Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Harrowing Times

Quite often, when there is a serious and important issue of note, I will look to the words of people much wiser than me to share thoughts and opinions with which I agree and/or think are important for discussion. But the situation in Ferguson has so many facets that I wanted to speak my mind on them. I have no doubt that some of my friends and family will disagree with some of my thoughts, and I may even lose a friend or two, but my hope is that if we are friends it is because we have a healthy respect for each other and are not closed to various views. For some reason I feel a need to do this. In random order ---

1. Does racism exist in our current society? Of course it does. Anyone who says society is post-racial is dangerously foolish. Are things better than 100 years ago? or 200 years ago? Obviously. But that doesn't mean it has been eradicated. Sometimes racism is just blatant and ugly (e.g. KKK resurgences). That is easy to see. Other times it is couched in nicer language and manipulated to appear "rational" to some (e.g. Some opposition arguments against our current president). This is often harder to see, especially to someone involved in the same group as the speaker. And sometimes you don't even realize it is there until it is pointed out by those to whom it is directed (e.g. The case of the Washington professional football team's name). Those times often cause confusion and disorientation (and occasionally defensive postures) by those who honestly never realized the ramifications of certain words before. 
I am a white male. I grew up in a middle-class household. I do not claim to know how a minority or oppressed individual feels about certain words or actions taken against them. I try to be sensitive to it. Personally, I try to never engage in it. In addition, I try to speak up in opposition of those I believe are incorrect and hurtful, in addition to minimizing the importance of those who speak with such hatred. I will never understand completely how racism cuts to the core of individuals, but I want to try to make this world better. Is that naive? Perhaps, but I choose to think that at least it is the right thing. 
Now, was racism a part of this shooting in Ferguson. Probably. In part. I don't think Officer Wilson went out of his way to shoot a black teenager dead. But I do believe he was more inclined to believe he was in danger because Michael Brown was a young black man. 
I have heard lots of people say that police officers feel this way because of the crime and violence they see on the street in their work. This may be true, but I think that argument is walking into a movie an hour after it starts. I believe the culture of the police force focuses on certain groups, which in turn pushes those groups into the margins. In those margins of society, crime becomes a more likely option, albeit a less accepted choice to other groups in society. 
In short, it isn't exactly a chicken-egg situation, but it does tend to lean more toward a nature-nurture debate.
(Item 1 wasn't supposed to take that much time, I apologize.)

2.  Is it the police versus the people? In short, no. I know several police officers, former police officers, etc. Friends, family, in-laws, etc. I respect the work they do. Are there some bad apples? Of course there are. Do those bad apples abuse their power? Of course. Is it an overwhelming epidemic which is inherent in the profession? I don't think so. I think most police officers are good and honest men and women who truly feel a desire to serve the fellow citizens. However, when something goes wrong, citizens do not feel like they have a place to turn. And here is where a large part of the confrontation comes. 
From a very young age, we are taught to see police officers and other public officials as helpers. People who look out for us. People who try to do right by us. People who protect us and keep the bad away. But then we are also faced with the physical reality that these helpers are imposing. They strike fear, even into those who are innocent. They are armed with lethal weaponry. And let's face it, as youngsters, while being taught that the police are good, we are threatened with "going to jail" or "being arrested" if we break the rules, even though we are young and still trying to figure out what those rules are and why they exist.
If our community does not come in contact with the police often in difficult situations, then we are cool with cops. But if our community sees police officers as a daily part of life, and our friends, families, and neighbors show fear or even contempt for these officers, then cops become the antagonists to our lives, not the friendly helpers we are taught to see.
That dynamic between the police and the people is challenging and quite often becomes its own driving force. Did the distrust between then public and the police contribute to this shooting? Did the police perception of certain groups of society, through intended marginalization or not, lead Officer Wilson and Mr. Brown to have an angry confrontation rather than a peaceful discussion? I do not doubt either of those things. And both are so ingrained that there is no quick and easy solution.
(Item 2 wasn't supposed to take that much time either. Again, I apologize.)

3. Did the grand jury make the right decision in not moving forward with charges against Darren Wilson? In my opinion, no. I am not a legal expert, but my understanding is that a grand jury looks to see whether a trial should be held based on the evidence it is presented in a given case. To me, an armed man shot and killed an unarmed man. That's all the evidence I need to see to say it should go to trial. Any other argument or criticism of witness accounts, etc. can happen there. Reading and listening to reports on the grand jury action, it seems they were trying the case rather than just looking to see if it should be given further examination through the court system. In my mind, this could have been an opportunity to A) bring open and transparent communication into the process, B) provide those in support of Michael Brown a fair and non-biased method to bring to light the issues with which they are concerned, and C) allow the Ferguson police and Officer Wilson the opportunity to completely clear their names. By not going forward with a trial, even with the testimony and evidence turned over to the public, all three of those things become more and more difficult to obtain in time.

4. Are protests regarding these events a good thing or a bad thing? In my mind, peaceful protests regarding this situation in Ferguson is a very, very good thing. It sparks interest. It sparks people to reflect on all sides of the matter. And, the most important thing, is that it sparks conversation. And conversation about those things which we disagree with in society is what helps a society move forward.

5. Is the rioting surrounding these events a good thing or a bad thing? Rioting is rarely ever a good thing. And in this case, all the rioting appears to be doing is shift the conversation away from the important topics at hand. Instead of bringing people together for communication and understanding, it seems to force people with differing opinions to entrench themselves even further. This is a sad thing. 

6. Why did a black teenager who was suspected of stealing some cigars shot six times until dead? Probably lots of things played a part. Racial tension in Ferguson? Fear? An argument that got out of control? Probably all of the above. But in my mind, the biggest reason Michael Brown is dead is our society's obsession with guns. I'll be completely honest and say straight out that, yes, I am one of those liberals who want to take your guns away. I have all the respect in the world if you want to own an antique flint-lock rifle and defend your land from invading lines of foreign armies. But that isn't what I am talking about here. I will also state that I am not going to start quoting stats or gun death rates or amounts of gun accidents, or anything like that. I've read those stats and arguments and they are compelling to me. But they are not compelling to everyone. I am not trying to change anyone's mind here; I am just trying to share my view. And ask a number of questions.
The argument goes something like this - Cops carry guns to protect law-abiding citizens from bad guys who have guns. (As an aside, if every law-abiding citizen can carry a gun, why do we need someone to protect us, as we can protect ourselves? Isn't that how the Cold War Arms Race argument goes? Anyone else see a flaw in that?) So we accept that cops should carry guns so that they can shoot those bad guys who may shoot me. Lethal defense from a designated officer to defend the defenseless from being killed. Okay. But what if the individual killed by the police officer did not have a weapon which could injure or kill a law-abiding citizen? Even if Mr. Brown had absconded with cigars, he would have had to force someone to smoke them for years to become a fatal health threat. 
Now, I have never gone through police training. But aren't police officers trained to minimize the risk in a situation? Aren't they trained in several different methods of bringing down an assailant? Aren't they able to wrestle to the ground, strike, use a club, use a tazer, etc.? Aren't there any number of non-lethal forms of control and restraint that a police officer is trained to use? So why was this police officer's first instinct to go for his weapon? Even if he was attacked by Mr. Brown, Mr. Brown did not brandish a weapon towards Officer Wilson. So why would Officer Wilson pull his weapon. And once he pulled his weapon, why did he fire 12 shots over the course of the confrontation, hitting Mr. Brown six times? Why was the display of a lethal firearm not sufficient enough for a police officer to bring his assailant to a less agitated level?
My biggest issue with all this, is one that is related to so many tragedies in our society. In general, if two people get mad at each other to the point of a fight, they will punch, or kick, or wrestle, or whatever they can do hand-to-hand. If it gets more heated, perhaps someone will pick up an object to use as a weapon. Even if the weapon is a sharp knife or heavy candlestick, it still needs to be used by the person. Force has to be exerted. In order for one of the fight's participants to be killed, lethal force needs to be used. 
It's hard to kill someone. You have to use a lot of energy. And the other person is going to fight back. It is hard to break through human bone. It is difficult to get just the right angle on a punch or thrust to cause fatal injury. Not impossible, but hard. Very hard. It should be. It is taking a life. It should be the most difficult thing in the world. It takes time. It is personal. It is intimate. It screws with your mind and your emotions. It is a part of you forever. 
Now pull a trigger. 
Done. Even if you were the strongest person in the world, it probably would take you at least the amount of time it took to read the last few paragraphs to kill someone with your bare hands. But even if you were weakest person in the world, it probably would take you less than the time to read the last paragraph's four words to kill someone. 
You are detached from the action with a gun. You pull a piece of metal with one finger. Slightly. Probably not too much harder than you just clicked your mouse button. And because of that miniscule action, someone is dead. You don't feel like you killed someone, you just twitched. And it happened at a distance. Not only are you more mentally removed from the person's death, but you are physically removed from it as well. 
And I could go into pages and pages of examples about accidental deaths regarding guns. One of my biggest fears is having my children around guns of any kind. I am not very concerned with a too-often-occurrence of a mass shooting at a school than I am of one of my kids being shot accidentally. I'm not even as worried about a gun going off accidentally and harming one of them. (chances are my kids won't be too close to Plaxibo Burress' legs any time soon, but really, that accidental shot could have hurt someone else who was completely innocent.) It isn't even because I think the owner of the gun would be careless with it (although a lot of people are) and they would be hurt. It is because children are curious. By nature, they are curious. And clumsy. And when it takes such little physical energy to fire a projectile of such lethal measures, the slightest stumble or twitch or shove or whatever could end up in a gunshot wound and/or death. How many stories have you seen of children being shot by a gun in their own house? How many stories have you seen of a child looking at a parent's gun, or a grandparent's gun, or another close relative's gun, out of pure curiosity, and having it discharge and kill that child? How many stories have you seen of a child using a readily available handgun and playing good guys and bad guys with their sibling, only to have one of them wind up dead. Children don't understand death well, if at all, and the further the consequence of the action is physically removed from them, the less they understand the finality of it.
A gun is a very odd invention to me. It is an item which is built to inflict the most damage possible to its target. In short, it is built to kill. I have heard even the strongest gun advocates say that you should never aim a gun at someone unless you plan to kill that person. Because that is a gun's use. To kill.
So to pull this back around, why did Darren Wilson pull his gun on Michael Brown if his intent was not to kill Michael Brown? And even if Officer Wilson thought Mr. Brown was trying to take his gun to use it against himself (I honestly don't know if that occurred or not), once he had control of his weapon and Mr. Brown did not, why did the shooting occur? (see items 1-5 above) And what if Officer Wilson did not have his gun on him in the first place? What if he had a cigar in his holster instead? And why isn't anyone trained or taught to consider these things BEFORE a tragedy occurs?

If you've read this entire piece, thank you. I did not know it would be so long. But to sum up, why did Michael Brown die in Ferguson at the hands of the police? It seems like there were a lot of issues, a lot of really deep and hard issues to face down and ones that will take lots of time, understanding, and conversation to correct. Whether you support the police, the Brown family, the citizens of Ferguson, the left, the right, the majority, the minority, anyone, or no one at all, none of these issues will fade by simply closing the book and looking the other way. It is not business as usual any more. It probably should never have gotten to be business as usual. But if we are going to make a conscious effort to advance our society, we need to make a conscious effort to actually do it. Everyone.

I'll end by using the same method I started off saying I normally do - borrowing other people's wisdom. Thank you again for listening.

from the Diety himself - "I've said it before and I'll say it again: next time I'm making everybody purple." @TheTweetOfGod

"Be excellent to each other." - Bill S. Preston, Esquire
"Party on, dudes!" - Ted "Theodore" Logan

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