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From the Ashes of Ferguson

fergusonruins

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Last night I watched in horror as a community destroyed itself. I had hoped and prayed that no-matter what decision was reached that there would be no violence in Ferguson. But there was and it resulted in even more damage to an already scarred community.

The blame for this can be spread around because there are so many who share in it that it is almost overwhelming to think about. There are the actions of the individuals involved to include the dead teenager, Michael Brown and there are the actions of the man who killed him, Officer Darren Wilson.

If indeed Brown attacked Wilson, he shares some responsibility for his death. Wilson has a degree of responsibility even if he was acting without malice and reacted out of what he believed to be legitimate fear for his safety, simply because he pulled the trigger. Wilson basically testified that he acted out of fear, but the witness closest to the scene saw no such fear and stands by his story and there are critical discrepancies in the transcripts of what he said to police investigators and what he testified to in the grand jury.

I know many police officers and in most states what Officer Wilson did would have resulted in some sort of indictment, not necessarily a conviction but an indictment but Missouri state law gives the officer the benefit of all doubt. Howard Fineman noted today that “the Missouri state legislature has chosen repeatedly to ignore a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1985, which held that a police officer cannot use lethal force against a fleeing suspect unless the officer has reason to believe the suspect is armed and an immediate threat to public order.”

Instead, a police officer in Missouri can shoot a person the officer believes to be a fleeing felon. Period. Not to mention that the officer can shoot one who is moving toward him in a threatening manner.”

The fact is that I have not yet read all of the testimony because there is so much being released. What I have read so far paints a picture that could be interpreted very differently than was the decision of the grand jury dealing with the death of Michael Brown and the actions of Officer Wilson.

I am going to try to over the weekend to instead of letting pundits tell me what to believe, to read what was presented to the grand jury. Likewise from what I know of grand jury proceedings as well as probable cause hearings, it is almost unheard of for a grand jury at state, local or federal level not to return an indictment. Prosecutors generally don’t lose at a grand jury hearing. It almost seems to be that the prosecutor here did not try to get an indictment. That to me just seems fishy.

That being said, as a historian I know that all of the accounts presented, even those of the people who believed that they were being absolutely honest in their accounts, are subject to distortion, and not being completely true.

I will do this because my first duty as a citizen is to the truth, even if it challenges what we believe. I support the police, I know many officers, some white, some African American, some of whom that serve in incredibly dangerous communities. I give those that put themselves in harm’s way incredible leeway and discretion in the conduct of their duties. That being said police officers are human too, they are capable of having and acting upon the same prejudices and committing crimes, even while on duty, or of being subject to fear, and making mistakes, mistakes that sometimes result in tragedy.

Likewise there are the actions and inactions of the police and local government bodies to build trust in the community. In many places, especially in the historic states that belonged to the ante-Bellum South, including border states like Missouri many communities refuse to admit a problem, much less take actions to mitigate it.

There is a lack of standardization and training among police forces to train officers to deal with situations like the one that occurred between Wilson and Brown that night without resorting to deadly force. This is often a systemic problem brought about by fear, prejudice and lack of training in means other than the use of deadly force to subdue a threat.

But on the other hand there are the actions of criminal elements and others who use tragedies such as what happened in this case, who justify burning and looting the homes and businesses of their neighbors. These people are just as responsible for the tragedy of Ferguson, a tragedy that they used to bring unwarranted suffering to their neighbors.

There are the actions of the politicians, pundits and preachers, the “Trinity of Evil” who use events like this to whip their followers into a rage in order to maintain their power. There are the actions of outside forces, including extremist groups including the KKK, other White Supremacist groups as well as the New Black Panthers who have used the event to talk up violence.

There are the media agitators that allegedly support either the victim or the police officer who work other whip people across the nation into factions who hate each other. Much of this has been facilitated by the recklessness of people in the media, and officials in government who spread rumors, partial facts, and speculation as near gospel truth to sway the opinion of people to their point of view, the truth be damned.

This was compounded by the incompleteness of the initial police investigation which due to the incompetence of those conducting it resulted in the contamination of the crime scene that certainly had an effect on “the facts” that were presented to the grand jury.

Likewise there were some alleged eyewitnesses to the killing who gave one version of “facts” to the media or on their social media connections, only to recant, change or alter those statements when under oath, giving the grand jury members different information than they had to the public. Those who did such things share responsibility, for they have contributed to this.

That being said, there are other eyewitnesses who maintained their testimony and saw their testimony discounted by the grand jury in favor of the testimony of Officer Wilson. This is just some examples and the list can go on and on and on. There is also an endemic and systematic racism which remains ingrained in our society but few people want to acknowledge it.

To me as a historian it almost seems that the lack of acknowledgment is evidence that the racial attitudes of the ante-Bellum South as well as the Jim Crow era still reign supreme in our land. In fact those who even suggest that it might exist are labeled as racist by right wing politicians, pundits and preachers, especially the politically charged preachers.

It is an Orwellian world. When a man like Mike Huckabee, a man that wants to be President and who embodies all three parts of the Trinity of Evil, being a politician, preacher and pundit all wrapped in one, can label those who protested the killing of Michael Brown peacefully as the moral equivalent of the murderer of Medger Evers, something is seriously amiss.

We do need to address issues the of economic disparity, the problems in education, and the de-facto racial and economic segregation of many communities, problems often brought about by the intentional policies of local governments and economic institutions. We need to address the serious issues of racial, religious sexual, and sexual orientation discrimination, both real and perceived; and the issues of inequities in the criminal justice system, the breakdown of families and a host of other issues that fueled the rage that ignited the conflagration we witnessed in Ferguson.

But the bottom line is that a young man, Michael Brown is dead, a community destroyed and a nation divided. Michael Brown cannot be brought back to life, and even if he was complicit by his actions in his death, he did not deserve to die and the actions of the prosecutor and the grand jury not to indict Officer Wilson demonstrate to many that the life of a black teenager is of decidedly lesser value than a white man. Would that same grand jury allowed Officer Wilson to walk if he had killed an unarmed white teenager?

Sadly to one degree or another, this is our entire fault as citizens. At the minimum most of us no matter what our race or place on the political spectrum are complicit in how we allow the media and government to shape the truth and never critically examine the facts to separate them from the spin. Most people don’t take the time to wait for the facts before we make up our minds on an issue. Many people choose believe the worst about other people, especially those that we believe are “different” than us based on the words of the Trinity of Evil without ever taking the time to know or understand them.

Many people do not take the time to get to know our neighbors much less than the people on the other side of town who are different than us, those that are not in our social class, economic status, race, religion or culture. Egged on by politicians, pundits and preachers of hate that profit and keep power by spreading fear; we end up fearing those who are not like us.

Doctor King asked a question that all of us must ask today. He said:

“Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

We must break the chain of evil that leads to what we have been watching in Ferguson. It matters so much if we are to have true reconciliation. It matters if we are to be able to ask each other for forgiveness and admit our own responsibility for the state of our country. It matters if we are able to come together as Americans to overcome our divisions and build a better future. Nelson Mandela who suffered unjustly for years in the apartheid prisons of South Africa knew the reality of what has to be done to break the shackles of evil and walk into freedom. Mandela said:

“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”

But all of this takes serious soul searching and hard work on all of our part. The task will not be easy, but it was the dream of Doctor King who had a dream, a dream that I choose still to believe possible.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

I have faith to believe with Doctor King:

“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

And I have the hope to believe the promise of Doctor King who in his “I have a dream” speech said:

“And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring! And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

Protests are still in order and should continue, but they should be absolutely peaceful and non-violent to maintain the moral high ground. These protests should continue until laws are changed, and justice done.

But protest alone cannot be the final measure, and violence is no solution and only makes things worse. There has to be a deliberate effort of all to bring reconciliation and to have a change in our own hearts. Nelson Mandela said:

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

Mandela also said something that if things in this country are to change that all of us need to take to heart. He said:

“As I have said, the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself… Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.”

Somehow, we as citizens, neighbors and must heed the words of Doctor King and Mr. Mandela if we are to rebuild the dream out of the ashes of Ferguson.

Like both of these men, I too am an optimist and I will work with my brothers to see the day when we are all really free at last.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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