At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Breaking the Silence on Ferguson

I lied.

I said I wouldn't discuss the tremors in Ferguson, Missouri, the after-effects of the shooting death of Michael Brown, and the grand jury matter regarding officer Darren Wilson.

I said if you want to hear my opinions on it, then you'd have to speak with me face-to-face.

Well, that can get cumbersome. Plus, this is too important of an issue, so not speaking about it can be problematic.

I say "can be" because there's been a lot said about Ferguson on social media, on cable news, on the Internet, and so on and very little of the discussion has been constructive.

There are some exceptions to that rule. Some bloggers and speakers have spoken in order to shed more light than heat on this. Eichel Davis (no relation), a Westminster grad whose company I enjoy greatly, gave an honest African-American perspective about a month after Michael Brown's death. Also, Mike Higgins, a seminary classmate of mine and now Dean of Students at Covenant Seminary, was interviewed by Christianity Today and gave kind but firm responses regarding the issues behind Ferguson

So in a sense, what could I add to the discussion that hasn't been said. Precious little. But I feel somewhat burdened to speak out on a few details.

First, the reaction to Michael Brown's death underscores the truth that St. Louis is one of the most divided, segregated cities in America. This is why I dismiss assertions of St. Louis natives who criticize the Deep South for vicious racism. Not that racism doesn't exist in the South; it does. I lived in the South for most of my life and I can tell you that racial bigotry can rear its ugly head from time to time. But there have also been tremendous advances and healing over time in the former Confederacy, although there's a ways to go. But St. Louis has cornered the market on subtle yet very real segregation and racism that does need to be called out. White flight and suburban stretch have buttressed that, as well, as the city of St. Louis has undergone a slow death while Southern cities like Atlanta and Chattanooga have experienced urban renaissances. 

Secondly, the reaction to Michael Brown's death shows that--as Soren Kierkegaard once said--people demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use. Both sides on this issue bear guilt. It doesn't take much for people like Sean Hannity to go into full-ninja reaction mode on Fox News and start assuming the worst about Michael Brown and immediately defend the police officer Darren Wilson who shot Brown. Nor does it take any thought or responsibility for groups like the New Black Panthers to swoop into town and stir up discord. Guess what? Maybe the best thing to do is to speak about what we know rather than what we assume to be true. Social media and the informational superhighway may move at warp speed, but no one is forcing you to keep pace.

Thirdly, spinning off from point 2 above, the reaction to Michael Brown's death shows us that we very often do NOT use our heads when reacting. The number of times Americans have been slow to speak have been minimal. The grand jury investigation has been poring over evidence that the general public has not been privy to, yet many Americans from Main Street to Wall Street, from Fox News to MSNBC, have been sounding off. Have the humility to admit there is more to this than you can see at first. And when the evidence doesn't fit one's pre-disposed view of things, what then? It remains to be seen.

Fourthly, what matters is going on from this. We cannot resurrect Michael Brown, and that is a tragedy, because he should still be pursuing his future. Officer Darren Wilson's career is forever changed. But this is an issue that goes beyond the families and the police department, beyond funerals or discussions about police profiling, and beyond the largely unhelpful pontifications of people like Al Sharpton and Bill O'Reilly. 

I'll tell you why the fourth matter is so key for me personally. I teach at Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis, where our minority enrollment is about a sixth of the student body, quite excellent for a private school in west St. Louis County (a territory I call the "Ritz Blitz"). When the grand jury decision is announced, there will be a number of students in my classes and throughout our school who will experience a range of emotions: the raw, the confused, the honest, the unhelpful, the genuine, and the skeptical. What we have to do, as our headmaster Dr. Tom Stoner reminded us, is to provide safe places in which students can work through the gamut of this experience. The key thing is to help promote peace and positive relations among our students and staff, and that begin by listening to each other, not barking off our opinions.

The days ahead are nebulous ones for Ferguson and for the greater St. Louis area. But the motto of Geneva, Switzerland during John Calvin's time there was "After darkness, light." Our responses will be the beacon for change.

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