Ferguson and the 'Us vs. Them' Illusion
As the grand jury’s decision on whether nor not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson loomed, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon told a TV reporter “he’s preparing for peace and war.”
What the governor did, in the tense uncertainty preceding the decision, was pre-declare a state of emergency and activate the Missouri National Guard to help contain the possibility of violent, anti-police protests. He also appointed 16 people, including several of the protesters, to a newly created “Ferguson Commission” to recommend solutions to the racial problems plaguing that community, which the killing of Michael Brown last August made unavoidably apparent.
Meanwhile, gun sales at local shops are through the roof and the local Klan is stirring, distributing fliers warning protesters that they’ve awakened a sleeping giant.
America, America . . .
Before we proceed further, let’s stir in a little Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”
"The possibility of who we can become — a healed, connected people, an invaluable force for global salvation — is worth our endless effort to realize."
That level of thinking — the political, governmental and media consensus of who we are — is blind and deaf to history and locked into us-vs.-them thinking. Security, whether domestic or international, is a game played against presumed and, often enough, imagined enemies. Thus, prior to the governor’s decision to call out the Guard, the FBI had issued an intelligence bulletin warning local officials that “the announcement of the grand jury’s decision … will likely be exploited by some individuals to justify threats and attacks against law enforcement and critical infrastructure,” according to the Washington Post.
If nothing else, this sort of consciousness remains utterly unaware of its own contribution to the trouble. As law enforcement ups its level of militarized authoritarianism, it agitates the elements predisposed to regard it as the enemy and seek its humiliation and defeat. This is a small segment of the protesters, but no matter. Preparing for war requires, first of all, an oversimplification of the social context in which the preparers operate. Once this is accomplished, the warnings become self-fulfilling prophecies.
In other words, what matters is that there’s an “enemy” out there. The preparation essentially creates the enemy, especially when the power imbalance is enormous, e.g.: federal, state and local government, plus maybe half the general population, vs. distraught, impoverished community residents.
What doesn’t matter is that the protesters want profound, nonviolent change, not an excuse to trash local convenience stores. For instance, the Don’t Shoot Coalition, which formed in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting and has coordinated protest efforts since then, recently issued 19 “rules of engagement” in anticipation of the grand jury verdict. Rule no. 1: “The first priority shall be preservation of human life.”
Other rules include: “Every attempt should be made to communicate with protesters to reach ‘common sense’ agreements based on these protocols, both ahead of time and at the scene of protests.”
And: “Police rank and file will be instructed to provide every latitude to allow for free assembly and expression, treating protesters as citizens and not ‘enemy combatants.’”
At the very least, what we do not need, in the wake of the terrible wrong of an 18-year-old’s killing, is a dismissive oversimplification of the community’s reaction to it. On the other side of the issue, we need infinitely more than an indictment and, ultimately, conviction and punishment of the police officer who did it. That is to say, what matters here is not the fixing of personal blame (or lack thereof), but the acknowledgment of systemic and historic wrong of monumental proportions and — at long, long last — a momentum of social healing that doesn’t end prematurely.
The United States of America is a nation founded on slavery and the conquest and slaughter of the indigenous peoples in its way. It’s also a democracy, sort of — originally for white, male property owners — which, over two-plus centuries, has expanded its recognition of who qualifies as a human being and who, thus, can be a full participant in the political process. The country’s sense of exceptionalism exceeds, by a wide margin, the good it has brought into the world.
Oh well. That’s no excuse to quit trying. The possibility of who we can become — a healed, connected people, an invaluable force for global salvation — is worth our endless effort to realize. And maybe the Ferguson Commission has more than a perfunctory contribution to make to such an achievement.
What I know is that we cannot define our social brokenness in terms of good guys and bad guys, which is always so tempting. Alexis Madrigal, writing last August in The Atlantic about UCLA’s Center of Policing Equity, which has investigated police behavior and racial disparity in dozens of police departments in the U.S., made an interesting observation to that end:
“When staffers from the Center of Policing Equity go into a police department, they talk with community advocates, police officers, and the people of the city—all of whom provide important information about law enforcement behaviors. What they find is communities who have for generations felt like they’re not being policed but occupied. And yet, at the same time, they find the ‘vast majority’ of police officers and executives trying to do the right thing.”
The “level of thinking” that has caused immeasurable harm within and beyond our national borders — that killed Michael Brown — begins with a conviction that the enemy is out there, waiting to get us. If we had the courage to look beyond this fear, what we would see, perhaps, is not an enemy but someone almost indistinguishable from ourselves.