This post took me three weeks to prepare. There’s so much to say, and the word-containers I’m drawing together feel far too narrow and too shallow to hold that “so much.” The community of Ferguson, MO, has been in grief since August 9, and that grief, first re-presented as aggression, then analyzed from afar, and dismissed by the detached at every turn, exploded into international spectacle within a week.
A few days after I began following this situation, a Jamaican friend texted me a two-minute video of two constabulary officers beating a market seller with batons and shooting their pistols into the air to ward off the crowd. I asked my friend whether the clip had already made the local news. He told me it was too common an event to make the news. “Maybe it’s time to redesign civic policing,” I told Twitter. “This is not its finest hour.” My frustration built quickly and I didn’t see an outlet for it. So much of the epistemology of power—expressed by police forces and institutional gatekeepers worldwide—requires sustained denial of the realities of disempowered people. It requires the denial of stories. The rejection of relationship. The building of policies and customs with so narrowly defined an Ideal Human. All of the above is power without legitimacy.
As common as it is for Jamaican police to bully the public, it’s just as common for us not to listen to our own experts when they recommend deep change. Ferguson, MO, didn’t become what it is by accident. And the rest of our world isn’t what it is by accident either. Dartmouth’s Paul Batalden often says “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” So if we don’t like our results, we have to change our design. We’ve designed a civic system based on studied ignorance, weak listening cultures, & ahistorical context framing. We keep spinning back around to the same social crises again and again—but of course. Our system isn’t learning because we don’t design it for learning. No one can learn by blocking new information. We can’t learn without listening to others beyond ourselves or experiences beyond our own. Nor can we learn without a sense of time or space, a location in space-time that situates us in relation to other people, other eras, other worlds. Instead we’ve built a system that mocks or resists research and specialists, that elevates the echo chamber, and that pretends every crisis is brand new. I do not believe this status quo is the best we can do.
Despite this design, a Midwestern community has responded to the pattern that gave them a dead son, and many of us outside the city have responded to a broader system that doesn’t seem to mind recapitulating this same story line every 28 hours. The protesters in Ferguson haven’t trafficked in ignorance; they’ve consistently and relentlessly reported ahead of the professional media from the start. The community isn’t stopping its ears and yelling “LaLaLaLaLa!” It’s engaged supporters and critics in real time, received outsiders willing to tell fair stories, and adapted as things have changed. The community refers to similar situations from recent history, domestic and international, but does not collapse them into its own. It knows its own context. And it’s building a new frame supported by new activists freshly engaged because the old frame has proven incapable of bearing the community and its children. Ferguson’s residents and youth, along with all the residents and youth in solidarity with them in the US and around the world, are among America’s finest system re-designers. They’re not going to let the systemic power structure slip back to ordinary. We can’t.
On the evening of August 14, I drove to Baltimore to stand in solidarity with Michael Brown’s family, the Ferguson, MO, community, and other victims of violent policing nationwide including Eric Garner, John Crawford, Armand Bennett, Ezell Ford, and Dante Parker. There were about 90 vigils around the country scheduled for 7 p.m. that night thanks to Feminista Jones and the #NMOS14 community on Facebook.
So I went to this local vigil to be in silence with other people who, like me, were tired and sad. I hoped that in the silence we were able to create, and in the sound we made when we spoke with one voice, we could remember that we’re not alone, that we have power as The People that we don’t exercise enough, that when one of us is cut down, it isn’t someone else’s problem, it’s ours. We have a better world to build together.
As soon as I got into town, I noticed a higher and more visible police presence than I’ve ever seen, even during baseball games and other mass events. The police recorded everything from the sidelines; a lot of marchers took their photos and recorded them in return. A helicopter hovered throughout, and we saw snipers watching from the tops of city commercial buildings.
While I felt incredibly surveilled by the authorities, I was also grateful for the mix of people who participated and stayed engaged during the evening. I heard about a number of people who’ve died in the custody of Baltimore City police recently—these were stories I hadn’t heard before—and we told those stories until our convocation ended outside the commissioner’s building.
Overall those present with us were passionate but not aggressive. And the police, despite their surveillance posture, did assist us in moving around the streets near the Harbor without getting entangled with B’more traffic. About 200 people marched, and others joined along the way, all without bystander heckling or grumbling.
Part of what overwhelmed me as I walked was fatigue from the waning of a long, stubborn summer, from not being around many other people who were moved to act rather than simply posture or criticize, having few physical spaces to vent and build energy with, and not knowing the local landscape enough to see which groups were already working and could use my support. The news never offers this level of connection or insight into change: rather it serves up and profits from a focus on problem-problem-problem and blood-blood-blood.
The morning after the march, I shared with my mother where I’d gone and why I cared. She listened quietly at first, but then invoked the “last days” of apocalyptic scripture: what else but the worsening of the human condition should we expect, she asked. She also reminded me of her experience in England with anti-black policing, racial protests, and riots during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. I’m sure she meant to encourage me, but the prospect of repeating this narrative to my own baby cousins in 40 years doesn’t encourage me in the slightest. I don’t want them to be on the same hamster wheel that we’ve been on in the last few decades.
I want a different world for them.
A few days later I read a story about a woman in San Jose, CA, who died holding a cordless drill.
“Police and witnesses described the dramatic scene Thursday morning that ended with the fatal shooting of a mentally ill woman in front of her duplex on busy Blossom Hill Road, two blocks east of Oakridge Mall in South San Jose…”
“Police said the 911 call required a quick and strong response.
“‘We had a call, somebody with an Uzi threatening to kill family members,’ San Jose police spokesman Officer Albert Morales said. ‘It was a very serious situation, a very dangerous situation for our officers.'”
No one else was home with the woman. She was alone.
All the officers had were words, the words in the 911 call. And those words reframed completely what they might have seen in front of them. The “very dangerous situation” they believed they were part of was made so a priori by those words. And thus a drill became a gun and help became harm.
Words can so restructure reality that you will not see what is in front of you. If I find that frightening it is because of the quality of words that much of the world is shaped by. If I find it exciting it’s because I read and write words that could create a wholly different world. I only wonder if a wholly different world is the option that we’ll choose.
This post was not about a policeman or a teenager. It wasn’t even about an Uzi or a cordless drill. All of these are details that make no difference if fear has already degraded our ability to perceive accurately and investigate properly.
I don’t want to live in fear. I want to root for a new world, and I’m willing to help build it.
When I spoke to my mother that morning, I told her I believe that fatalism is corrosive. And I told her that I believe the discipline of caring regardless of outcome is good for us.
She nodded—a rare concession—and she told me she loved me.