Like so many people who listened Tuesday evening to Robert McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor in Missouri explain the grand jury’s decision not to bring charges against police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, my heart sank.
It was not that the decision was a surprise, but I was hopeful that a different decision would have prevailed. I was prayerful that justice would have won and hopeful that a decision would have been rendered that conveyed to the people of Ferguson and to the nation that a Black life mattered and was valued.
I was dismayed to hear the prosecutor spend so much time impugning the life of a young man who could not speak for himself. As my wife and I listened to what seemed to me to be intentional and deliberate character assassination, I wondered about Michael Brown’s parents – their wound from their son’s death still fresh, their grief still close to the surface – and that now they must hear their son’s name being dragged through the mud. It must have been like a sharp arrow piercing their hearts a second time.
But that arrow has been felt by a lot of us who keep hoping that America will be this place of liberty and justice for all. There was nothing in that decision that any Black parent can take comfort in regarding their Black sons.
Michael Brown is alleged to have stolen a hand full of cigars from a convenience store. Even if that is true, it was not worth him losing his life and in the way that he did – fatally shot and his body left in the streets for four hours and 30 minutes without the dignity of even being covered.
We watched in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision as some in the community reacted violently. That too was not a surprise, but the greater violence was in this decision. The greater violence is in an economic system that keeps people in poverty, in an educational system that refuses to believe that children of color are not worth having the same advantages as white children. The violence lies in the fears that we refuse to confront and that we spend millions of dollars to maintain and prop up and that operate with the assumption that Black people need to be contained and controlled rather than invited to participate in society as full human beings without suspicion.
Our youngest son posted after the grand jury’s decision, “My heart is heavy.” Our 38-year-old nephew, who has an 11-year-old son, wrote, “I fear for him because I feel as though our country doesn’t value his existence.”
Our niece went even further: “It hurts my heart as a mother to think that this very special little boy’s (she has a 5-year-old son) life means nothing to so many people. This little boy who bakes a cake just to celebrate life. Whose smile will melt any heart, except those who see him as threat because of his skin color or his size as he grows. He’s not perfect, but he matters! He’s asked me a hundred times tonight, ‘Mommy, what happened to Mike Brown? What did he look like? What are we watching? Why are all the schools closed? Why are you sad?’ Unfortunately I have no words, so I put him to bed, telling him he is important no matter what, and I gave him more kisses and hugs than I can count.”
I have no doubt that there were a lot of Black mothers and fathers Tuesday night and tonight and the next who will be entertaining those kinds of questions posed to them by their sons about why it is they have to worry about things that White children don’t have to worry about. Why is it that White people claim such fear of a young Black male even when there is no evidence of a threat? What is it about our countenance that causes us to always try to be on our best behavior in public, to speak with the best articulation, to consciously and intentionally walk and talk and act in such a way that we do not make White people uncomfortable, and then at the end of the day discover that it is not enough and it does not matter.
The eruption in Ferguson is a wake-up call to all of us. But the eruption will not matter one bit if we do not find the courage to grapple with the questions that I have raised. We can’t bring back Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis, but we can prevent more young Black males from dying untimely and unnecessary deaths because of racism fueled by a fear of the other.
Officer Darren Wilson was a prisoner of his upbringing, an upbringing that gave him every advantage because of the color of his skin. And in that upbringing he was, as is the case with so many Whites, taught to be suspicious and fearful of Black people, especially Black males. He took that teaching into his job as a police officer. It was that teaching that kicked in on that hot August day in Ferguson that transformed Michael Brown from an 18-year-old teenager into something sinister and inhuman.
Beyond the political and systemic conversations and changes that need to take place in our nation, something far more basic needs to happen – as basic as the conversation that my niece was having with her son.
We need to take off our masks to each other and commit to being real – commit to being human – because true forgiveness and reconciliation only happen when we are real with each other.
We watched the local news for several hours Tuesday when the media broke in with the news that the grand jury’s decision would be announced within the coming hours. We saw in the course of those several hours reports of people from all walks of life, both Black and White, people representing varying faith groups, standing together, working together to foster racial understanding. There were reports of so many who had been present in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death and were supporting the family and the community of Ferguson. This was the vision that we all must hold onto in the ensuing days.
I am saddened, disappointed and angry by a system that has once again put the law above justice. I am disappointed and saddened because the decision by the grand jury once again sends a powerful and disturbing message that the lives of young African American males are not valued. But I am hopeful, and it is that hope that keeps me from becoming cynical, that keeps me trustful. It is that trust that allows us to reach out to engage each other. We must find that capacity to trust ourselves and to trust each other. It is the only way beyond this darkness. The truth is all of us matter.
Ken Wheeler is a retired pastor. He most recently served at Cross Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Milwaukee. He was also an assistant to the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA for 18 years.