Friday, August 15, 2014

What Would Your Reaction Be?


I always try to imagine myself in controversial passion-filled situations to see how I would feel if I was actually part of the story.  On the occasion of Michael Brown's shooting by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, for instance.....

I'll use my own small town of Wabash as an example. Wabash consists of Wabash proper and the south side, separated by a river. In this scenario, let's say, the south side is the poorer side of town and includes 67 percent of the population of Wabash. There are often hostile feelings between the two sides, with the northsiders feeling contempt for the southside and the southside feeling resentment toward the northside.

It really isn't difficult to see why the southsiders feel as they do. Everyone on the school board is a northsider; 50 of the 53 police officers on the Wabash force are northsiders; the mayor is a northsider; the prosecutor is a northsider.

Some (maybe even most) of those 50 northside police officers have a low opinion of the southsiders. Sometimes, it is announced right out in the open at roll call - "let's go out and have a southside night", which means let's go arrest a bunch of southsiders". And this prejudice shows itself statistically. Even though only 67 percent of the population is made up of southsiders, they make up 87 percent of the arrests. The vast majority of speeding tickets written are given to those from the southside.

These aren't just perceptions of a disgruntled community. They are facts as compiled by the state over the last 14 years. So we know for sure that profiling and targeting by police is rampant. And we also know that, despite clear evidence, absolutely nothing has been done to try to correct the situation. The officer who made the comment about having a "southside night", and well as many other racially charged statements, has now been terminated but that didn't happen until he was hit by a media spotlight. As long as no one but Wabashians were aware of his rank prejudice, it was ignored.

So, pretend you are a southsider. You see the people in your community getting citations for speeding and other minor infractions at a much higher rate than northsiders. You son comes home with a story about being hassled by the cops when he was doing nothing wrong. You are called ugly names. Your neighbors get stiffer sentences than northsiders for the same crimes. You get stopped by the cops because you have a tail light out, a tail light that magically comes back on by the end of the stop. You've heard and seen and experienced this happening your whole life. And, yet despite efforts to complain and sue and draw attention, it just goes on and on. The Northside power structure isn't interested in changing. They're fine with things the way they are.

And then a police officer shoots Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager who was due to leave for college. Shoots him down in the street. You're stunned but you wait to see what the reaction from authorities is going to be and what that reaction is, it seems to you, is stonewalling. They don't release the name of the shooter. No one is charged with a crime. They don't even interview Michael's friend, who was with him and saw it all. Nope, there is no car video, they tell you. And you believe, as a southsider whose been through this movie before, that once again, you are going to get screwed. Only this isn't about a speeding ticket or a joint, this is about a dead boy, one of your own! This is your last freakin' straw!

So you gather in protest and you're met, not by police trying to calm the situation, but tanks and Humvees and assault weapons and a freaking MRAP! It looks like they'd love nothing more than the slightest invitation to shoot you. And so you're pissed, yeah, really pissed. And yep, there is some looting and vandalism until Michael Smith parents beg for it to stop and it does. But still, there is no statement from the state apologizing and declaring a really serious investigation will be done because this kind of incident is flatly unacceptable and intolerable. The streets are still filled with police officers lobbing tear gas into your midst, spraying your children with mace, calling you "animals".

The chief of police warns that you may gather but you should be off the streets by dark. Why? The First Amendment is not only in affect in daylight. It is a 24/7 amendment. Because you are a southsider and southsiders have a particular experience with being told to leave town before dark, that order strikes a painful chord northsiders might not recognize.

All you know, is your're goddam sick, sick in both senses of the word - sick as in "sick and tired" and sick as in "sick at heart" - of seeing your husbands and fathers and sons being arrested and bullied and even shot down in the streets like dogs for doing nothing more than northsiders do every single day with no consequence. You could go back and compile a list of names and it would stretch on endlessly.

So what would you do if you saw yourself and your family and your community being subjected to injustice that went on for years with absolutely no response from the people in a position to change it? Do you think you're be angry? Do you think you'd be resentful? Do you think its possible you might act out?

To tell you the truth, I'm not sure I'd have as much self-restraint as most of the southsiders in situations such as this one and the Trayvon Martin shooting and....

It always amazes me that some northsiders' (not just in this little story but in all these similar cases) first reaction is to be judgmental about the behavior of the victims instead of the perpetrators.

What if someone smacked you in the face every day for 14 years (probably more but that's how long we have evidence for) when you'd done nothing wrong? And one day you smacked him back and people told you, "oh, no, you shouldn't do that....just be quiet and take it and someday, by magic, it will stop"?

No, things don't change by magic. They change when attention and outrage are brought to bear. You don't convince people who are treating you badly into doing a 180 by "niceness". They change when victims rise up and say, "no more". Does that sometimes mean physical violence. Yep, sometimes it does. You call people animals, don't be surprised if they throw it back in your face.

So, we'll see what happens next but if the powers-that-be think that they can whitewash it and then it's back to business as usual, I think they are wrong. If the response to cries for justice are Humvees and assault rifles and tear gas, then this certainly won't be the last of it.

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