White collared conservative flashing down the street,
Pointing their plastic finger at me,
They're hoping soon my kind will drop and die…
- Jimi Hendrix, If 6 Was 9
By now you surely know that on this past August 9, an unarmed black teenager by the name of Michael Brown, and a white Ferguson, Missouri police officer by the name of Darren Wilson were involved in a brief interaction that ended with Brown dead in the street with six bullet wounds. Some are calling it cold-blooded murder. Others are calling it justifiable based on the allegation that Brown assaulted Wilson. Still others are withholding judgment until after a jury verdict is reached (if indeed charges are ever filed) or until something more convincing comes to light than the varying reports and accounts that have circulated in the media thus far.
With everything so politicized and polarized these days, it seems that you can tell a lot about someone’s stance on a whole host of issues simply by knowing where they stand on one of them. So if I told you that the killing of Michael Brown has affected me deeply, that I’ve been to Ferguson to stand with those who are seeking justice for him, you might presume to know which of the aforementioned camps I fall into, or lean towards. You might even think that you know what I thought about George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin. You might be surprised, then, to learn that I thought that the jury arrived at the correct legal verdict when it found Zimmerman not-guilty of second degree murder in that case. What?! Yes, you might be wondering how it could be that I’m calling for justice for Michael Brown THIS year, raising my voice against the devaluation of black lives THIS year, after considering justice to have been served in the case of Florida versus Zimmerman just LAST year.
Let me explain. I said I thought that the jury arrived at the correct LEGAL verdict when it found Zimmerman not guilty of second degree murder last year. I didn’t say that I thought that justice was served. You see, despite his “wannabe cop” ineptitude, George Zimmerman seemed to know his rights quite well in a conceal-carry state with a so-called stand-your-ground gun law. The jury found that he’d stayed just far enough on the “right” side of the law to be acquitted of all LEGAL wrongdoing.
Notwithstanding the jury verdict, much of the country, myself included, realized that JUSTICE was not served. It was unjust for Zimmerman to be following Martin that night, despite it being within his legal right to do so. It was unjust for Zimmerman to single out Martin on the basis of the color of his skin and the style of his dress, although he apparently had a legal right to do so. It was unjust for Zimmerman not to warn Martin that he was armed, but he apparently had no legal obligation to do so. Yes, and it was unjust that Martin’s understandable anger at being harassed on the basis of his race by a “wannabe cop” should lead to him being shot dead on that night some two and a half years ago. Unfortunately, though, all of that injustice was superseded by the legality of Zimmerman carrying a concealed firearm and having no requirement to retreat or warn – despite being responsible for the confrontation in the first place.
I’ve been thinking a lot over the past two and a half years about how Trayvon Martin was killed. I’ve been thinking a lot over the course of these past couple of weeks about how Michael Brown was killed as well. So, will I once again calmly mull over in my mind whatever details might come to light related to the interaction between Brown and Wilson and blithely assume that a proper legal resolution will inevitably result in justice being served? No, I can tell you right now that I will not – at least not with respect to the latter. You see, one year on I can see with much greater clarity the nature of the discrepancy between justice and legality with respect to the taking of the lives of black people.
Justice and legality are more often than not one and the same in the experience of white people. Not so for black people. I see this more clearly now. Sure, anomalies happen, and technicalities or inadequate legal representation can keep justice from being served even for white people. But when that happens we don’t then walk away believing that our lack of a just settlement was due to the color of our skin – the size of our bank account, maybe, but not the color of our skin.
On the other hand, justice and legality have generally not gone hand in hand for black people. In the history of this country the two have not even come close. It was disdainfully unjust to enslave black men, women, and children, but it was legal for a long time nonetheless. Likewise, it was unjust to deny blacks the vote even after they were freed, but it was legal anyway. There was no justice in the Jim Crow laws that cast a pall across the South, but all of them were legal in their day. There was no justice in the practices that kept black people from moving into certain neighborhoods, but there was nothing illegal about them at the time. There was no justice in the red-lining practices that limited the ability of black people to accumulate wealth via homeownership, but there was nothing illegal about them at the time either. Whether we’re looking at the disparity in the quality of schools between mostly white and mostly black neighborhoods, the disparity in incarceration rates between whites and blacks, the sentencing disparities between powder and rock-form cocaine, or disparities in the application of capital punishment, we see legality accompanied by injustice.
Of course I still very much care about that which is legal and that which is not. I’ll be paying close attention, as I did with the killing of Trayvon Martin, as the full picture of what took place on Canfield Drive this past August 9 becomes clearer. Here’s the crux of the matter, though. Some people will consider justice to have been served out there on Canfield Drive as long as evidence exists that Officer Wilson had the slightest reason to fear for his safety. However, the legality of the use of force does not necessarily relate to the justice question as to how much force was appropriate or how it was that the officer decided how much force to use.
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” seems to be the primary chant that has come out of the various protests, rallies, and vigils seeking justice for Michael Brown. There is another one that I’ve heard and chanted, however, that seems to me to get closer to the heart of the matter: “Black lives matter.” After all, the willingness to throw black men in jail in disproportionate numbers and for longer periods of time, the willingness to put black men to death in disproportionate numbers, the willingness of police officers to use deadly force and our willingness to accept that use of deadly force stems from an inherent belief, I think, that black lives don’t matter – or if they do matter, they matter less than white lives.
Six shots were used to “subdue” Michael Brown; not five, or four, or one, or some other non-lethal course of action for that matter. It appears that Michael Brown might have been able to survive the first four shots. It was the last two, apparently to the head, that proved fatal. How much did Michael Brown’s blackness play in Officer Wilson’s pulling of that trigger six times? Did the inherent belief that black lives matter less than white lives make him that much more ready and willing to pull the trigger and let loose that first bullet? Did the inherent belief that black lives don’t really matter at all predispose him to keep pulling the trigger until Michael Brown lay dead in the street, regardless of how many bullets might have been “enough” to remove the risk to Officer Wilson?
Jim Hendrix’s song If 6 Was 9 seems to be pointing to the fact that appearances and perspectives keep us from seeing the reality that underlies them. Titling this post If 6 Was 4 is intended to point to the fact that matters of degree often stand between legality and justice, death and life. Despite having a population that is about two-thirds black, the Ferguson police force is overwhelmingly white. The municipal government and school board are overwhelming white as well. Such matters of degree couldn’t help but have made a difference in how Officer Wilson viewed those black citizens that he was charged with protecting. Matters of degree related to the disparity in the quality of our schools also makes a difference in the opportunities that are available to black youth. The disparity in unemployment rates between black and white youth may make a difference as well in young blacks being able to save money for school and gain experiences that will serve them well in their careers. The shade of someone’s skin can make the difference between us white people responding to them with fear and disdain or with recognition that they are people with the same desire for a good and meaningful life as we have, and with the same right to live as we have. Yes, and matters of degree can mean the difference between an officer assuming that lethal force is absolutely necessary or him seeking to diffuse a situation via some other means – between firing six shots or four.
Yes, I’ll be watching closely the legal proceedings related to the killing of Michael Brown. I can’t begin to know at this time how the matter will be resolved. One thing I’m certain of, however, is that the quest for true justice will require a whole lot more than just a guilty verdict for Darren Wilson.
Photograph of protester in Ferguson taken by the author.
Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank