CHARLOTTE — While playing with my 2½ -year-old great-nephew was a joyous distraction from the events of Ferguson, Mo., this past week, it was also a reminder that the shelf life for innocence is short when you are a black male — and there is no room for error.
Everywhere the family went with my adorable toddling guest — touring a transportation museum and riding the train there, playing in the kiddie pool at the Y, taking a walk down the street — we were greeted with smiles. Even when he tried to plunge into the fountain reserved for pennies and wishes, his indiscretion elicited smiles, not stern glances.
I wondered how long he would get the benefit of the doubt and not the side eye. It was a question on my mind when I raised my now-grown son – a good man but no saint. He played by the rules and still had his unwarranted traffic stop that resulted in a ticket he fought because he was just that angry. He thankfully controlled his frustration in his interaction with official authority, a lesson I taught reluctantly, figuring a bit of damage to his spirit was preferable to any other sort.
In the case of Michael Brown, unarmed when he was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, the vilification of character — his and that of the protesters seeking justice — quickly followed his confrontation with Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. It was a familiar scene.
Ferguson’s police chief, Thomas Jackson, whose authority was usurped, might have been calculating and cynical when he released a video allegedly showing Brown in an altercation and robbery at a convenience store on the day he was killed. The release of the tape was an attempt to shift the narrative into the “blame the victim” strategy, and it almost certainly triggered an escalation of unrest that had died down. It might have endangered the community and citizens that Jackson is supposed to protect, but the St. Louis suburb’s top cop certainly knew what he was doing.
It was a contrast to Charlotte’s own case of an unarmed black man shot by a police officer, when the chief of police, Rodney Monroe, who happens to be African American, conducted an investigation quickly. Randall Kerrick of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is out on bond as he awaits trial on a charge of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting last year of Jonathan Ferrell, who sought help after a car accident. (Charlotte should not, however, get too complacent, as underlying issues of economic inequality, poverty, lack of job opportunities and challenges in public education – at the core of discontent in Ferguson – haunt the New South poster child, as well.)
In Ferguson, the public still has not seen an incident report of the events of that day — any information would be welcomed. But many observers who were cautioning patience before a rush to judgment wasted no time in judging the whole of Michael Brown from a few glimpses.
Who knows what multiple investigations will eventually reveal about just what happened in those few minutes, fatal for Brown and life changing for Wilson? But it is possible to be both the loving son and grandson that Brown’s family remembers and someone who stole a box of cigarillos, as much as it is to be a police officer who was in fear and also may have misjudged the moment.
Based on hardened and preconceived notions of what it means to be a large black teen, some have filled in the blanks and closed the case after predicting the 18-year-old would have come to an inevitable bad end.
They are making him less than human in the same way some supporters were building him up as something more.
This is happening in a time when schoolyard fights or cursing at a teacher, offenses that in the past merited a trip to the principal’s office, can now land students — disproportionately African American and Latino ones — in court and with a record that follows them forever. Suspensions start in pre-K, a trend that local school systems and federal officials are trying to reverse.
When I was a teenager, attending a predominantly white high school and college, the fact that both were Catholic institutions did not make every classmate an altar boy or girl. Random drug test results might have reported the marijuana levels reportedly found in Brown’s, which have added “drug crazed” to his profile. That didn’t stop these good students and mostly good people, after occasional steps off the straight and narrow, from eventually figuring out how to navigate life.
As an adult, I have friends and acquaintances of every race and economic situation whose children have been involved in scrapes that crossed a line. Some have struggled with addiction and other demons; most, with love and support, have made it to the other side and are happy, healthy and successful. Many were given second, third and more chances, which Brown will never get.
His parents, in their mourning, have asked for peace, and the crowds at the town meetings, though angry, have heeded their plea. Most street protesters, diverse in the photos I’ve seen, have done the same, marching with purpose but not violence. They have tried to protect stores from the looting by those who have swept in to take advantage of the chaos. A report in The Washington Post explained how crowd members, young and old, are far from monolithic.
Yet in much of the public comment and the immediate police response, no such distinction was made, with reports of citizens tear-gassed in their yards and scenes of snipers with guns aimed at unarmed men, women and children. Imagine if the police and National Guard in Ferguson were met, as federal officers enforcing the law at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch were, with protesters pointing rifles at them.
My son is now old enough to notice the double standards on his own. On his social media page, he along with so many others, are expressing their frustration. One line he reposted noted that the armed-to-the-teeth shooter at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater made it into police custody alive after his murderous spree.
It breaks my heart that he’s learned his early lesson only too well, and that I still worry. I hate that the little boy who knocked down blocks as quickly as we could stack them this past week will have to always be as perfect as I already think he is. And even that might not be enough for his own country to see him as a complex and complicated human being.