by Charles M. Blow
The reaction to the failure of the grand jury to indict in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, touched something deep and ancient and anguished in the black community.
Yes, on one level, the reaction was about the particulars of this case.
It was about whether Wilson’s use of force was appropriate or excessive that summer day when he fired a shot through Brown’s head and ended his life.
It was about whether police officers’ attitudes towards the people they serve are tainted. Why was Wilson’s description of Brown in his testimony so laced with dehumanizing rhetoric, the superhuman predator and subhuman evil, “Hulk Hogan” and the “demon”?
It was about whether the prosecutor performed his role well or woefully inadequately in pursuit of an indictment. Why did he take this course of action? Why didn’t he aggressively question Wilson when Wilson presented testimony before the grand jury? Why did he sound eerily like a defense attorney when announcing the results?
And yet the reaction was also about more than Wilson and Brown. It was about faith in fundamental fairness. It was about whether a population of people with an already tenuous relationship with the justice system — a system not established to recognize them, a system used for generations to deny and subjugate them, a system still rife with imbalances toward them — would have their fragile and fraying faith in that system further shredded.
As President Obama put it: “The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color. Some of this is the result of the legacy of racial discrimination in this country.”
He continued, “There are still problems and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up.”
No, they are not. An October analysis by ProPublica of police shootings from 2010 to 2012 found that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police officers than their white counterparts.
And yet, people like the former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani want to blame the victims. On “Meet the Press,” he dodged the issue of white police forces policing black populations, and raised another: intra-racial murder statistics in the black community. After proclaiming that “93 percent of blacks are killed by other blacks,” he asked a fellow panelist, Michael Eric Dyson, a black Georgetown University professor, “why don’t you cut it down so so many white police officers don’t have to be in black areas?”
Classic blame-the-victims deflection and context-free spouting of facts. What Giuliani failed to mention, what most people who pay attention to murder statistics understand, is that murder is for the most part a crime of intimacy. People kill people close to them. Most blacks are killed by other blacks, and most whites are killed by other whites.
In fact, it is so intimate that one study has found that people likely to be involved in murder cases can be predicted by their social networks. A Yale study last year examining “police and gun homicide records from 2006 to 2011 for residents living within a six-square-mile area that had some of the highest rates for homicide in Chicago” found that “6% of the population was involved in 70% of the murders, and that nearly all of those in the 6% already had some contact with the criminal justice or public health systems.”
As a co-author of the study put it, the relationship among killers and those killed was like a virus: “It’s not unlike needle sharing or unprotected sex in the spread of H.I.V.”
So, what are we saying to the vast majority that are not involved: that they must accept the unconscionable racial imbalance in the police shooting numbers as some sort of collateral damage in a war on crime? No!
It’s an unfathomable, utterly immoral argument, and let’s not give Giuliani a pass for making it. After all, New York’s obscenely race-biased stop-and-frisk program was introduced under Giuliani, and some of the most notorious police violations of black men in recent history happened on his watch. As The New York Times recounted in a lengthy 2001 profile:
“In the summer of 1997, a police officer brutalized a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima in a bathroom of a Brooklyn station house. In the winter of 1999, four members of the Police Department’s Street Crime Unit, searching the Bronx streets for a rapist, shot and killed an unarmed African immigrant named Amadou Diallo; they had mistaken his wallet for a gun. And in the winter of 2000, just as Mr. Giuliani was gearing up his candidacy for the United States Senate, an undercover officer shot and killed an unarmed black security guard named Patrick Dorismond after a brief struggle in Midtown; the victim had been offended by the undercover officer’s inquiries about buying some drugs.”
Also, race is not the best lens through which to consider criminality. Concentrated poverty may be a better lens. According to a July Brookings report:
“Poor individuals and families are not evenly distributed across communities or throughout the country. Instead, they tend to live near one another, clustering in certain neighborhoods and regions. This concentration of poverty results in higher crime rates, underperforming public schools, poor housing and health conditions, as well as limited access to private services and job opportunities.”
If we are serious about fighting crime, we must seriously consider the reason— on both an individual and systemic level — these pockets of concentrated poverty developed, are maintained, and have in fact grown and spread.
But this is not about Giuliani and the police aggression apologists. This is about whether black boys and men, as well as the people who love them, must fear both the criminal and the cop.
Sadly, for many, the Ferguson case reaffirmed a most unsettling sense that they are under siege from all sides.
So people took to the streets. Who could really blame them?
Some simply saw protests marred by senseless violence. I saw that, to be sure, and my heart hurt seeing it. But I also saw decades, generations, centuries of pain and frustration erupting once more into view. I saw hearts crying and souls demanding to be heard, to be seen, to be valued.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” King, a great champion of nonviolence, wasn’t advocating rioting, but rather honoring hearing.
Even long-suffering people will not suffer forever. Patience expires. The heart can be broken only so many times before peace is broken. And the absence of peace doesn’t predicate the presence of violence. It does, however, demand the troubling of the comfortable. When the voice goes unheard, sometimes it must be raised. Sometimes when calls for justice go unmet, feet must meet pavement. Sometimes when you are unseen, you can no longer remain seated. Sometimes you must stand and make a stand.
No one of good character and conscience condones rioting or looting or any destruction of property. Those enterprises aren’t only criminal, they’re fruitless and counterproductive and rob one’s own neighborhood of needed services and facilities and unfairly punish the people who saw fit to follow a dream and an entrepreneurial spirit, and invest in themselves and those communities in the first place.
But people absolutely have a right to their feelings — including anger and frustration. Only the energies must be channeled into productive efforts aimed at delivering the changes desired. That is the hard work. That is where stamina is required. That is where the long game is played.
As the old Negro spiritual proclaims: “Walk together children/Don’t you get weary/Oh, talk together children/Don’t you get weary.”
(This column originally appeared in the New York Times Nov. 26, 2014 under the title “Fury After Ferguson“)
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”