Monday, August 25, 2014

If 6 Was 4 - The Killing of Michael Brown

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.

Image Credits

Photograph of protester in Ferguson taken by the author.

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Acceptance - That Which We Already Know

Over the course of my writing and editing this post, Michael Brown was killed in an altercation with a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. Ferguson is not too far from where I grew up and presently work. No matter what we might think of how and why this tragedy occurred, the fact that it did occur, and all that has ensued, can't help but give a reflective person pause. I am grateful for having grown up in a peaceful enough place that I was and am allowed to reflect, as I do in this blog, upon that which is most central to human experience. I wish for every child to grow up in such a place.

Chapter 4 (continued) – Acceptance

I’d just turned four shortly before construction began. While there had almost certainly been some scuttlebutt in the preceding months regarding the upcoming addition to our little avenue, in my memory it was an event that descended upon us out of the blue. Where once an unassuming parcel of land sat vacant across the street, suddenly a rectangular hole reached deep into the red clay earth. I remember us gathering around it that “first” evening, marveling as to the sheerness of its earthen walls, wondering at the speed with which so much work had been accomplished, solemnly pondering the conclusion of the older brothers down the street that the earthmover now sitting there idle must have been driven down the ramp carved into the other side of the hole in order to make the bottom so squared off and tidy.

Yes, it was to be just another house, but when you’re four years old and you’ve never seen a house get built before, it is a pretty big deal. There’s so much to examine and explore: the grooves that the teeth of a backhoe leave in the hard clay earth, the shredded roots of an adjacent tree, the building of forms for foundation walls, the smell of damp lumber and wet concrete; and the various and sundry nails, brick ties, electrical box knockouts, wire remnants, and scraps of wood and shingle and sheet metal that one might find scattered around a construction site. I remember watching the men work – at times focusing on the actions of one of them in isolation, at other times having the sense of them swarming about like ants. This is what we do. We build things.

Not long after the groundbreaking for that first house we watched as they ripped up the little vineyard that we used to play in behind the houses at the bottom of our street. This time it was to make way for an apartment complex with a name that we were told was from a foreign language. But even fifty some years of life have not completely erased my memories of that place. I remember how we’d go to the bottom of the lane and pick up the dirt road that wended its way up the hill from the heart of the Nursery. We’d sneak up to a point where we could oversee the vineyard from behind some bushes for a time in order to make sure that nobody was about who might be inclined to run us off. Then, once we’d ascertained that we were alone we’d run and crawl amongst the rows and rows of grapevines until an impromptu game of hide and seek invariably broke out of our overall furtiveness.

And so it was that the excitement of construction came to be suffused with the reality of its accompanying destruction. But even then there was always enough opportunity in construction in order to assuage whatever sense of loss might have arisen. When the thoroughfare out in front of that new apartment complex was eventually widened it exposed a deposit of ellipsoidal concretions that we were certain must be dinosaur eggs worth spending day upon day to unearth. When the road graders tore through the forested hillside bordering the creek where we used to play they also allowed us to discover a vine-draped tree from which we could swing high out over the emerging roadbed. And when the new highway carved its way through the limestone bedrock underlying the rolling terrain of our ever-expanding domain we were afforded endless hours of fossil hunting amongst the newly exposed outcroppings.

It was only later that my adult mind came to associate the construction that has taken place over the years in and around my old neighborhood and throughout this sprawling city with something more insidious and foreboding. Whereas my child’s mind was more fully accepting of these changes as being a natural part of the world order – we build things – my adult mind can’t help but think that we’ve lost our way, that we’re out of control. Yes, we’ve fallen. I’ve fallen. As a species we’ve lost our ability to accept the sufficient bounty of the forest, and as an individual I’ve lost the ability to accept our human activity as being an integral part of the natural order. How strangely ironic it all is!

At the beginning of this book I described a group of turtles sunning themselves contentedly amongst the flotsam of an urban waterway. They were as accepting of the trash in their midst as we children were of the various changes occurring in and around our little neighborhood. As children we were no more in control of what happened in our environment as the turtles were in control of theirs. We entertained no thoughts of banding together and taking action to put a stop to the encroachment of progress on our areas of play. We harbored no ill-will towards “greedy” developers or the “pillagers” of earthly resources. No, the wisdom that we embodied as children manifested, at least in part, as a complete acceptance of that over which we had no control.

Acceptance at times comes grudgingly. At times it comes only after a bitter and losing battle that ultimately ends with our surrender. The acceptance of children, however, is so complete that it comes without any internal struggle whatsoever; it precedes any and all judgments as to good and bad, right and wrong. Faith in Mind, a famous poem by Seng-Ts'an, the Third Patriarch of Zen, succinctly describes the predicament of the fully self-aware individual in its first few lines. The nature of reality is unobscured, he declares, as long as one refrains from making judgments. Begin to make distinctions, however, and heaven becomes cleaved from earth.

Of course, this making of distinctions is precisely what transpired after that legendary event all those years ago in the Garden of Eden – the consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Thenceforth, heaven was indeed cleaved from the earth; and, thenceforth, we humans began to hold ourselves captive with the chains of our very own distinctions. The irony of our predicament is that our burgeoning self-awareness, the self-awareness that leads us to the making of self-centered distinctions that cleave us from the natural order of things, eventually leads us as well to the realization of our fallen state – to an awareness of the unnaturalness of our ways. This irony is present in Seng-Ts’an’s words, i.e. the distinction between going through life making distinctions, and going through life without!

Despite being tinged with this fundamental irony, Seng-Ts’an’s words undoubtedly speak to us today and are worthy of putting into practice. Having said that, we humans and our self-serving distinctions have created far too many problems to be resolved by simply dispensing with the making of distinctions. What we can do, however, is begin to make distinctions from a place of greater wisdom. We can begin to make distinctions from a place of increasing acceptance. By getting back in touch with the wisdom of children we come to realize that we have enough, that we are enough, that we know enough. We come to have faith once again in the “sufficiency of the forest” that has always sustained us. Yes, we may have to live like those turtles for a time – amidst the flotsam of our own creation – but over time our increasing self-awareness will bring heaven and earth back together again.

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
(as translated by Clarke, 2001)


Clarke, R. (2001). Hsin-Hsin Ming: Verses on the Faith-Mind by Seng-Ts’an, Third Zen Patriarch. (R. Clarke, Trans.) Published by White Pine Press.

Image References

Boy on a toy front-loader via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Sunday, August 3, 2014

We Have A Place (cont.) - That Which We Already Know

Chapter 4 – We Have A Place (continued)

The suburban neighborhood that I live in has fairly robust populations of the usual squirrels, rabbits and birds. Add to that short list all the voles and moles, possums and raccoons, field mice and owls, toads and snakes and insects that at least make an appearance from time, and we have quite an inventory of fauna. Interestingly, though, despite our living in such close proximity, it’s actually quite seldom that I get to know any particular animal. Each robin or sparrow that visits the birdbath on any given day looks and acts pretty much the same as every other robin or sparrow. They don’t have much personality in that regard. They rarely display their individuality.

Occasionally, however, I do get to know a particular animal, and through that relationship, fleeting though it may be, I’m afforded a unique view of what it’s like to live entirely in the natural world. For instance, there was once a mockingbird that perched in the apple tree outside my bedroom window. Every morning around 4:00 or so he would commence to singing at the top of his little lungs – making it almost impossible for me to get any quality sleep for the rest of the morning. At times I resented that little bird for intruding on “my” space. At other times I felt as though we were kindred spirits. I was grieving the breakup of my marriage at the time, you see, and sleep was sweet refuge from the pain. But that little bird was also a regular reminder of the universality of my longing. His song was there in my pain. My pain was there in his song. I’ll never forget my deep sadness upon discovering the little pile of white and gray and black feathers scattered in a circle in the grass about whatever else was left of him. A cat had gotten him, or perhaps a hawk or an owl. Such is the way of the world, isn’t it?

There’s a squirrel that I’ve been seeing around the neighborhood for a couple of years now. “He” only has but a stub of a tail anymore – the result of some violent altercation that I can only imagine. Almost from the moment I laid eyes on him my curiosity gave way to concern. He was walking in strange fashion for a squirrel and I wondered whether his injuries might be more serious than just the loss of a tail. The passage of time assuaged my concerns, however. The awkwardness of his waddle is apparently only due to the absence of a tail to use as balance while hopping around in more squirrel-like fashion. Notwithstanding his debilitating injury, he seems to be as happy as a squirrel can be. If for no other reason than that my spirits are buoyed every time I happen to see him. And if it should come to pass that I find a little tailless carcass around the yard or in the street, I’ll shed a tear for him as well.

Most of all that lives and dies all around us does so anonymously. Perhaps that mockingbird lived out virtually the entirety of its life alone – with no one but his mother and father to care that he’d entered the world, and no one but me to care that he’d left. Perhaps that squirrel, awkward as he might appear, will never find a mate in the survival-of-the-fittest world in which squirrels dwell, and therefore never know whatever fulfillment there might be in starting a squirrel family of his own. And yet, despite the seeming indifference that the natural world displays toward the life or death of any one of its own, still everything has its place. Everything belongs. The universe has given rise to each and every being in whatever idiosyncratic glory they might embody, and each and every one of them knows precisely how to be.

It’s been this way since the beginning of life on earth – with everything belonging, and everything knowing how to be. We humans were no exception, for we too were once of the forest in all of its abundance and simplicity. Unfortunately, though, life for us has become so much more complicated. Our kind has fallen, and each of us has fallen too. Where once we knew exactly how to be, now it can seem as though we’re endlessly thrashing about in the underbrush. We’ve forgotten that we belong. We’ve forgotten how to be. We’ve forgotten that we have enough, that we are enough, that we know enough. Because of our forgetting, we can never seem to rest; and because of our inability to rest, we need to be reminded how to be. “Look at the birds of the air;” Jesus is reported to have said, “they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

Everything that lives carries within its being the wisdom of billions of years of evolution. Everything that lives thus embodies trust that it belongs – that it has a place. Children embody this trust as well. They enter this world not doubting for an instant that they belong – that they have a place. Sure enough, that trust can be taken from them prematurely if they should happen to be raised by an abusive parent or within a dysfunctional family; but even in the best of circumstances whatever trust we have will become lost in the course of our fall. At some point in our life we will begin to sow and reap, and as soon as that day comes we will begin to worry about the results. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Jesus went on to enquire of those who were listening to him speak of the birds of the air.

“You have the right to work,” Krishna said to the despairing Arjuna as he surveyed the next day’s battlefield, “but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working” (Prabhavananda, 1964, p. 40). The fact of the matter is that we are the fruits of the work of the universe. We are the fruit of billions of years of evolution – of countless beings sowing without ever reaping. The mockingbird, the tailless squirrel, and the child – they proceed with their work with the entirety of their being, without any thought of their own enrichment.

The wisdom of children, then, includes the trust that they belong, that they have a place in this world. They neither worry about the day to day concerns of how they will feed or clothe themselves nor the existential concerns that their fallen parents might be struggling with each day. Yes, we all eventually find a way to sow and reap, but the mind with which we do so will make all the difference in our lives. Will we spend our days worrying about whether we’ll ever find a mate with which to share this life, or will we simply sing our song with all the heart we have to give, come what may? Will we bemoan our hindered abilities or circumstances and retreat into a place of psychic poverty, or will we hop throughout our days in tailless glory?

I realize now that this understanding has been with me since I first began to explore the Nursery just beyond our garden gate. I knew just how to be when I was there – without ever needing to be taught. The world unfolded like a flower blossoming in my hands and I, in turn, blossomed completely into it. No, my understanding wasn’t one that I could articulate as I do now with words and concepts – it was understanding that I embodied. Such is the wisdom of children.



Prabhavananda, S., Isherwood C. (1964). The song of God: Bhagavad-Gita. (S. Prabhavananda & C. Isherwood, Trans.) Published by The New American Library of World Literature, Inc.

Image References

Flock of Birds courtesy of Faisal Akram via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank