Sunday, November 30, 2014

Just older

Another birthday has come and gone and as they say, I'm " older, but no wiser." Just as years of physical activity can make the bones and joints less agile, years of life experience seem to do the same for the mind. Case in point: had the recent tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri taken place during my teenage years, I would have had a very clear idea about who was to blame and how to fix the problem. After all, I knew a thing or two about racism and police brutality, having grown up in Chicago during the sixties, smack dab in the middle of Martin Luther King's marches for fair housing in this city, (where he was hit by a brick), the riots that took place after his death (which spawned Mayor Daley's infamous shoot to kill order), and the police raid on Black Panther headquarters on the west side, which resulted in the deaths of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, (both of whom evidence would later bear out, were shot in their sleep).

When I was a teenager, I had the answers to all the world's problems. Guided by the mantra of my generation: "question authority", I knew the world was a corrupt place and that the systems of power in place were not to be trusted.

Had Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager from a suburb of St. Louis been shot by a white police officer in 1974 when I was sixteen, rather than 2014, I would have put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the officer who shot him, and the Ferguson Police Department. I can hear the arguments with my father now. He and I certainly would have also come to blows over the demonstrators and the violence some of them have used to get their point across. And while I may not have had the gumption to get myself down to St. Louis back in '74, I probably would have joined in the protests that have popped up sporadically here in Chicago.

Forty years worth of experiences later, my mind is unfortunately not nearly as clear as it once was. For starters, in those forty years, I've been the victim of numerous crimes ranging from armed robberies and burglaries, to having been beaten bloody right outside my home for no apparent reason other than some black kids had nothing better to do one evening than beat up on a white guy. I've been in close proximity to more drive-by shootings than I care to remember, and live in a city known the world over for its senseless, violent crime. 

Despite all that, I'm not particularly obsessed with issues of law and order, and am as disdainful of police brutality as the next guy. But these days I am more vigilant, and less trusting of my fellow man.

On the flip side, over those forty years I've also had many unpleasant experiences with the police. As my mother to this day loves to point out, when I was a teenager, like many of my peers, I had long hair and liked to wear dirty army jackets. My father was less charitable. He used to tell me I looked like a bum. That, combined with being a teenage male, a demographic that accounts for a particularly high number of criminals, meant I was stopped on occasion by cops, and subjected to humiliating searches, all on account of my having fit the profile of someone who had committed a crime. Over the years I also had frequent brushes with the law as a photographer, taking pictures in places where people didn't want me to be. One time, a friend and I were taking pictures on a construction site in Indiana where some workers had recently died in an accident. We knew we were trespassing, and eventually a cop pulled up, and forced us into his squad car. My friend who didn't have a high opinion of police, let the cop have a peace of his mind, protesting that there were no no-trespassing signs present, and that we had every right to be where we were. Not having a high opinion of getting arrested, I on the other hand, was apologetic, saying we simply didn't know we were not supposed to be there. Long before the events of September 11, 2001, this police officer certainly had better things to do than waste his time with a couple of young photographers, but I know for a fact that if I hadn't had the presence of mind to pacify him, he would have found plenty of legitimate reasons to arrest my friend and me. 

And so it went every time I got stopped by a cop or somebody in a position of authority who had the power to make my life miserable; I learned to swallow my pride, and be as polite and cooperative as possible. Some might say that's sucking up or selling out, others would say it's pure common sense. All I know is that it's kept me out of jail countless times.

Despite the close encounters with cops mentioned above, I don't have a particular ax to grind against the police. I've met several police men and women over the years; some of them are magnificent individuals, some of them are assholes, most of them are normal folks, just like people in any other walk of life. I've since come to the realization that the cops who stopped me for whatever reason over the years, were doing their job and it was nothing personal.

"Ah..." I hear you say, "but you're white and can't possibly compare your experiences with those of African Americans who are continually harassed by the police in this country."

That of course is true, I cannot. Along those lines, I am also not a policeman, and cannot judge police who routinely see and experience a side of life and danger that I cannot possibly imagine. Could their actions be influenced by their experience in the streets? They would hardly be human beings if they weren't.

That is not to say there are not truly racist, sociopathic police men and women out there who abuse their power and authority, and certainly does not in any way excuse their actions.

But just as all hoodie-wearing black teenagers are not thugs, all priests are not pedaphiles, and all parents don't beat their children, all police men and women are not racist-sociopaths who abuse their power. Simply put, we are wrong to condemn the police as a whole, for the actions of a few.

So how does my life experience effect the way I view the killing of Michael Brown? Well, the way I see it, there is plenty of blame to go around. From the evidence presented before the grand jury, to me it seems very likely that Mr. Brown significantly contributed to his own death. Please note that I am not saying the teenager deserved to die, any more than someone who knowingly swims in a tank filled with killer sharks deserves to die. But like intentionally swimming in shark infested water, struggling with a police officer for his gun as young Mr. Brown most likely did, is a deadly wager. Not to be trite about the matter, but by his actions in confronting the officer, Michael Brown lost that bet.

For his part, Officer Wilson will not be winning any policeman of the year awards. I have no doubt that few police officers including Wilson, cherish the thought of being on record as having killed an un-armed person, no matter how threatening the situation.  I can't say for certain if Officer Wilson could have restrained Michael Brown without killing him because I was not there. The eye-witness testimony of the two living persons who were closest to the event, Wilson and Brown's companion at the time, Dorian Johnson, do not help. As could be expected, the two stories of the same incident told from much different viewpoints, contradict each other in crucial areas. But from what I've read about the forensic evidence presented before the grand jury, that evidence seems to corroborate the story that Brown indeed reached for the officer's gun.

Even so, Officer Wilson seemed to over-reach in his testimony that described Michael Brown as a super-human monster. The photographs of Wilson after his altercation with Brown do not show much evidence of the severe injuries he claimed he suffered in the struggle over the gun. The police officer didn't make any new friends by stating emphatically that had he been faced with the situation again, he would do exactly the same thing. There was no sense of contrition in his statements, nor did he show any compassion toward the family of the deceased.

After the shooting, Michael Brown's body was left right where he fell, in the middle of the street for all passersby to see for approximately four hours. Granted he went from being a living-breathing human being to a lifeless piece of evidence in a crime scene, but the lack of respect shown to Mr. Brown and his family was one of the flash points for the subsequent public reaction to his death.

And what about that reaction?

Let's face it, the history of race in America is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. I have many black friends who have had direct, negative contact not with just the police, but also with the Klan. These friends with families down South, can still go back and visit the sites where relatives were lynched. The North hasn't exactly proven to be the land of milk and honey for many African Americans either. Despite the fact that times have changed to a degree, the headline: "Unarmed black teenager shot and killed by white cop", no matter what the circumstances, is still bound to evoke painful memories for hundreds of millions of Americans, both black and white. The heavy-handed actions of the Ferguson Police Department, whose top brass is 100 percent white despite serving a predominantly black community, were instrumental in provoking the demonstrations that took place following the shooting, and last week after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. Much of the righteous indignation directed at the department I might add, was justified, in my opinion.


Violence directed toward the police and businesses in the community is another story. I just heard an interview with an articulate young man in Ferguson who defended the violence on the grounds that "we need to get the point across to the community of Ferguson and to the world that we will not stand for the police to continue to treat our people with disrespect. The violence is our way of getting their attention." Well OK, they got our attention. But the message the arsonists and looters are sending out merely confirms the fears and stereotypes many people in the outside world hold about the African American community. The logic of violence, especially when it is directed toward local businesses, simply defies me. The young man's mother and father who were part of that interview agreed. They stated in no uncertain terms that violence is unacceptable, stupid, and in the end, counter-productive.

I'm convinced that the majority of African American people in this country share that opinion as well. They don't need to be lectured on the impact crime and violence have on their community. They also understand like all reasonable people that in order for their children to move forward, they must be taught basic values such as hard work, obeying the law, respecting themselves and others, getting a good education, and the crucial importance of the family, especially when it comes to raising their own children. Focusing on those values can be like swimming upstream in our world where peer pressure, social media, and popular culture give us the conflicting messages of instant gratification, glamorized violence, objectification of women, and the concept of individual freedom without individual obligation or responsibility.

Unfortunately the majority of African Americans are not getting the majority of the attention in this country. How refreshing it would be for self-proclaimed civil rights leaders to use their bully pulpit to address these issues. However it's far simpler to get attention by pointing fingers, rather than self-reflection and tackling enormously complicated problems with no simple solutions. The Ferguson tragedy with its easy targets, readily tweetable sound bites, and minute by minute memes, is the perfect venue for them.

OK, having just uttered those words, I have officially become my parents. Could they possibly have been right all along?

How I long for the wisdom of youth, where life is ever so much simpler.

No comments: