On Events in Ferguson, MO and the Limits of Empathy

I can’t understand what’s going on in Ferguson. Oh, I understand that the black citizens of the town are viscerally upset at the unjustified shooting and killing of an unarmed young man. But however much I may read about the events, the hurt, the feelings of betrayal, I can’t understand it.

You see, I’ve never felt targeted by the police. Despite the odd speeding ticket, I’ve always pretty much known that the police where there for law enforcement, which meant to protect me from those who break the law. I didn’t grow up in world where every interaction with the police included watching someone I care about being arrested or shot. Exerting all my powers of imagination and empathy, I can’t place myself in nearby Southeast DC and conceive of the police not as my protectors, but as my jailors. Placed in a threatening situation, my first impulse would be to call the police and ask for their protection. I would not assume that no matter what was happening outside my door, involving the police would only result in the loss (to jail or otherwise) of someone I care about.

I can know all the facts, all the names, see all the timelines of events and the eye-witness reports from Ferguson, but I can’t understand what’s going on there. Perhaps it’s because I will never, ever, be in danger of being shot in broad daylight by a police officer–no matter how disruptive I am being. I was born with the presumption of innocence, not guilt. Michael Brown was not.

In fact, I could “break bad” today and spend the next five years selling drugs, purse snatching, robbing liquor stores, and then on day 5 years +1 I could decide to stop breaking the law, and from that day forward I could walk down any street in any city in the US in the pure and absolute knowledge that whatever vile things I may have done in the past, the police were there to protect ME. Not just people, ME.

I can’t understand what it is to live life thinking of the police as my oppressor, the judge, jury and executioner who assume from my skin color that I’m already no good–that I need punishment, if not for what I’m doing now, for something that I’ve surely done in the past and will inevitably do in the future. I can’t understand. However much I may want to, and I do want to, I never will, not fully, it’s a bridge too far.

What I do understand is this: however unasked for, I am the beneficiary of this bifurcated police system–a system designed to protect ME from THEM. I can disavow it, decry it, rail against it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is intended to benefit me. Except that I don’t benefit from it, not really. The laws of self-fulfilling prophecy take hold and people told they are the enemy long enough concede and become the enemy, convincing the oppressors that they were right all along–perpetuating a vicious cycle of hate and violence that benefits no one.

I understand that this is where we are now, that we have let generations of young black men grow up knowing that they stand on the wrong side of the ME/THEM police line. Finally, I understand that it is foolish for white America to think that anything will change so long as we are content to sit comfortably on our side of that line.


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