By now everyone has most likely heard about the shooting and killing of unarmed 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014. The story is intense and certainly a lot to digest. Stories like these can be tough to figure out because they often feel like a case of “he said, she said” without knowing who to believe. What seems to normally happen in national cases like this involving white police killing black men is that the black community rallies behind the victim’s cause and the white community defends the police officer, or it seems in the Brown case, remains relatively quiet and keeps its distance.
One very important factor in this is the very recent national history between white police and black citizens. Only a few short decades ago (1940’s-1970’s, though certainly not limited to this date range), white state troopers and police officers regularly beat, imprisoned and killed blacks at will for no reason with no accountability for their actions, something Dr. John M. Perkins experienced firsthand and writes about in detail in his amazing autobiography Let Justice Roll Down. It’s the same thing a black pastor friend of mine in Lansing, now 50 years old, told me about recently as he painfully remembered his childhood on the Detroit’s east side. He told me about the “Big 4”, a group of 4 white police officers who would patrol his neighborhood in a black Chrysler Imperial, stopping to violently beat black men simply because they were black. These were my pastor friend’s family members, neighbors and friends. This is a history whites like me never experienced and were not taught about, but a history blacks have lived, literally in their lifetime or in the lifetime or their parents and grandparents.
When whites hear about these types of random and senseless acts of violence from our country’s recent past, our reaction is to either deny it happened the way blacks portray or to compartmentalize those evil acts as something that happened “back then” and something that could never happen again.
But for blacks like Dr. Perkins, my pastor friend and so many others who saw family members beaten and killed and were tortured to the brink of death themselves like Perkins, there’s no doubt that these events took place and there’s no way to not associate modern cases like Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin with the very same police abuse that they themselves experienced. There is no “back then” and “now” as if they are comparing the dinosaur age with the modern age. The physical and emotional scars and memories have not gone anywhere and the story, while yes evolved, still continues intact.
It is crucial that whites realize this and acknowledge this when stories like Michael Brown appear in the news.
In an article by Greg Howard entitled “America Is Not For Black People,” one of the very helpful things Howard does is list out several of the very recent cases of unarmed black men being gunned down and killed in public by white police, stories I sadly hadn’t even heard about. These accounts sound straight out of Dr. Perkins accounts of the 1940’s and 1970’s, but they all happened within the last year:
On August 5 in Beavercreek, Ohio, 22-year-old John Crawford was killed in a Walmart when a toy gun he had picked up from inside the store was apparently mistaken for a real gun. LeeCee Johnson, who had two children with Crawford, said that she was on the phone with him, and that his last words before she heard gunshots from police officers were, “It’s not real.”
On July 17 in Staten Island, New York, 43-year-old Eric Garner, a well-known presence in the neighborhood who sold illicit cigarettes and kept an eye on the block, was killed after breaking up a fight when NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo used an illegal chokehold on the asthmatic man. “I can’t breathe,” he said, before he died. “I can’t breathe.”
On the night of September 14, 2013 in Charlotte, N.C., 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell was killed after getting into a car accident. He climbed out of the rear window of the car, stumbled to the nearest house, and banged on the door for help. The homeowner notified the police, who showed up to the house. Ferrell was tased, and then an officer named Randall Kerrick shot and struck Ferrell 10 times.
There was Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif., and so many more. Michael Brown’s death wasn’t shocking at all. All over the country, unarmed black men are being killed by the very people who have sworn to protect them, as has been going on for a very long time now.
No matter what your take on the Michael Brown case or the Trayvon Martin case, the pattern in these stories ought to be very disturbing to you. Howard goes on to compare these stories to the one where a white man, James Eagan Jones, walked into a movie theater showing The Dark Knight Rises and gunned down 12 people:
there are structural reasons why Brown was shot dead while James Eagan Holmes—who on July 20, 2012, walked into a movie theater and fired rounds into an audience, killing 12 and wounding 70 more—was taken alive.
There is a problem in America. And I’m not talking about the specifics in the Michael Brown case. I’m talking about the race problem our country has as a whole. Please do not react to this statement by saying, “Don’t call me racist!” I’m not calling you racist. I’m saying our country, the country we share together, has a race problem. Yes, it is different than the race problem of slavery. Yes, it is different than the race problem of the Jim Crow era. And yes, we have improved since these two horrible eras, but we still have a significant problem on our hands nonetheless.
The aftermath of cases like Brown’s, Trayvon Martin’s and so many others bring this out loud and clear.
And burying our heads in the sand isn’t going to help anything.
The root of the problem is how segregated our nation is along lines of skin color. How whites mostly only live around and hang out with whites and blacks mostly only live around and hang out with blacks. Milwaukee, the city my parents grew up in and I was born in the white suburbs of, is the most segregated large metropolitan city in America (See map). Click here to see the full list.
Want to see how segregated your town, neighborhood or block is? Click here.
The reason we are so segregated today is because of overtly racist sins of our nation’s past.
This segregation has produced incredible distrust on both sides.
Because we distrust what we don’t know.
And when we don’t know, we fear.
And when we fear, we act out.
Whatever your view of the Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin cases, you have to admit that being so segregated is the catalyst to these types of stories.
The good news is we can all do something about the segregation in America. If we want to stop stories like this from happening so regularly, if we want to avoid repeating history, we can become change agents instead of passive onlookers.
Be knowledgeable of the American history that created the racial tensions cities like Ferguson and so many others face. Read a great TIME Magazine piece on that here.
Move into a neighborhood predominantly made up of a race different than yours. (Even if you have to buy a smaller house)
Move into a school district predominantly made up of a race different than your children’s.
Go to a church of a race different than yours.
Push your church and your church leaders to intentionally build your church into a multiracial church.
None of us can bring Michael Brown back from the dead, but maybe with some intentional effort we can prevent the next Michael Brown from having to die at all.
Some helpful links on the Michael Brown shooting:
The Long, Tangled Roots of the Michael Brown Shooting by David Von Drehle, Time Magazine
What They Saw: Five Eyewitnesses to the Michael Brown Shooting by Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele
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