My gut told me things were going to get worse before they got better. And it turns out, my gut is pretty reliable. See, in a town called Ferguson, just about a 20 minute drive north from my house, in an area I have frequented for work purposes in the past (and never felt remotely unsafe), a teenager was gunned down in broad daylight on a Saturday.
I will stick with the vague facts here, because it seems like a case that has and will be painted with a thousand different brushes over the next few weeks and months (and probably years) and frankly the rumors and possibly exaggerated statements are what fueled the fire for the next bit of news.
The victim, 18-year-old Michael Brown, was involved in an altercation with a policeman which apparently began in the backseat if a squad car where the officer's weapon was fired once (it has been alleged that the young man was 'reaching for the gun'). The teen then apparently fled the car and was shot and killed by the officer involved. The media reported that 'multiple shots' were fired by the policeman, but that the number of shots hasn't been disclosed by authorities. The victim was supposed to start college this week.
The following day, what began as peaceful gatherings in the area, grieving the loss of a young man's life morphed over the course of the day into a violent and destructive mob, destroying property, looting businesses, and setting fire a convenience store.
Like most things in my life these days, the story initially unfolded on my newsfeed but eventually also on our television (some days, mommy gets lots of screen time) and then was debated with my husband and neighbors. I responded as a mother, immediately imagining one of my sons being involved. I am well aware that the judgement of an 18-year-old male is often questionable at best and I live in constant fear that a poor judgement call on the part of one of my boys will result in anything from a night in jail to a senseless death, but this case smelled fishy to me. My husband who made his fair share of poor choices as a teenager (and I often wonder how he came out alive and without a criminal record) argued that this is just something that can happen when you tangle with the law. I argued that we rely on law enforcement to make us feel safe, and shots fired in a public area at an unarmed teen just makes me feel confused and sad.
As is often true of cases like this, the underlying issue quickly became a question of race. The victim was African American, the officer's race hasn't been disclosed (but as the force has only three black men, is presumably white) and the protesting crowd pictured on the 5 o'clock news was a mix of ages and ethnicities. But the shooting has already been likened to the Treyvon Martin case on a number of occasions (the Martin's lawyer is already representing the Brown family). I have a Facebook friend who quickly responded to the incident with a post 'that this is one of the main reasons' she and her husband were 'always on the fence' about having children. She was obviously incensed and finished her post with the statement that if it was her child, she and her husband 'would be dead from shooting up the police station.' The comments section below became a debate over raising young black men who can easily become a target of racial profiling and settles with waiting to hear more details before passing judgement and praying for the victim's family.
The problem is that my friend was not the only one outraged by the incident -- not by a long shot, and probably not without just cause -- and while she apparently worked through her initial anger and desire for further violence, others felt compelled to take their frustrations to the streets.
In a way, I can understand how people could become so furious. The internet is hot with rumors about the case. The victim's mother alleges that her son was shot eight times and I have read accounts stating there were as many as 10 shots fired. One rumor alleges that the officer fired twice from his car and then shot twice more at close range. A clip can be seen of an eyewitness telling reporters that she watched the young man stop, turn and that he was facing the policeman with his hands raised when the officer began firing. The boy's body apparently lay in the street, exposed and uncovered for 4 hours after the shooting. There are rumors that the teen was guilty of no more than walking peacefully down the street when he was harassed and eventually killed. I even read that the boy had a friend with him during the incident who was found dead later that day behind a pizza place, insinuating a police cover up (it's notable that the case was turned over by the Ferguson city police almost immediately to the county police force and will eventually probably also involve the FBI).
Sure, it's unsettling in the least and if I believed all the gory details to be 100% true, I might be calling for heads to roll too. I might even drive 20 minutes to throw a slushy at someone and holler some profanities while I'm at it (and quickly leave, because angry crowds make me very nervous). If It was my son who met with such a violent and senseless death for apparently nothing more than walking down the street, I don't honestly don't know how I would respond (though it's highly doubtful my response would include a gun).
But that's the problem. As I was dozing on the couch Sunday night, people who firmly believed that this was a clear cut case of abuse of power, racial profiling, and cold-blooded murder were storming the streets and answering violence with violence.
I remember learning about the 'mob mentality' as an undergrad psych student and how people can suddenly morph into something other than rational human beings. It's dangerous and devastating. It can result in property destruction, injuries, and innocent loss of life. It's maddening to know such a thing can happen.
It has been an embarrassing week for our city. News of the initial incident and resulting violence spread quickly across the country and it feels like all eyes are on St Louis and we all look like animals. It's true that we are among the top racially divided cities (top six) and tensions seem to run just high enough on a daily basis that we were just one (or possibly two) bad judgement calls away from near racial warfare.
I arrived home from work Monday to a television showing images of outraged community and church leaders calling for action (which frustratingly seem to lack in specifics, other than the prosecution of the officer involved in the shooting).
In a town neighboring mine, two department stores were put on 'lockdown' due to rumors of looting and fighting in the mall we frequent. I couldn't help but wonder how I would have felt had I picked up my boys from the sitter and headed to the mall with them, as we've done before. When I couldn't handle the news any more, I took the boys to play across the street. As I gazed at our cozy Dutch Colonial with it's sturdy brick porch, potted plants, and overgrown lilac bushes, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by sadness and a deep sense of insecurity that is thankfully pretty foreign to me. The world is full of senseless violence. People can be batshit crazy and I am lucky to live in a country that isn't run by those people (at leaast not entirely) and living in constant conflict and fear. I have been lucky enough to have led a life where this senseless violence typically only happens on my TV (or newsfeed) and not in my backyard. So maybe I am naive, but it makes me feel hopeless and sick to my stomach.
The 9 o'clock and 10 o'clock news Monday night showed us live footage of police gathered in riot gear, some with guns drawn. The next morning, there were reports of looting overnight in south city (also not far from where I live and work) and on Tuesday night -- the third night of near violent protests -- a young rioter who pulled a gun was shot by police.
My St Louis moms Facebook groups were overrun with comments by women who were keeping their children home from school and canceling doctors appointments in order to stay off the streets and keep their kids safe. It all seems somehow surreal.
And somewhere in the middle of all of this Robin Williams, a talented and beloved man somehow went to a dark enough place that he was compelled to take his own life.
The world has gone completely mad. And all I can do is go to work, do the laundry, clean my house, and try my damnedest to raise children who are smart and kind enough to not contribute to it's madness.