It's Not Really About You

Michael Brown and Stories

Nearly a week after Michael Brown was shot and killed, the Ferguson Police Department released the name of the police officer involved in the incident. They also released surveillance video purportedly showing Michael and friend Dorian Johnson stealing cigars from a convenience store in what has been called a ‘strong-arm robbery’. A few observations –

Violence doesn’t stop violence – ever. In response to Michael Brown’s death, looters and rioters took to the streets, while the local authorities responded with an appalling show force that made national headlines. Neither response was appropriate – Michael’s parents found no comfort, racial tension found no relief, and my city wasn’t made any safer.

But I do understand both responses. On the one hand, rioters lashed out against power. People on the margins of society usually can’t distinguish between economic, governmental, and social power – oppression is oppression. Looting and burning down businesses is an act of resistance that attacks whatever is most accessible within that power structure – which, in North County, is usually a liquor store or a title loan joint.

On the other hand, the police were doing what they are trained to do – quell unrest by any means necessary. Police forces have used tactical gear for generations to disarm and capture wrongdoers – and I think most of us are fundamentally okay with the idea. The fabric of modern society is held together by laws backed up by the threat of physical punishment ranging from imprisonment to execution. (Not condoning heavy-handed police tactics here – just acknowledging the fact that most of us appreciate being able to live our lives without the constant threat of crime.)

Neither option has ever produced lasting peace or equitable justice. And they never will.

Justice is never clean-cut. Michael was unarmed at the time of his death and witnesses claim police shot him while he held his hands up in surrender. Demonstrators rallied around these points and presented the events of August 9th as brutal murder of an innocent child. Meanwhile, it seems plausible that Michael and Dorian were involved in the earlier robbery, and the investigation may very well conclude that Michael was involved in a scuffle over a hand gun inside the officer’s patrol car.

Regardless, there are no pure villains or victims here. There almost never are. In fact the big problem we face when we argue over justice is that we desperately want to believe in the romantic ideals of pure evil and pure goodness. But moral questions just don’t resolve themselves into neat categories. Michael may not be as innocent nor the police as evil as some represent.

This is further complicated by one’s perspective. Months from now we’ll probably have a much clearer picture of how the events of August 9th played out – we’ll hear from all the witnesses, the timeline will be clearer and the forensics will frame Michael’s death in hard science. But neither Michael nor the officer had any of this data last week. Had they known everything we know now, they both may have behaved differently. But that’s not how life works – morality is the attempt to live according to the rules of the most coherent story available at any particular moment in time. What makes us human is our ability to choose which story to live in, which definition of reality to accept as the most definitive.

But stories are unequally distributed across culture. In other words, where you live, how much money you make, and what color your skin is all play a huge role in determining which stories you have access to.

Racism doesn’t have to be overt to be real. Many communities today in North County St. Louis are economically blighted and sharply segregated. And that didn’t happen by accident. Historians have filled volumes tracing the intentional, racially-motivated decisions made by white residents throughout the 19th and 20th centuries that forced poorer black residents into specific neighborhoods usually cut off from access to economic and cultural resources. (This website is a great place to start learning more.) So already our ancestors – my ancestors – are at least partly to blame for engineering a world where teenagers think it’s a good idea to steal cigars from a mini-mart in broad daylight on a Saturday morning.

I’m willing to bet that if you’re reading this, Michael’s actions probably don’t make much sense in your world – if indeed that is him in the surveillance footage (and for the sake of argument, I’ll assume it is). Your world is defined differently; you’ve (intentionally or not) chosen another story as most constitutive in your life. You don’t steal what you want; you read blogs on the internet to broaden your horizons . You don’t turn to title loan places for quick cash; you invest, shop for the best interest rates, and ask your boss for a raise. You don’t see police as instruments of an oppressive power apparatus; you see them as guest speakers in your kid’s school and the person you call in the middle of the night when your neighbor plays his music too loud.

The story you live in makes all the difference in the world.

Michael was supposed to start college days after he died. He was taking steps towards a world where education is valued more than brute force, hoping that there was opportunity beyond the dog-eat-dog streets of an inner-ring suburb in North County. But he hadn’t escaped his first story yet.

And that’s where most of us live – caught between different forces that try to narrate meaning into our lives. And admitting that we’re confused and pulled in many different directions just might be the first step towards creating a world where teenagers don’t get shot and businesses don’t get burned down by angry mobs.

So listen – not to the rhetoric and the pundits – listen instead for the stories that are doing battle all around us, the stories that want to sweep us up and carry us into conflict with other stories. Stop perpetuating stories about ‘those people’ who just need to ‘get over it’. I can’t place who said it first, but the adage is entirely appropriate: “An enemy is only someone whose story you haven’t heard yet”.

Listening is the first step towards healing.

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