month sabbatical, made a brief reference to the "race riots" in Ferguson. I was astonished, and ashamed, to hear no mention of the unjustified murder of a black teen, or the dishonest and brutal behavior of the Ferguson police force, or the Missouri governor's imposition of a curfew on the community that had been victimized for days, nor to the repeated attempts to ignore the primary cause of the whole debacle: a white policeman's willingness to shoot a black teenager with his hands up begging not to be shot. And the subsequent causes that drove a black community frantic with grief and rage: the disrespect, the lack of common compassion for those grieving, the dishonesty, and attempt to smear the dead man and by implication justify the shooting.
But that's one problem our denomination shares with many others. We value law and order. It's usually on our side. We like living in peaceful communities because it's more comfortable. We value gentility (Jesus said nothing good about gentility.) Though we are criticized by fundamentalist churches for being too liberal we are still enculturated to see certain class behaviors as good and worthy, and others as unruly. We forget that the Jesus we claim to follow caused some riots in His day, that he overturned tables in the forecourt of the Temple, driving out the moneychangers. We forget that our baptismal vows say nothing about having good taste in clothes, or wearing the right shoes under our choir robes, or knowing how to give a proper dinner for twenty at short notice, or being on first-name terms with a millionaire or a politician.
But we are faced, again and again, with this question: "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?"
What does that mean, in daily life? Many things, small and large. It means that when I was angry this morning on the way to church, already reacting to yet more details of what was happening in Ferguson, I should not have snarled curses at the guy in the pickup tailgating me—he couldn't hear me, but my family had to hear the F-bomb and a few other terms learned in the Marines. It means more listening and less talking, more patience and less hurrying on to something else. Do I always succeed? No, as I didn't this morning with that pickup truck. But I'm required to "strive" even when I fail, and fail again. And it means that when I see gross injustice blossoming out of an incident like the death of a teenager—when I see the cause ignored, and the whole reduced to "another race riot", I must speak out.
If even for a moment we hear "race riots" and think of black people without thinking of the white mobs that attacked the Freedom Riders in the Deep South, of the white men in riot gear aiming loaded guns at a black youth in the street—if even for a moment we think of the value of the broken windows and stolen items, and not the anguish, frustration, anger and grief and terror that causes them, then we are a bigger part of the problem than we may have realized. If we think for an instant that condemning looting but not simultaneously and more sternly condemning the conditions that led to the looting is acceptable to God, we are very much mistaken.
Who violated the justice and peace of Ferguson? Those who should have been protecting it—the police, the city and state government. Whose dignity has been violated? Michael Brown's, both in his death and in his dead body being left untended, disrespected, for hours. The dignity and peace and justice of his parents, his family, his friends, his neighbors, his community, when their natural and entirely reasonable anger and grief were treated as criminal acts.
"Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God's help.
Contents of these pages ©1996-2016 Elizabeth Moon
This essay ©2003 Elizabeth Moon