Ferguson Must Have an American Response—by Peter Eisenstadt and Ayala Emmett

Ferguson Must Have an American Response
Peter Eisenstadt and Ayala Emmett
August 28 2014

Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old, shot and killed, his body uncovered, exposed to the sun for more than four hours–was finally laid to rest on Monday. For the last time, and finally with dignity, Michael Brown a mother’s child, a father’s namesake was surrounded, embraced, and mourned by family, friends, ordinary citizens, celebrities, clergy and politicians. So many people inside the church and outside paid their respects but America, or more specifically, white America–with very few exceptions–was absent. There were no visible white clergy and no 2016 political aspirants. It seemed that the Ferguson tragedy was black Americans’ grief.

Yet Ferguson is really an American tragedy and must have an American Response. Geographically located in Missouri, it is a familiar American catastrophe: a policeman shooting and killing an unarmed citizen: a young black man.

For days since the killing of Michael Brown, Ferguson’s racism has taken on contemporary tropes; armored vehicles carrying mounted guns, battle gear, stun grenades, and tear gas. Yet, all of these are familiar forms of violent response to grief that have a long history. They are firmly rooted in slavery that etched in American collective memory the practice of treating black people’s bodies as commodities and in subsequent denial of rights; Jim Crow, lynching, and segregation. Despite the advances made by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many forms of racism have endured; segregated neighborhoods and schools, discrimination in the workplace, in voting rights, in the incarceration of vast numbers of young black men, and the constant feeling, particularly by young men, of being guilty until proven innocent

Many of these issues are reflected in the question of police brutality. Now as in the past, disregard for life, for human dignity and for justice have corroded the social fabric. It has produced a Ferguson-like traumatized African American community in which the police are just a manifestation, albeit one with guns, that could shoot citizens with impunity yet are a part of the social fabric.

An e-mail that Ayala received from sociologist Dr. Karen Fields underscores this larger social fabric of race relation that can’t be localized or neatly isolated. “It’s good for people to understand that police harassment is not a faraway “there” and “them” – or that the victims are always young black men. I don’t recall if I ever told you of being followed by Brighton police (in 2000) into the driveway of the home of a psychologist with whom I was acquainted. After the woman admitted me, the officer knocked, asked if she was ‘all right,’ then engaged her (and she, them!) for at least 15 minutes, while I waited inside. Seeing my state after those 15 minutes, she offered me a sugar-loaded candy…. I stood up and left as soon as I was able. It seems to me that woman had received the policing she paid for and took for granted when she moved into that ‘nice’ neighborhood.”

Dr. Fields writes, “Back in 2011, I was stopped (with daughter Maimouna in the car) as I exited the street alongside Wal-Mart. We were fourth or fifth in line. I asked the young woman(!) what I had done wrong, and she answered, “We’ll see.” It went down from there. I made no effort to contradict her, or her older and more experienced partner. I didn’t want to push a button of police mayhem.”

The message that Dr. Fields and all black parents, citizens of this country,

convey to their children is that they, the parents, much like their ancestors during slavery are unable to protect them. The media in the days of vigils in Ferguson was replete with stories by ordinary and famous African American parents about talking to their sons on how to behave when confronted by police. What got displayed in Ferguson/America in essence are an intersection of the domestic: parental helplessness, and the political: that citizenship is not the same for blacks as it is for whites.

The question of black citizenship reminds us of what Howard Thurman had to say on the subject in his crucial study, Jesus and the Disinherited (1948.) For Thurman, one of the leading religious thinkers of the 20th century, and born poor and black in the Jim Crow South in 1899, the most significant difference between Paul and Jesus was that Paul was a Roman citizen, and Jesus was not. Jesus, and his followers, were afraid every time they saw Roman authority, a centurion, a Roman soldier, knowing that they could knock them into a ditch, or worse, and they would have no recourse, no legal way to address their problems. Paul on the other hand, was proud of being a Roman citizen, and it led to a complacency in his social thinking, including his condoning of slavery. It was this fear, and the accompanying emotions, hatred, and deception, that Jesus addressed in his ministry.

The situation, Thurman argued, between 1st century CE Palestine, and America at mid-century was not that different. There is no such thing as second-class citizenship. It’s an all or nothing proposition, and for almost all black people in America it was nothing. Too many black were being killed, or having their lives ruined and stunted because they were not, in any meaningful sense of the term, American citizens. Things have changed since 1948, in some ways, immeasurably for the better. But the reality, as the Ferguson events have demonstrated to everyone with eyes to see, is that, still, far too many blacks are not American citizens, in any of the ways this really matters. Real equality is still a distant goal. The police, all too often, treat blacks as second-class citizens. And, we must all insist and try to make real, there are not, and cannot be any second class citizens