Old News: Past Blog Posts

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Lessons My Sons Might Learn from Ferguson

  
My boys are not even out if diapers yet (with the third still cozy in the womb), but tonight, I cannot help but worry about what sort of world they will encounter as they venture away from our nest and what sort of people they will be when that happens.

Three months ago, a mother not far from my St Louis home lost her teenage son to a violent death which ignited a frenzy of protests (both violent and non-violent), legal drama, political scheming, media sensationalism, and social network-based hostility. The case of Michael Brown's death is news to you only if you have been living in a locked closet since August.

I cannot wrap my brain around the heartbreak that must come from losing a child or how it could possibly feel to watch his killer be absolved of (criminal) charges. I cannot speak to whether or not the Grand Jury decision to not indict Darren Wilson is 'right' or 'wrong' or how the prosecutors handled this case because the legal mumbo-jumbo is beyond my understanding. All I can really do is place my faith in the system and hope that Mr Brown's family can find a way to eventually come to peace with the results and move forward in a positive manner with the healing process. 

I am not ignorant enough to deny the fact that my sons have already been given a leg up in our society simply as the result of being born with fair complexions and big blue eyes. I have the benefit of not losing sleep worrying how others might perceive them based on the pigmentation of their skin.

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LESSON 1: Don't claim or strive to be 'color blind.' Try instead to understand how another person's appearance and/or culture might contribute to how they've experienced the world and how they might then act because of that. It may indeed help you to be a more sensitive person and build better relationships. Don't pull a Michael Scott and get hung up on those things (see The Office: Diversity Day), just keep them in the back of your mind. And don't you dare assume that your place in society as a white male -- traditionally the top if the heap -- gives you a free pass to act like a dick. 

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It's enough to worry about the fact that my sons are boys and will become teenage boys who will undoubtedly make some bad decisions one day (not to imply teenage girls don't make bad decisions...my memory isn't that bad). Michael Brown was one such teenager who made bad decisions, a series of bad decisions that ultimately cost him his life. And even now that we have heard from him publicly, we still cannot presume to know what Officer Darren Wilson was thinking when he pulled the trigger (repeatedly). It would be unfair to assume he did so in response to the color of young Mr Brown's skin. Still, the question is hard to push entirely from our minds and indeed this question fuels much of the weeks events. It's equally unfair to assume that the fault lies entirely with the victim. I've heard repeatedly that 'that's what you get' when you don't obey the law and I can't quite agree with that statement either.

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LESSON 2: When making bad decisions, for the love of all things held holy, don't do it around firearms.

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Regardless of motives or the specific sequence of events, we are now faced with a situation where a white police officer has ended the life of an unarmed black teenager. Those facts are undeniable. The specific circumstances of this case are now argued at extreme ends through the embroiled emotions of people who feel they've been personally wronged in one way or another, of people who have lived their lives in only one skin and hold inflexible opinions and stubborn vantage points. The facts of the case are tainted and clouded by an increasingly 'us' versus 'them' mentality. This mentality is reflected in the comments section of news items and perpetuated by ignorance and misinformation.

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LESSON 3: Don't go through life looking for a fight. People are complicated. Situations are never really black and white (so to speak). There's not a good guy and a bad guy. Be compassionate, not combative. 

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Yes, I believe we can all agree that violence and destruction is not productive. The rioting and looting that has occurred this week is criminal activity which put(s) the safety of civilians and peace officers at risk and causes devastation in it's wake. The day after the jury verdict was announced an entire city block was left in ruins, at least 61 arrests had been made overnight, a handful of injuries occurred, and the value of the damage caused (both physical and psychological) is yet unknown. The images of a city on fire are burned into the retinas of the country as we try to make sense of the senseless.

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LESSON 4: If you want to make change or be heard, do it in a peaceful, productive and positive way. Use your words. Destruction and violence only hurts people and makes them angry. Worse, it totally delegitimizes your 'cause.'

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Hate isn't something that's born in our hearts, it's placed there as a seed and then cultivated over time. Those who walk around with it feel somehow compelled to spread it for reasons unclear to me. Maybe they do so in order to justify it or so they won't feel so alone with it. Likewise, I don't believe that hate is always recognized as such by the handler, people are fond of saying 'I don't hate anyone' or 'hate is too strong if a word' but it certainly rears it's head in times like these. It seeps out of the hearts in subtle and not so subtle ways.

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LESSON 5: There is no room for hate in this life. It will rot you from the inside out and make you unhappy and unpleasant. More importantly, it is a dangerous emotion. Cultivate only love for others...or try to at least like them a little. Look for the good in all people, even if you have to work a little harder to see it.

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My Facebook feed the night following the Grand Jury verdict was primarily positive, with my own little personal community offering messages and support and hopes for peace to one another.  But there were a few sporadically placed words of antagonism on both ends. I did my best to hold my thumbs and not engage, but then in the darkness of the early morning hours, feeling the weight of a world in chaos, I made the mistake of responding to one such status which came from several states away and a poster I do not know well.
 
I urged the poster to and presumably any curious followers to refrain from    name calling and instead be part of the solution; to teach our children to speak with less polarizing statements. The counter-response I reviewed was ugly -- much uglier than the original post -- and I quickly regretted engaging in this public form of dialogue.  The misspellings and poor grammar were far less offensive than the content itself, which suggested that as a St Louis resident, I 'should know better' and was somehow at risk of being raped by intruders, in front of my children no less, in response to my 'white privilege.' The poster, it should be noted, has served our country as part of the armed forces and has also apparently worked in a prison (in what capacity, I am unsure). He has obviously seen some ugly things in his still relatively young life and therefore his vantage point is clearly skewed, but obviously fueled by the 'us versus them' mentality I mentioned earlier. The suggestion that I might be sexually assaulted in my own home simply due to the color of my skin is offensive, alarmist, and entirely missing the point. 

We simply cannot live in a state of irrational fear of one another. Sure, there are some deranged mother F-ers out there who might find it suitable to get their jollys off by gross criminal conduct. Indeed, many of them have recently congregated in Ferguson and other parts of my beloved city. But those sick SOBs come in all shapes and colors and I will not presume they are a dime a dozen or that I should fear that they will invade my home once they realize I am Caucasian. The suggestion was obviously made in a desperate (and unnecessarily) defensive move to make a point that I have already deemed to be 'part of the problem'.

If we stand around talking about how wronged we have been (or could be, hypothetically) we are somehow justifying violence and counter-violence when it might not be otherwise considered. We are simply fanning the flames of an already very volatile situation instead of running for the fire extinguisher.  

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LESSON 6: Engage in productive dialogue only. Listen to others carefully and try to understand what they are saying to you. If you find yourself making or receiving outrageous or hurtful statements, it's time to re-evaluate the possible outcomes of the conversation. It might be time to step back and try again with a new approach when things are less heated. If you really want to make an impact on another person's opinion, speak with respect and reason and listen closely. 

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Tuesday morning, I belted myself into my car and drove to a spot just a few short blocks away from one of the heaviest areas of Monday night's protest and entered my place of employment where I am easily considered a minority as a white woman. I was greeted at work by a very distraught colleague who was near tears as she described lying awake listening to helicopters circle her neighborhood and fearing for all the young people in her family and community who were being called to violence. It was heart-breaking to hear the devastation in her voice, but it felt totally fitting to be engaged in a dialogue with her, to listen to her experiences and offer my own. She's a person I respect whole-heartedly so that made our conversation easy. I realize that the conversations that need to happen in order to make real progress will be more challenging and need to happen between people who are perhaps less willing to listen to each other. 

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LESSON 7: Don't be afraid to have difficult conversions. The most productive dialogue I have had in my life has always been the most uncomfortable. Often, they were conversations I delayed out of fear and had to build up significant courage to initiate. Some people thrive on debate or inciting conflict, but ironing out some marital spat or professional issue tends to be outside of my comfort zone. Still, I have found that the outcomes of these discussions were always well worth the anxiety.

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The plain fact if the matter at the end of the day is that we are all stuck together on this planet and we need to find a way to coexist without killing each other ... literally. Sure there are parts of the world which have sunk into deeper violence and despair than this little corner of the Midwest, but I refuse stand by and watch in silence as my beautiful city crumbles under the weight of hate and bigotry and senseless violence. 

I think about my children and how I am lucky now that they are so small and so entirely unaware of this big nasty mess happening a few short miles from their comfortable little home. I have friends who are struggling to explain these complicated and disturbing events to their children as schools are closed and televisions are tuned in to the unfolding events. Someday my boys will learn about the ugly parts of life. It is unavoidable. Until that time, I hope I can teach them to be good people; to be kind; to be part of the solution. 

Divided We Fall.

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