After watching events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri for the last several days, one truth is clear: We don’t know one another. We, Americans in general, live knowing very little about those who are different from ourselves. We are clannish, tribal, and we cross the boundaries to learn about others far too rarely.
In Ferguson, Missouri, this lack of knowledge is on brilliant display. Here is some of what do know took place there. We know Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen year-old man was shot by police and left bleeding and dying in the street. We know it took several days for the police to say the name of the officer who killed Michael Brown. We know the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, a mostly Black suburb of St. Louis, have protested the killing for several days. We know the police responded like an army taking over a small country. We saw the shocking militarization of our police forces on threatening display. We heard local officials say an investigation was underway and we saw a local population voice an utter lack of confidence in their own leaders. We saw journalists illegally detained. We saw peaceful protestors falling victim to smoke canisters, tear gas, shock grenades. All this in a suburban American neighborhood. The scenes looked more like Baghdad or Kabul, than St. Louis. This is what happens when our police departments are geared-up for war. Their equipment and tactics were about warfare, not policing.
One common practice that surely must change as a result of the killing of Michael Brown is the protocols around police shootings. The manner of releasing information, of administrative leave– all these protocols are serving to reduce public confidence. These must change.
Other realities that become clear from the killing of Michael Brown include these: the killing of Black men continues un-checked in our country. From the days of legal slavery, through a century of lynchings, to today, Black men are far more often killed by gun violence than any other Americans.
Another truth that becomes clear is that we, Americans, don’t know one another. Generally speaking, white Americans don’t know the fears, concerns, and grievances of African-Americans. We don’t know how our neighbors feel, fear, yearn. Whether one is Black or white, Hispanic or Asian, straight or gay, male or female, we rarely know the deep experiences of other identities. We don’t take the time to learn others’ experiences. We aren’t encouraged to.
This lack of simple knowledge is crushing America. You can’t express empathy if you don’t know what another’s life is like– if you don’t know how others suffer. And if you can’t express empathy, you surely can’t act to alleviate others’ suffering. This lack of knowledge about our neighbors also makes us far more likely to fall prey to stereotypes, to simply believe a dominant narrative, regardless of its veracity. Not knowing our neighbors makes it pretty tough to live out the American motto: “E Pluribus Unum” — “Out of the Many, One.” How can we take our several American experiences and form them into “one?” How can we realize any kind of unity if we don’t know one another?
Recall what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said after the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles: “Rioting, at bottom, is the language of the unheard.” When whole groups of our fellow-citizens are unheard and unknown, we can’t be surprised at the language of that isolation.
I have no idea how the injustice and sadness of Ferguson will conclude. I fear we will see more violence and brutality before we see less. People are angry. I am angry. That anger issues from a place of deep pain. Without coming to know others, we won’t address that pain. Without taking time to listen and absorb others’ experiences, we will not achieve any kind of healing in America.