It’s Not Really About Michael Brown

Although I could predict the outcome of the grand jury in the case of Michael Brown’s killing, I was disappointed.

Although I believe strongly in the power of the people to create change through peaceful protest and non-violent civil disobedience (meaning I reject violence as a means of change) I sympathize with the protestors in Ferguson (and in the 178 cities around the world that have hosted protests since Monday night’s announcement).

Make no mistake, I am not beatifying Michael Brown. He was no saint. We could see that in the bothersome video showing him strong-arming someone in a convenience store after he tried to walk out with stolen cigarillos.  He made a bad decision that day… and if his teenaged years are anything like mine were, he had made a lot of bad decisions.

But just because he was no saint does not mean he was a “demon”.

Despite erroneous chain email accounts (which were apparently relaying the arrest information on a totally different Michael Brown), this Michael Brown had no felonies on his record. There were no outstanding criminal complaints on him. On the day he died he stole a handful of cigarillos and shoved the guy who tried to stop him.

When I was nineteen years old, I stole a stick of deodorant, a package of pens, and a stationary set from a store.  Why?  I have no idea.  I was a good kid–I had never done anything like that before (nor would I do it again), but I was nineteen and in many ways I was angry at the world and sick of always being the predictably “good girl”. I guess I did it just to see if I could get away with it.  It seemed everyone else was always getting away with bad behavior, and I wanted to see if I could, too.

At the age of nineteen, my friends also convinced me I should try smoking marijuana.  I had never touched drugs before.  I didn’t even like being tipsy from alcohol–I just assumed I would hate the feeling of being high.  But I was struggling with depression and anxiety and at that time in my life I did not have good coping mechanisms in place to deal with it.  So I tried it. Over the next year I smoked pot a handful of times with those same friends.

Basically, what I’m saying, is that at the age of nineteen, when I made the bad decision to steal from a local department store, there was a good chance there may have been trace amounts of marijuana in my system.

I knew at the time what I was doing was wrong. I make no excuses for it.  I’m not justifying my behavior.  I knew marijuana was illegal and I chose to smoke it.  I knew stealing was illegal and I chose to steal.  I knew I was morally wrong in doing those things, and I did them anyway.

I made poor decisions.  I did not deserve to die for them.

Later, as a sociology major in college, I would learn some disturbing stats that revealed to me what would have happened if I had been caught shoplifting back then… or caught in possession of marijuana.

I learned that even though whites commit more crimes than blacks, blacks are more likely to be arrested and more likely to be convicted.  While there are multiple ways that a person can avoid trial and prison in the judicial system (anywhere from the responding police officer making a decision to allow the perpetrator to simply walk away to plea deals with the court), blacks are far less likely to be able to get off the “path to prison” than whites.

Basically, as a white woman, had I been caught shoplifting, I may well have never even been arrested for the activity. The odds are very good that if I had been arrested I would have never wound up incarcerated.  But if you change just one thing about me–darken my skin, but leave everything else about me the same–those odds are no longer as good.

So, when I get upset that an unarmed black man, only three months into legal adulthood, was shot dead in the street, it’s not really about who was shot.  It’s not really about Michael Brown–it’s about the injustice of a system that has a long record of being harder on blacks than it is one whites.

No, I’m not beatifying Michael Brown. Nor am I demonizing Darren Wilson.

I realize that I have no clue what actually happened on that street that day.  While Prosecutor McCullough criticized the conflicting information that came from witnesses in his statement to the press on Monday night, he neglected to criticize the conflicting (and at times wrong) information that was released by the police.

In the days that followed the shooting, bad information and conflicting accounts were coming from all directions.  Add that to the chaos of twenty-four hour for-entertainment news programs seeking the next big scandal… well, you have an impossible task before you in determining what truly happened. (This is one of the reasons why I support the idea of body cameras on every cop.)

I don’t envy the job police officers have and I can appreciate the difficult position in which Darren Wilson was placed.  Cops have to make split-second decisions–and they are human, so they still have all the human limitations that you or I would have.  Adrenaline, fear, anxiety, excitement… it all distorts how we see and perceive what is happening right before us.  Through all that, a police officer must make a decision when to pull a trigger, or when to use less-lethal means of subduing a suspect.  It’s not something I would ever be able to do… and yet, I expect police officers to do this on a daily basis.

Just as I don’t assume Michael Brown was some eighteen year old angel who never made a mistake or bad judgment call in his life, I don’t assume Darren Wilson was some raging racist just itching to kill a black kid and get away with it.

But this isn’t about Michael Brown or Darren Wilson.

This is about a broken system that has always been harder on the Michael Browns of the world than it is on the Amanda Gayle Reeds or the Darren Wilsons.  It’s about a long history of systemic racism in which whites (even those of us most dedicated to complete racial equality) experience certain privileges people of color don’t have (like having the benefit of the doubt in a shoplifting case).

So, when I cry out for justice, I’m not crying out because I think Michael Brown was a symbol of perfection… or that Darren Wilson is a cold-blooded murderer who used his badge to shoot the first black kid he could find… I’m crying out of justice because I know that in God’s Kingdom there shouldn’t be privileges for one race over another.  I know that in God’s Kingdom that love, forgiveness, mercy, and compassion is equally distributed. I cry out for justice because when I see a system that has always had a bent toward protecting people like me and Darren Wilson while locking away people like Michael Brown, I have to do something.

I can sympathize with the protestors, even when I disapprove of the tactics of some of them (a minority of them–most protests have been peaceful), because I know that for as sick as I felt at my stomach when I heard the decision, it was far more personal for a lot of people in this nation.  I was disappointed that an unarmed kid could be shot and killed and the shooter not even have to stand trial.

But for a lot of people it was a slap in the face.  It was a reminder that their lives don’t seem to matter as much as others–they are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be incarcerated, more likely to be shot by police… and the judicial system just put a stamp of approval on that.

I support the Ferguson protestors not because I hate Darren Wilson, not because I distrust the police, not because I think Michael Brown was completely innocent (I just don’t know what happened that day), but because I support the notion that our system of justice should be equal for all people.


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