A Statistical Tragedy
One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic. – Josef Stalin
As events continue to unfold in Ferguson, MO, much of the online discussion focuses on the excessive firepower of police departments, no only there but around the country. This is a good discussion, and needs to take place in precisely the way it is unfolding: focusing on the extreme imbalance in firepower, with local police departments purchasing surplus military equipment, including planes, helicopters, drones, recoiless rifles, and automatic weapons. More and more police departments have trained SWAT personnel being used for routine actions such as serving warrants. Even as the crime rate has fallen precipitously, police continue to arm ever more heavily, now dressing in full combat gear to deal with peaceful protesters. How anyone in a position of authority thinks this is either a good idea or is going to end well for anyone involved is beyond my comprehension.
The real story, however, is the freedom, even impunity, with which police seem to operate in African-American communities and neighborhoods. If the death of Michael Brown were a single instance of a police officer reacting out of fear or anger, it might well be that there would be no need for all the talk about peripheral issues such as the hyper-militarization of our municipal police forces. The fact is, however, that Michael Brown is both a tragedy and a statistic. He is a single victim of excess police violence; whatever happened that day, both the police report and witnesses agree Brown was shot in the back while fleeing the scene. At the same time, his death is yet another depressing statistic in our long national narrative of state-sanctioned violence against African-Americans, particularly young African-American men who have always been viewed as posing the threat of violence against whites.
At some point, the discussion needs to return to the reality that we as a society tolerate far too much official violence aimed at minority communities. When people talk about “racism”, this is precisely what is at issue. The term has been overused to the point where its real meaning has become shrouded in images of the Klan burning crosses on lawns, or historic photographs of lynchings turned into community events. That such is no longer part of our life, at least on a daily basis, we console ourselves that ours is no longer a racist society. That, however is not what I, for one, mean when I say ours is a racist society. Nor am I that concerned with whether or not this or that white person harbors fear or hatred of minorities in his or her heart. That is the question of bigotry, and for now is a separate issue.
American history, viewed from the perspective of African-Americans, is two centuries of keeping 13% of the population under control by any means necessary. From slavery to Jim Crow to mob violence to official violence to the War On Crime, the War on Drugs, the rise of the prison-industrial complex, white flight and the abandonment of our urban centers, we continue to construct policies and practices that limit the freedom of African-Americans. This creates situations in which police and courts feel free to act both arbitrarily and with impunity when the subject is black. Whether or not any particular police officer, or police force, has or doesn’t have a history of racial animus, the reality is that ours is a society in which official violence against minorities, particularly minority youth, is not only tolerated but encouraged. The result is not only the death toll of African-Americans at the hands of police; it is also the disproportionate response when African-American communities rise up and demand accountability for those who terrorize their homes and neighborhoods. No amount of explanation and context-setting makes the photographs coming from Ferguson make any more sense. On the one hand there are men and women marching in the street, insisting the police be held to account for Michael Brown’s death. On the other are the police with dogs, automatic weapons, sniper rifles, mine resistant vehicles, and full body camouflage body armor. At what point does it not become obvious this is not only morally wrong, but can only result in more violence and possibly more death?
For people of faith, following these events should be painful. We should recognize our complicity, as fellow Americans who support local police forces, including providing the money for purchasing the weapons on display not only in Ferguson, MO but around the country, through our taxes. We should repent of our silence in the face of the daily reality of official oppression that all too often erupts in the violent death of African-American, Latino, and other minorities, particularly youth. We should be a voice not only for peace, but for justice. Part of acting out our faith must be the demand that our police forces return to their essential function: helping neighborhoods and people, rather than arming themselves against the people they are supposed to protect. We should demand legal accountability for any act of violence against any civilian, including civilian oversight boards for each and every case where a defendant is injured or killed. The police need to be accountable, not to themselves, but to the law through people who are charged with holding them accountable. It is long past time to rein in the threat of violence too many people face from cops. Our churches should be the loudest voices calling for justice, peace, accountability, and the imposition of the rule of law over police forces around the country.
We need to make sure Michael Brown’s death means something, instead of becoming yet another check mark in our too-long history of a racist power structure murdering a young person of color. We can do that if we live out our call to be people of peace who serve a God of justice. My prayer is we might begin to travel this road, and soon. The cost in lives keeps rising.