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.
Photograph of Vonderrit Myers and his mother via:
Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank