Since the grand jury in the Michael Brown killing elected not to indict the officer who shot him, I’ve tried to think of what I might write here that hasn’t been said already, and said better.
This morning, my seven year old son and I ran a 5K race in Andover, MA. A throng of more than 9,000 runners, walkers, stroller pushing parents, and dogs wearing race tshirts packed into Shawsheen Square for the start. The police had blocked off the race route itself to traffic, but parking is always tight in a charming New England town, and cars were lining the streets for two miles out from the starting line. It snowed yesterday, but the DPW had worked hard to clear all the sidewalks. Despite that, hundreds of runners were walking in the streets, already narrowed by the cars on either side. Some were oblivious, texting or talking and jostling. Drivers laid on their horns and yelled profanities, and some of the more belligerent runners called back. Runners and drivers are often at odds, and on race days, the runners often feel some kind of safety in numbers, or a protection conferred by the official nature of the event. I watched runners stride along the median line flipping off drivers lined up behind them. Not everyone was engaged in this behavior of course, but the fact is, sidewalks were cleared and available, and a great many people chose to walk in the middle of the road instead, blocking traffic.
It got me thinking about Michael Brown. In the months since he was shot, there have been so many protests in the streets in Ferguson that I realized my mind had somehow cycled backward in thinking about the day he was killed in August. I had begun to picture the protests in the street, and Michael Brown as part of them, and the officer pulling up into this tense and charged situation already primed. But that’s impossible. Michael Brown was not killed in a protest over Michael Brown’s death. He was killed because he was walking down the middle of a street with a friend, and when the cop pulled up, things escalated.
I’ve read over and over the news reports and the testimony to the grand jury, and I keep thinking the next time I read it, I will see clearly what happened. Whether what this officer claims is entirely true, I don’t know. Whether Brown punched him repeatedly in the head, whether he was charging at him or surrendering to him, I don’t know exactly. But what keeps nagging at me is how it ever got to that point. Walking down the streets in Andover, Massachusetts, the crowd, like most road races, mostly white, the houses beautiful and their gardens too, there were people walking down the middle of the street obstructing traffic. Blonde girls, little kids, teenage boys from Andover’s crew team. Imagining the police pulling up and asking them to get out of the street, it’s nearly impossible for me to picture a scenario where that all ends in a teenager’s body left in the street for hours. I’ve seen teenagers mouth off at the cops, I’ve seen teenagers tussle with the cops, swing at the cops, run from the cops screaming profanity. These are not smart things to do, and I’d tell my own kids not to behave that way because it’s rude and I don’t want them to get arrested. But not because I’m afraid they’ll get shot.
What a whole lot of us have taken away from this killing and the aftermath is that black lives don’t seem to matter like white lives do. That black boys are not seen the same way as white boys. If a white boy in Andover lay dead in the street after a cop shot him in the head, I don’t believe there is any possibility on Earth that that cop would escape indictment. Perhaps you do. If you really see no difference in how all this would go down in a town like Andover and a town like Ferguson, for a white boy, or for a black boy, then you probably aren’t racist, but you are profoundly naive. Since Michael Brown’s death, the world has gone on, and teenagers have died in all manner of tragedies. Not only black ones of course. A 16 year old boy fell asleep driving his family to Disney and when the SUV rolled over, five of them were killed, though he, the driver, buckled in, lived. Comments on that news story condemned the family for letting him drive, his parents for not buckling up themselves or belting in their kids, but few blamed the boy. He fell asleep, and now his family is dead. Sixteen year olds make mistakes, and adults are supposed to try to keep them safe.
Twelve year old Tamir Rice was carrying a pellet gun in a Cleveland park. Dispatch received a call reporting it, and the caller said, “It’s probably fake. He’s probably a juvenile, you know?” Police pulled up to the park and one of them jumped out and shot the boy as the car was still coming to a stop. Not even time for him to raise his hands. There were long comment threads on that story’s coverage saying, “That was so stupid. That kid should’ve known.” and “What did he expect, waving that thing around?” It’s these comments that chill me. A twelve year old boy, a sixteen year old boy, or an eighteen year old all do stupid things all the time. It comes with the territory. But we have a different set of consequences for those boys dependent on their color. White kids can be stupid, or be jerks, or do dangerous things and we don’t teach them growing up that the police might shoot them for it. Black boys have to be taught that. For them, being stupid, or being a jerk, they have to be taught, is very possibly a capital offense.
I know cops have to make split second judgments all the time about threats, real and perceived. I also know about how frightening it is to feel boxed in by someone. I’m a 5’1″ woman. I am outmatched physically all day, every day. I have been alone in isolated places with people I did not trust and whose behavior stood the hair up on my neck. The decision to run? To walk by and smile, hoping to defuse? To scream? Change my path abruptly, or try to look casual about it? It all has to be done in a moment. But this officer had choice after choice to make, and every time, he turned away from Michael Brown’s humanity. What grips at my heart is that black boys and brown boys coming up have to be told that the world will come into interactions with them assuming they are dangerous. “He was like a demon,” “an animal,” “a savage,” it’s hard to tell which testimony in these cases is from 2014 and which from 1863. And given that, it’s hard to believe in the progress we all want to think we’ve made.
I walked down the sidewalk with my son to the starting line and tried to give the traffic the right of the way to which they were entitled. But as he grows up, and makes his choices, and elects, sometimes, to do stupid things, or mouth off, I know that I don’t have to have that talk with him–teaching him to be obsequious, to make friendly eye contact, but not too much, with the clerk when going into a store, not to pull up his hoodie even if it’s cold that night. As I listened to the national anthem at the start of today’s race, I looked down at my son, who will grow up as a white man, free to walk down the middle of the street and be a jerk if he likes. I love this country, and I love its promise, and its aspiration. But we must ever look to become a more perfect nation, and in this respect, in what we tell our black and brown boys, we fall far, far short. Michael Brown’s mother lost her son. And if she had any faith that this country weighs his life the same as my son’s, it must be entirely gone now. This is not her fight, or not hers alone. It’s not only mothers and fathers, it’s a quintessentially American fight. We are an optimistic people, and I would never drive that out of us. But our optimism must not take the form of rosy naiveté. It must take the form of determination that we can right these wrongs. I don’t know how to do it, but I’m certain that bowing our heads and lowering our eyes and stepping out of the streets and back onto the sidewalk is not how we’ve ever fixed anything in this country before.