Reflections Blog

Ferguson and the Illusion of Progress

Like many Americans of my generation, I believe in progress.  I believe we can learn from our mistakes and do better in the future.  I believe that with each passing generation our society evolves from one state of consciousness into a more advanced state of consciousness, that social beliefs previous generations held dear, beliefs that often had disastrous consequences, are rejected as we collectively learn to be more fair, more just, and more accepting of people who are different from us.

We no longer believe that slavery is acceptable, for instance.  More than six hundred thousand Americans died to prove that point and millions more have suffered in one way or another in the years following the American Civil War as that practice, which was once considered natural, came to be seen as the abomination it was.  Now, in 2015, it would be inconceivable to reintroduce slavery—at least in America, although ISIS has reintroduced it in the Middle East and forms of involuntary servitude exist in parts of the world we would like to think are less developed than the West.

The illusion of progress is not unique to the baby boomer generation, which I belong to.  The idea of political progress emerged with the destruction of the feudal system and the birth of democracies, with the notion of the natural rights of humankind and the idea expressed in our Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal—although in 1776 the statement was hypocritical, applying as it did primarily to white male landowners.  Still, as a concept it has gained traction and underlies the Civil Rights and Women’s Equality movements as well as our firmly held principle of equal protection under the law. 

The Industrial Revolution has also given us the illusion of progress.  Every technological or scientific advance reinforces our belief that we are more modern, more capable, and more advanced than the decades and centuries preceding us, and I genuinely believe that this is true.  When I was a kid, not only was there no Internet, there were no personal computers.  No cell phones, no iPods (or anything like them), no iPads, no video games, no DVDs or CDs (or videotapes, for that matter), no microwave ovens, no lasers, no TV remote controls, no coreless tools, no satellites, no GPS, no MRIs or CT scans or ultrasounds.  Nothing was digital.   If you wanted to play music, you put a vinyl record on your record player.  If you wanted to make a telephone call, you went to the single, usually wall-mounted telephone in your house (which may have been on a party line).  If you wanted to do research, you went to the library.  I watched the 1956 World Series, the one where Don Larsen pitched a no-hitter, on a black-and-white television with a 10-inch screen.

Technological progress does not reflect sociological progress, but it nonetheless gives us the illusion that we are living in modern times, that we are more advanced than those who came before us.

So what, you might ask, does all of this have to do with Ferguson?  

Just this.  I lived through the tumultuous civil rights struggles of the fifties and sixties.  I wasn’t near enough the troubled areas to experience it first hand, but I once watched a group of white men in our small Iowa town drive a black man out of town with shotguns.  The poor guy was just walking along the highway that ran through the center of town and had no intention of stopping, but the men who made sure he didn’t linger did so with the very real threat of violence.  This happened long before Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, the Selma to Montgomery march, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968.  During the decades of the struggle for civil rights, I remember the protests, the riots, the treatment of African Americans by white police officers, the angry crowds on television, the often-violent clashes between protestors and authorities, and the courage of those who were steadfast in the face of bigotry, prejudice, and violence. 

I experienced those times as a monumental social struggle, and when it was over—when it appeared to be over—I naively assumed that race relations in America were improving, that  they had improved, that people of color were being treated fairly and equally by the majority of their fellow citizens.  Certainly, there has been progress, as evidenced by African-American presence in the arts, sports, business, government, academia, medicine, and other walks of life.  So I was shocked at the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson—and even more so by other incidents that have occurred since then, particularly the recent killing of Walter Scott in South Carolina.  These tragic incidents have made me realize that, at least in many parts of the country—and maybe everywhere—what blacks experience with the police is very different from what I, and probably most other white people, experience.

I have no reason to fear the police.  They don’t pull me over unless I deserve it.  The only racial profile I fit would be “boring old white guy.”  I haven’t had many interactions with the police in my sixty-plus years, but on the other hand I haven’t done anything to warrant their attention.  I’m no Walter White of Breaking Bad fame.  I earned my living the old-fashioned way:  I worked hard for it.  Like I said, boring old white guy.  But I know there are hundreds of thousands of black men my age who could say the same thing—except that they are black, often have reason to fear the police, and have experienced unfair treatment and racial profiling.

Ferguson will turn out to be a watershed event in racial relations in our country because it brought intense media focus to a significant problem, and it made us all aware of the troubled and troubling relationship between black citizens and predominantly white police forces.  Unfortunately, Michael Brown was not the poster child for unfair treatment that many blacks wanted him to be.  After his death, we saw the photos of him dressed in his graduation robes, as though he were an innocent, on-his-way-to-college, upstanding young man, but as the evidence unfolded we learned that he was a petty thief, that he bullied and intimidated the store owner who tried to confront him, and that, at the very least, he lacked good judgment during his encounter with white police officer Darren Wilson.

It seems clear that Brown tried to take Wilson’s gun when he reached inside the police cruiser and was shot in the hand.  He was confrontational with a police officer (always a bad idea), and apparently was approaching Wilson in a belligerent manner when Wilson shot him to death.  That said, Michael Brown did not deserve to die.  When the situation escalated, Wilson should have called for back-up.  He should not have gotten out of his cruiser and provoked Brown.  And when Brown turned back and came toward him, Wilson should have (1) gotten back into his cruiser, (2) fired a warning shot, or (3) fired one shot at Brown with the intent to wound him.  Instead, Wilson fired twelve shots during the encounter, and we can only assume that Wilson’s intent was not merely to subdue the suspect but to destroy a person he perceived as a threat.  Why else shoot at Brown so many times?  When any of the shots could have been fatal?  It’s Wilson’s use of overwhelming and relentless deadly force that is so puzzling.  The officer was not held legally culpable by the grand jury that heard the evidence, but he is certainly morally culpable of taking a young man’s life, regardless of the circumstances. 

Also troubling is the death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black man in New York City.  Like Brown, Garner was no angel.  He had been arrested thirty times for such offenses as assault, grand larceny, and resisting arrest.  On the day of his death, police were attempting to arrest him for selling unlicensed cigarettes, hardly a hanging offense.  But Garner resisted and one white police officer put him in a choke hold and slammed him to the cement.  Other officers joined in the take down and while Garner face was being forced onto the pavement he cried several times, “I can’t breathe.”  No one attempted resuscitation when he lay there unresponsive, including the paramedics who arrived on the scene, and Garner died of a heart attack in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. 

No charges have been brought against the police officers involved in the incident, although the medical examiner’s office has ruled that Garner’s death was a homicide.  What this incident illustrates, as do many other cases, is that the police are more focused on subduing suspects than they are on safeguarding human life.  Once a suspect is subdued, ideally by non-lethal means, then the emphasis should be on preserving the lives of victims and perpetrators, regardless of skin color or ethnicity (or gender, religion, or sexual preference).  In the “serve and protect” doctrine of many police departments, serving and protecting seems to apply mostly to themselves and not to the people they are dealing with.  Yes, of course, those people may be dangerous, and police officers have the absolute right to defend themselves, but deadly force is used too quickly in many situations that don’t warrant it and against a minority group where the presumption of innocence is instead too often a presumption of guilt.

The recent murder of Walter Scott is the most egregious example of the overuse of deathly force.  Scott was driving a car he had just purchased and was pulled over by white police officer Michael T. Slager for a broken taillight.  It was a routine traffic stop until Scott jumped from his car and ran, presumably because he owed back child support.  Slager gave chase, and it isn’t clear yet what happened in the next few minutes, but a bystander videotaped the fatal encounter when Scott again ran from Slager, and the officer fired his weapon eight times, striking Scott in the back and killing him.   Based on that video evidence, Slager has been fired from the police department and charged with murder.

According to his mother, Slager is a decent young man and devoted husband whose wife is about to give birth, and the video of the traffic stop shot from the cruiser cam shows a police officer doing his job in a calm and professional manner.  There is no sign that he was agitated, nervous, or angry, so it’s difficult to reconcile that view of him with the officer seen in the bystander video shooting repeatedly at an unarmed fleeing man and bringing him down.  Like Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, we see a police officer firing multiple times at an unarmed suspect. 

These are just three recent cases of white police officers using overwhelming deadly force to subdue black men.  I would like to believe that race had nothing to do with it, but the number of incidents like these suggests a pattern that is impossible to deny or ignore.  Besides, these are not the only recent incidents of hateful racism.  There was the photo emailed around the Ferguson Police Department of young, bare-chested African women in native dress with the caption “Michelle Obama’s graduation High School Reunion.”  And there was Rodner Figueroa’s comment that Michael Obama looked like she was in the cast of Planet of the Apes (Figueroa, a Univision host, was fired for that bit of cruelty).  Most astonishing was the video of SAE fraternity men from the University of Oklahoma singing, “There will never be a n____ SAE.  There will never be a n____ SAE.  You can hang ‘em from a tree, but it will never start with me.  There will never be a n____ SAE.” 

Perhaps more than anything else, that fraternity chant convinced me that racism is deeply entrenched in our culture, that despite the gains of the civil rights movement our society seems unable to escape the nauseating grip of racial bias.  When even highly educated young white men can gleefully sing about “hanging ‘em from a tree,” I lose hope that that we will ever be able to look upon our fellow human beings and not allow their skin color to bias our perceptions of them.  Even more distressing than their singing of that song was the fact that none of the SAE members on that bus seemed to find it repulsive.  There looked to be about thirty frat boys on the bus.  We don’t know if they all joined in.  Maybe one or two were repulsed by the song and refused to sing it, but we haven’t heard of any of them objecting to the song or saying, “Hey, knock it off.”  Either they all sang the song or the ones who didn’t participate passively acquiesced—and that’s even more troubling.

I wish there had been one SAE member on that bus who yelled at the others to knock it off, and if they didn’t, I wish he’d asked the driver to stop the bus and then gotten out and found another way back to the frat house.  I wish that when he arrived, he packed up his belongings, told his frat brothers to stuff it, and moved out that night.  I wish at least one of the thirty had had the courage to do what’s right. All it would have taken is the moral fiber of someone like, say, Rosa Parks.  She got on the bus; none of these privileged, highly educated young white men got off.  And that says volumes about them.

It is more than inhumane to stereotype people based on their race.  It is stupid.  Like Martin Luther King, I dream of a day when we will judge people based not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character.  I thought we had moved much closer to that day.  I thought that in the 21st Century we would have learned from the mistakes and hatefulness of the past and become a more generous, kind, and accepting society.  Apparently, I was wrong.  Such is the illusion of progress.  


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