I have been thinking about what my contribution to the discussion of Michael Brown & Ferguson can be. Particularly being a white woman, how can I understand this experience? The closest analogous experience I have had takes me back twenty-two years to Long Beach and the LA Riots.
As the Sublime song says, it was April 29th, 1992. There were riots on the streets, where were you? Well, I was a 17 year old kid who, because of the declared curfew, wasn’t going to her evening job at a sandwich shop, and so sat at home watching the city burn around me- and not just on the television. From the roof of my modest condo building, I could see burning fires in all directions and I watched as the liquor store across the street was looted and vandalized. I saw a neighbor of mine stand in the middle of road, firing his gun down the street at someone beyond my line of sight.
At the time- I had mixed feelings about the violence, the cause of it, and what my role in it all should be. I wish I could tell you I was filled with moral outrage and that I participated in the events for all the right reasons, but mostly I was focused on going to a “riot party” down the street hosted by a college guy (!) who had invited me. I’d also like to say it was the first time I’d had a gun pulled on me, but it wasn’t that either- my neighborhood being what it was.
I had friends and acquaintances – white, black, hispanic, filipino, who participated in the riots- some out of frustration, some for the thrill of it. The Rodney King case was about race and prejudice, much as Michael Brown’s case is today. Those riots may have been sparked by the acquittal, but they were fueled by injustice, inequality, and systemic discrimination. Seems like the wheel of history is rolling down the same sad road and not enough has changed.
What I believe about the people who participated in the LA riots is that most of them were good people. The guy who stood in the road and fired a gun down the street? I remember he doted on his mom and his treasured Chevy El Camino, and that he used to give me rides to school. I also know he was a drug dealer, who went to jail for a brief period during the Gulf War for assaulting “Arabs”. Those things- not so good. There was a deep, deep contradiction present in my neighbor- a contradiction that can be summoned within all of us.
Power vs. powerlessness quickly becomes abuse of power vs. fighting for power. If only it was as simple as good vs. evil.
Given my white skin and (at the time anyway) blonde hair, I have not experienced racism. So, although I was not economically far removed from many of my friends and neighbors, the tension between power vs. powerlessness didn’t affect me the same way. But violence doesn’t come only from those fighting for power.
Rolling Stone’s devastating article about the brutal gang rape at UVA reveals a more frightening kind of behavior than what is happening in Ferguson. Knowing that the men who perpetrated that crime will be sitting down at lavish Thanksgiving tables- smiling, laughing, doting on younger sisters and grandmothers, makes my blood run far colder than anything done on the streets in the name of Michael Brown. The protesters in Ferguson and the rapists at UVA aren’t even in the same league- and yet we are watching the agonizing inequality inherent in these stories unfold before our very eyes.
Humans are flawed. It’s fair to say that we are the meanest, cruelest, most vile creatures to have ever walked on the face of this planet. And yet, we have created beauty, shown kindness that has moved us to tears, generosity that has humbled us, sacrifice that has taken our breath away, selflessness that has caused us to exclaim that “our faith in humanity has been restored.” How can we hold these opposing truths within ourselves?
We know the answers aren’t in the 24-hour news cycle. We know that there are criminals and victims who never receive justice. We know that by definition, when a society is more equal the tension between those with power and the powerless is reduced. That seems like a great place to start. By acknowledging our shared responsibility, demanding transparency, and pushing for greater equality as a society, we can make progress.
I don’t know how to fix all the messes and hurt that I see in the world, but I know that I am dedicated to being part of the solution. Black lives matter. Women’s lives matter. Those without power need to be heard and we must amplify their voices. Ferguson is speaking.
Are we listening?