On Saturday, August 9th, an unarmed 18 year old was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO. Michael Brown was a recent high school graduate and was to begin college shortly.
The police claimed that there was a violent struggle, during which, Michael Brown was shot. However, witnesses tell a different story. A story of a young black man, an unarmed black man, running from police and being shot. The officer reportedly continued to discharge his weapon after Brown was shot, after Brown turned and faced the officer with his hands raised in the air.
This, in all its gruesome horror, is the tip of the iceberg. Because what follows is so very troubling. While there have been reports of breakout violence and looting, there have also been reports of officers using rubber bullets and tear gas on people just walking. JUST WALKING! The media has been ordered out–two journalists were unlawfully arrested while following instructions of the officers.
The story emerging via streaming videos and Twitter feeds is at odds with the official story. It is emerging despite the attempted media blackout. People like MO State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal will not be silenced–even when, like Chappelle-Nadal, they are gassed while peacefully protesting. Actually “sitting” according to Ms. Chappelle-Nadal.
As I sit here in Vermont watching with horror as this unfolds, there are some things that I know. Things that shake me to the core of my being.
I know that this wouldn’t happen where I live– I believe the population of my state is something like 95% white. Police don’t target white people unjustly as a matter of course.
I don’t ever worry about the police. I don’t worry that I will become the unfair and prejudicial target of police attention. I never have given that possibility a thought. It isn’t my reality. If it were ever to happen, I would think nothing of assertively defending myself. I wouldn’t fear violent repercussions. This scenario is pretty far out of the realm of possibility for me and probably every white person I know.
We are white. We are not subjected to systemic racism. I know this because white Michael Brown’s do not exist.
The fallout after Ferguson. That wouldn’t happen here or to me either. Back in 2007, I participated in a series of protests over funding the Iraq war. We occupied our state representatives offices for a day. At the end of the day, we refused to leave. We were trespassing, actually breaking the law.
The police were called on the 8 or so of us that decided to stay. We were issued written citations. I don’t even think there was a fine. The officers were courteous and professional. They even joked with us. They waited patiently while two of the gentleman in our group decided how they wanted to be lead out of the building. They chose to be cuffed together–the rest of us chose to walk out unshackled–we were given the choice. Truth be told the officers indulged those two gentlemen with amusement by cuffing them together.
We are white. We don’t worry that our First Amendment rights will be violated. I know this.
And when we do break the law? Like we did? We are typically treated with kid gloves. The consequences of using excessive force on white people would be astronomical for any officer participating. The public outcry would reverberate far and wide.
When you’re white, police brutality is typically not a looming threat even when you ARE breaking the law. I know this.
When I think of the most vile things that have occurred in my recent lifetime, I know that minorities are almost without exception the victims. Usually people of color.
Hurricane Katrina keeps coming to the front of my mind. The vast majority of those left to suffer without food, water, and adequate shelter were black. If that were a predominately white community? Those people would not have been left to die.
When you’re white, the government doesn’t stand by and thumb twiddle while thousands of lives are in immediate peril. I know this.
There is so much I don’t know. I don’t know what it feels like to go about life knowing that a sideways look could land me in a world of pain and trouble at the hands of those sworn to protect me.
I don’t know what it feels like to know what it feels like to simultaneously be a victim of injustice and blamed.
I don’t know what if feels like to know that most people would barely pause to acknowledge serious injustice perpetrated against me.
I’m pretty sure I would feel powerless and unspeakably vulnerable.
I’ve been afforded the luxury and privilege that allows me to claim that I’m a non-violent person. I can say things like, “Violence is never the answer,” because I’ve never been asked the question.
What would I do? What would I do if I knew that some innocent person that I love would be subjected to brutality? What would I do if I could predict with some certainty that one of my children would be the victim of state perpetrated violence? How far would I go to protect the people that I love? What would I do with the certain rage that would be a product of watching the guilty walk away with little more than a slap on the wrist?
I’m white. I will never be able to do more than speculate. Speculate without the lived experience of existing day in and day out with the ever present shadow of systemic racism. I will never really know.