Monday, December 15, 2014

Why Would Anyone March For That Guy?

I suppose I grew up rather clueless as to the depths of racial division in this country. That might seem strange given the fact that I grew up in an all-white neighborhood and didn’t even go to school with any non-white kids until late in my high school career. After all, the very existence of such lilywhite bastions would seem to speak pretty strongly of the existence of racial division, right? But perhaps it also points to our ability to both see the results of systemic racism without really seeing it all at the same time. Interestingly, the first step toward racial diversity at our high school didn’t even involve the enrollment of any African-Americans. It was a couple of Vietnamese refugees, so-called “Boat People”, who were the first non-whites to walk through our doors.

Despite growing up in an all-white neighborhood, I don’t recall a single instance of my parents inculcating us kids with any racist ideas. To the contrary, I remember well my mother, a British immigrant, telling us about traveling through the Jim Crow South and being totally flabbergasted when some white people stopped her from using a restroom that was intended for use by “colored people” only. Likewise my father, born and raised in the U.S. and a public school physical education teacher by trade, never spoke ill of anyone on the basis of race. Even after school desegregation (“busing”) began in St. Louis and the occasional interracial conflict arose at his erstwhile all-white school, he never attributed it to any shortcoming on the part of the new arrivals. I only recall him speaking once, in what I would call almost mystified terms, of some black kids not wanting to cooperate in his class. After all, they were going to play a game. It was going to be fun, right?

Vonderrit Myers and his mother

Perhaps that mystified reaction is an outgrowth of our ability to both see and not see all at the same time. With hindsight I can reflect more deeply on the difficulties likely faced by those students who were bused in from very different neighborhoods far away and who must have already begun to feel the weight of a racist world that even well-meaning and open-minded individuals like my parents couldn’t fathom. And I can see that in my own way I’ve followed in my parents footsteps, having grown up to be well-meaning and open-minded – both seeing racism and not really seeing it all at the same time.

It’s not like I’ve remained in a white cocoon my entire life. I followed in my father’s footsteps for a time, teaching in a high school that was part of the “deseg program”. It was actually one of the poorer County schools, however, and I thought the races mixed pretty well given the fact that they shared similar socioeconomic backgrounds. My work since then has taken me to various community service and employment agencies, high schools, halfway houses, and homeless shelters throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area. I’ve seen first-hand the disparate impact of poverty on African-Americans. Looking back, though, I suppose I’ve thought of this disparity in more distant and abstract terms – as the legacy of long-ago misdeeds still playing out in the present day despite our best intentions to overcome them, rather than as the result of systemic racism churning out new misdeeds in the here and now. These recollections notwithstanding, it’s still difficult for me to say exactly how I thought about race at the beginning of this summer. So much has happened in these past few months that has compelled me to totally rethink my own attitudes about race as well as the nature of racism throughout this country.

This past July 13 was the first anniversary of George Zimmerman’s acquittal of legal wrongdoing in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Please take note of the emphasis I’ve placed on the word ‘legal’. It was a case that I’d followed with great interest, and I would be remiss if I didn’t admit to having doubts about it constituting murder. Rather than seeing the killing as an act of premeditated physical aggression, I thought of it more as a “perfect storm” of fear-based and overzealous community vigilance meeting justifiable resentment on the part of one profiled individual, with just enough bad law related to firearms and personal defense thrown in to make it deadly. It was a tragedy, yes, and I do not consider Zimmerman in fond terms, but the verdict did not compel me to rethink everything I thought I knew about race and racism. It said more to me about our self-defense and gun obsession than anything else. Then, just four days after the first anniversary of this touchstone verdict came the killing of Eric Garner, and so the summer of 2014 would begin.

Eric Garner, an unarmed black man accused of illegally selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street, was choked to death this past July 17 by a white police officer attempting to arrest him. It was grotesque in both its end result and its utter senselessness, but it didn’t immediately strike me as being an outgrowth of institutionalized racism. Certainly, it was an aberration, right? Besides, I must have thought at the time, there will certainly be legal ramifications for the officer who used the illegal chokehold that resulted in Garner’s death. There simply must be. I was both seeing and not seeing all at the same time.

Not even one month later, on August 4, white police gunned down a young black man, John Crawford, in the toy department of a Dayton, Ohio Walmart after he apparently failed to hear their “commands” to drop the toy air rifle that he was considering purchasing. To be truthful, I am not completely certain that I heard of Crawford’s death right after it occurred. I think it was only after I started really wondering about these killings that I did the research and found the store video showing Crawford completely unaware of the presence of any law enforcement officers until such time as their bullets were entering his body. I was aware and yet unaware all at the very same time.

And then came August 9, and the killing of another unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, this time at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri during a highly disputed altercation. There was something about this killing that pierced the veil clouding my awareness; or perhaps there were many things actually. There was the reality of such a large number of bullets having been fired at an unarmed person. There was Michael Brown’s body being left out in the street for hours. There were the statements that Brown was in the process of surrendering prior to being killed. There was the sense that the number of bullets fired was much more a matter of choice than necessity. There was the anonymity of the police officer, now known to be Darren Wilson, and the fact that communication coming from the Ferguson Police Department was lacking straightforwardness and impartiality. I was beginning to really see what African-Americans have been experiencing for a long, long time.

On the Sunday following Brown’s killing, I attended for the very first time a protest seeking justice on his behalf. I witnessed firsthand the outrage within the African-American community, and in the ensuing weeks and months I began to learn more and more about what I’d been seeing without really seeing. I learned a little bit more about the history of all of those little North St. Louis County municipalities that I drove through on the way to and from work each day – the existence of which had mystified me for some time. I learned of the role that “white flight” from the city of St. Louis had played in their creation, and I learned of how they are funded in large part with money that results from the policing of their less affluent African-American residents. I was finally beginning to really see what systemic racism is all about. Please read my related blog post for more on these realities: Black and White Thinking, and Other Things Ferguson.

Then, after joining in several marches and rallies on behalf of justice for Michael Brown, came the evening of October 8. Vonderrit Myers was hanging out with friends when something about them, as yet unclear, caught the attention of a white St. Louis City police officer who was moonlighting as a neighborhood security guard. The youths reportedly fled. Myers, with the officer in pursuit, allegedly fired three shots at the officer before his gun jammed. The officer fired 17 times in return, hitting Myers a number of times in his legs and killing him with a shot to his face. The neighborhood erupted in protests, much like those that followed in the wake of the killing of Brown.

Questions about my role in this burgeoning movement began flooding my mind. For instance, I was fairly confident that Darren Wilson should be charged with some crime, but the first degree murder charge that some sought seemed untenable, as did the contention by some that all cops are racist killers. I felt totally congruent chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace”, but my whiteness just wouldn’t allow me to utter the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” chant that is now the rallying cry of the movement. I had become familiar with the fact that this movement is comprised of people from all walks of life, races and ethnicities, and with all sorts of philosophies and world views. I realized that my presence in this movement was necessary even as it required me to march with those whose views I didn’t completely agree with. But why would anyone march for Vonderrit Myers? That was the question that popped into my head.

Well, I have now marched on behalf of justice for Vonderrit Myers. No, I don’t think that the police account of him shooting at the pursuing officer is a total fabrication (although I do have some questions as to how things really played out), but the fact that many people have completely lost confidence in anything the police say speaks volumes about the nature of the social problem that we have – a problem that seems to me to need addressing from at least three angles: 1) The circumstances related to the killing of Myers and all others who are killed by police need to be publicly documented and available for study and discussion. This is not a blanket accusation of wrongdoing. Rather, it is a statement related to the seriousness with which we should treat the taking of life by those in our employ. At present, recordkeeping related to those killed by police is sorely lacking, as a recent Wall Street Journal article attests. 2) Protocols related to the use of deadly force need to be reviewed and revised. At present, a police officer has virtually unchecked discretion to do whatever he wants as long as he can say that he felt threatened. The apparent willingness to use deadly force in these recent cases, and the apparent willingness to engage in it with brutality should give us all pause, especially in light of allegations that the police officer who killed Myers, Jason Flanery, might have been predisposed to the use of excessive deadly force against an African-American individual given the nature of his social media postings. Which brings me to the third aspect of the problem. 3) Racism in this country is not simply comprised of isolated instances in which one individual might negatively impact the life of another. Racism in this country is an aggregation of numerous such actions stemming from and perpetuating the systemic and sometimes deadly oppression of African-Americans that is evident in nearly all measures of well-being. This is something that I’m seeing with much greater clarity than ever before, and I hope we all begin to discuss ways to remedy it wherever it exists in all of our social institutions - healthcare, education, employment, criminal justice, economic, financial, et al.   

On September 24 we learned that there would be no indictment for the killing of John Crawford. On November 24 we learned that there would be no indictment for the killing of Michael Brown. On December 3 we learned that there would be no indictment for the killing of Eric Garner. It’s a foregone conclusion, I’m sure, that there will be no indictment for the killing of Vonderrit Myers, and yet perhaps we all have some measure of culpability for his death.

Through our direct action, non-action, or complicit silence we either create or condone the social structures that give black youth like Vonderrit a much less hopeful future than if they were white. We hear of him being gunned down and we wash our hands of him. We say “good riddance” and applaud the cop who did our dirty work for us – earning his keep by removing so much human garbage from our streets. We disrespect ourselves when we treat any life so cavalierly. But it won’t end there. We can’t simply discard the Vonderrit’s of our world and expect to go about our merry white ways. There is no truer chant than that which I’ve heard and uttered out there in the streets on behalf of Martin and Garner and Crawford and Brown and Myers and so many others: No justice, no peace.

Image Credits

Photograph of Vonderrit Myers and his mother via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Black and White Thinking, and Other Things Ferguson

We likely all fall prey to it from time to time – dualistic thinking of the ‘all or nothing’ type. You know, something is either right or it’s wrong. It’s good or it’s bad. Circumstances are either pristinely perfect or they’re an unholy mess. Someone is either with us or against us, friend or foe. Such ‘black and white’ thinking might help us navigate those emotionally stressful situations that arise from time to time, it might even help us make a quick decision that we feel needs to be made, but it doesn’t much help us see the underlying reality of the situation with any clarity. In fact, ‘black and white’ thinking merely preempts our ability to see what’s really going on.

Let’s face it, though, most of the time we’re not all that interested in seeing what’s really going on. Feeling good is what we care most about. And so we gravitate to people who make us feel good about ourselves rather than those who might challenge us to grow in ways that would be healthier for both us and the world. We stay in jobs that provide us with status and material comfort in lieu of accepting work that might be better for our spiritual growth and the planet. We adopt a belief system that bolsters our self-esteem instead of allowing ourselves to see things as they really are. Yes, we feign interest in this thing we call “the truth”. In reality, though, it’s pretty much like Colonel Jessup said in the film A Few Good Men: we can’t handle the truth!

An example of a belief that keeps us from really seeing things as they are is the so-called ‘just world hypothesis’. In the eyes of a ‘just world’ believer people get what they deserve. If someone is poor, it’s because they’re too lazy to get out and find work. If someone is sick, it’s because they didn’t have the discipline to live an active life and eat healthy foods. If someone gets raped, it’s because they drank too much in the company of the wrong type of people, or they dressed provocatively and sent out the wrong vibe. If someone gets shot dead by a police officer, it’s because they were doing something that they shouldn’t have been doing, plain and simple, end of story.

Which brings me to the reaction of some to the killing of an unarmed black youth in Ferguson, Missouri this past August 9, and the unrest that followed both his killing and the decision not to indict the white police officer who cut him down in a hail of gunfire. One needn’t search for long in order to find numerous manifestations of the ‘black and white’ thinking and the ‘just world hypothesis’ of which I speak. The editorial pages and social media platforms and the comments sections below the online news stories are chock full of them. Sure enough, various levels of critical thinking are in evidence in these comments, but if we examine them closely we can see where critical thinking ends and ‘black and white’ thinking and the invocation of the ‘just world hypothesis’ begins.

Sadly, some needed to hear no more than the fact that a black man was shot by a police officer in order to conclude that justice was done. After all, we need to support those who stand for law and order in this increasingly violent world of gangsters and others who hold in contempt all that civilized society holds dear, don’t we? Such commentators would need only pepper their words with a racial epithet in order to remove whatever doubt might exist regarding the true nature of their feelings. Thankfully, the minds of others seemed to have remained open just a little bit longer, until such time as video emerged of Michael Brown appearing to engage in a strong-armed theft of some cigarillos at a convenience store just prior to meeting his demise. Oh, now we see who Michael Brown really was, some were to conclude at that time. He was nothing but a “thug” and now it’s clear that he had it coming to him. Still others were willing to look past Brown’s apparent petty theft in order to focus on what took place during the subsequent altercation between him and the police officer. Darren Wilson claimed that Brown struck him and went for his gun, and the forensic evidence seemed to support what he claimed (although alternative scenarios might also fit the evidence). Nobody can expect to hit a police officer and go for his gun and live to talk about it, can they? Yes, indeed, justice was served, some were to conclude.

Unfortunately, we can also see ‘black and white’ thinking and the ‘just world hypothesis’ being applied during discussion of the protests and rioting and looting that occurred after both the news of the killing and the announcement of the decision not to indict Officer Wilson. The most egregious examples are variations on the theme of considering every single protester to be a rioter and a looter and thereby deserving of whatever heavy-handed and militarized law enforcement retaliation that they might have been met with. So, if someone got wounded by a “rubber bullet” or a teargas projectile…, well, they were looters…, no, they were “domestic terrorists”, and they deserved whatever they got. If someone got arrested for not following the unlawful orders of a police officer…, well, you’ve just got to do whatever a police officer orders, that’s all. We live in a just world, and in a just world if you behave like an animal you get treated like an animal. There’s no reason to look at things any more deeply than that.

And, yet, it really doesn’t take much digging at all for one to discover that the protesters are actually comprised of a very large majority of working class individuals, professionals, students, families, church groups, community organizations, and others who are seeking to communicate their concerns and their frustrations in a non-violent way. Sure, accompanying them on occasion is a minority of others who are either too frustrated to be able to contain their destructive rage or who might actually be looking to engage in a bit of opportunistic looting. However, if we allow ourselves to see this diverse reality, if we allow ourselves to see past the ‘black and white’ conclusions we might be inclined to draw about those “looters” and “domestic terrorists”, then we must also become willing to see that perhaps injustice is being done. Perhaps injustice is being perpetuated. Perhaps we don’t live in a just world after all. Can we handle that truth?

That’s a scary thought, isn’t it – that maybe we don’t really live in a just world after all? For if we don’t really live in a just world, then maybe the good fortune that we enjoy is not really so much deserved as it is the result of a roll of the dice, a grand twist of fate. Maybe we’re just incredibly lucky to have been born into circumstances that made a good education possible, that made employment opportunities possible, that made our hopes and our dreams possible. But what if we’d been born into poverty? What if we’d been born into a neighborhood with terrible schools? What if we’d been born into a situation where people think any number of negative things about us based upon the color of our skin? What if we’d been born into circumstances where the names just keep piling up of all the people that we know who’ve ended up in jail or dead just for trying to do what they felt they had to do to survive?

If we really look at the killing of Michael Brown and its deepest causes, if we really look at the response of the community and the world, and the response of the police and the government, if we can get past our urge to wrap up Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown into a neat little package with a ‘he got what he deserved’ bow on top, then we might actually be able to create something positive from what many perceive as simply the latest case of racial injustice in a long and seemingly endless string of racial injustices. In order to do so, however, we must be willing to handle the truth. And what is the truth? I don’t profess to see it all, but I’ve been paying close enough attention as these past few months have unfolded that I think I see bits and pieces of it.

There is the truth of Michael Brown struggling to graduate from a predominately African-American school district – one troubled to the point of being taken over by the state. There is the truth of the municipality of Ferguson being funded in large measure with money raised from the “crimes of poverty” of its citizenry – the piled up traffic tickets related to the inability to maintain vehicles, for instance. There is the truth of the predominately white government and police force of Ferguson overseeing the civic affairs and the policing of its majority black population, and there is the truth of the tension that resulted therefrom. There is the truth of the long and violent history of racial injustice in this country, and the contemporary truth of episode upon episode in which white police officers are perceived to be perpetuating that injustice via their apparent quickness to use overwhelmingly deadly force against unarmed black men and youth. There is the truth of the community raising its concerns that Darren Wilson would receive preferential consideration given a prosecutor with a perceived history of bias, and there is the truth of these concerns being dismissed out of hand. There is the truth that Darren Wilson did indeed receive preferential treatment in a number of ways*, just as those responsible for past civil and human rights abuses were given special treatment in the white courts of the day. There is the truth that, whether or not Darren Wilson had the law on his side when he pumped a barrage of bullets into Michael Brown’s body, there is still a question in so many people’s minds as to whether he was justified in doing so. Did he need to use force or did he just want to? Was he the provocateur in this deadly altercation? Was he so inept in his handling of this encounter that he bears responsibility for the death of Michael Brown?  Yes, the truth of these open questions (and others) hangs in the psyches of many who know all too well the names of those who’ve fallen victim to the application of overwhelmingly deadly police force, despite the larger white community having forgotten. This is the truth of our nation: that many of its citizens perceive that the apparent quickness to pull the trigger, and the willingness to keep on pulling the trigger, and the willingness of the larger white community to condone the pulling of the trigger, stems from an inherent belief that black lives don’t matter – a belief that is undergirded by the truth of the higher incarceration rates of African-Americans, the sentencing disparities between blacks and whites, and the disparities in the application of capital punishment between blacks and whites.

So, how do we even begin to address this tangle of racial and social issues? Perhaps a good place to start is to focus for a moment on the truth of Michael Brown: that no matter what he might have done he was much, much more than the worst of his deeds. He was a living and breathing human being with family and friends and the desire to be happy and free. He deserved his day in court for whatever wrongdoing he might have been accused of. His life mattered. And the fact that his life was taken away by an employee of the state while acting on our behalf should give us all pause; it should make us curious enough to look closer – much closer than we’ve looked up to this point.

But, but, but…, you might wish to take exception, Michael Brown was ultimately the victim of his very own choices. Perhaps that is the truth; but can you say with certainty that you would never have made the same choices as he did if you were faced with the same circumstances as he was? Is that the truth? Or is it really just the case that you can’t handle the truth?

* Grand jury transcripts reveal that Darren Wilson gave hours of testimony during which he was able to promulgate his explanation of the altercation between he and Brown without adversarial cross-examination. This opportunity to convey his side of the story comes on the heels of him not writing an incident report on the day of the shooting itself, thus providing him with the opportunity to become aware of what evidence existed and to tailor his story to account for it. Furthermore, the grand jury was reported to have been given a document outlining the acceptable application of deadly force that was deemed years ago to have been unconstitutional – thereby falsely lowering the standard by which Wilson’s actions would be judged, and making the decision not to indict just that much more likely. 

Image Credits

Screen shot from the film A Few Good Men manipulated by the author.

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Saturday, November 22, 2014

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? - That Which We Already Know

Chapter Six - That Which We Already Know

Imagine, if you will, that child of tender years that you once were – perhaps four or five or six years old. You’re at a gathering of some sort, with many of your mother’s or your father’s adult friends in attendance, or maybe relatives that you’ve never met before; and as the awkward introductions proceed at least one of the grownups smiles at you and enquires: “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

What would your response have been? Would you have embarked upon delighted imaginings, or begun parroting precocious certainty? Would the question have even made sense to you, or would it have left you instead with a confounded blankness? And me? Well, count me amongst the confounded, for the most part.

Oh sure, I engaged in my share of role-playing fun. As boys did at the time, we played 'Cowboys and Indians' and other war games. From time to time I even dressed up in the Batman costume my mother sewed for me and commenced to pretending that I was as big and strong and smart as the “real” (adult) batman on T.V. When Halloween came around, though, more likely than not I chose to dress up as a hobo.

The author explores ways to manifest his True Self

I’d like to think that that choice of Halloween costume foreshadowed my later appreciation of one of the most highly evolved hobos of all time – the Buddha. To be sure, dressing up as a bum was a fairly popular thing for boys to do back in those days; and, yes, little was required beyond grease penciling a scruffy beard on your face, throwing on one of your father’s big old flannel shirts, and tying a bundle of rags wrapped in a kerchief onto the end of a found stick. That notwithstanding, there does seem to be something telling about my desire to be a hobo.

Do I reveal too much about my adult psyche in saying that – as I drive by one of those still wild places that exist down in the over-grown culverts along the highway or in the odd parcels of land too small or inaccessible to be of commercial value – I think of sitting there in solitude, the quiet observer that I have been for as long as I can remember. I know a little bit of what it is like to be a hobo, I think – to feel that there is little in this so-called civilized world to become attached to – to feel that living amidst the truth of those still wild places, as difficult and insecure as that might be, is better than dying slowly amongst the falseness of this fallen world that we’ve created. Was my knowing this already to the depths of my being what inspired me to dress up as a hobo on those Halloween nights so very long ago?

We so gradually develop the self-awareness of our adult years that we tend to forget those childhood days when we had very little of it at all. When we ask a child what they want to be when they grow up we tend to assume that they have a similarly precisely demarcated and robust sense of self as we do, with the ability to project those aspects of who we think we are into whatever prospective role we might be contemplating in order to determine whether it might be the “right fit”. Children do not yet have the ability to do this in any meaningful way. They are so innately expert at being precisely what they are, with neither effort nor forethought, that the idea of one day choosing what to be is totally foreign to their experience. The world of the child is not yet a collection of puzzle pieces amongst which they must “fit”. No, the developing capacity of self-awareness has not yet taken up the laser beam of the intellect in order to create the myriad separate pieces of the world.

What a child ‘is’ is the totality of everything that they know, their siblings and parents, their friends and neighbors, their home and yard and neighborhood. Like those water turtles that I spoke of back in Chapter One, they settle amongst the flotsam and jetsam of this modern world without judgment or separation. They simply are, and the world simply is, and the two of them are not yet two, although their human karma will one day make it so.

So, what do you want to be when you grow up? The question intrudes into the child's world like a voice calling from someplace far, far away as if to say: You live in oneness now, my child. You have not yet realized the fallenness of this world. You live without wanting to be anything other than precisely what you are, but that cannot last. You must one day learn to be separate from all that is. You must choose what you will be.

Yes, of course, that is the way of the world, and we would be remiss to let our children grow up without contemplating all that is within their power and purview to do and become. The difficulty is that, in doing so, we also tend to foster a sense of separation from all that is – the oneness that is their birthright – the truth that they’ve known all along.

Image References

Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank