Protest and Practice

One month ago this past Saturday Michael Brown was shot dead in the middle of a Ferguson, Missouri street by police officer, Darren Wilson, thereby igniting like dry tinder the karma that has piled up during years of inequitable white governance and policing in a largely black municipality. What has taken place over these past four weeks will almost certainly require a number of solid chapters in whatever book ends up being written on the quest for justice in the wake of this killing. For now, though, we are left with whatever news we choose to listen to and whatever narrative our conscious and unconscious mind allows us to spin. So, do we tend to think of this shooting in terms of Michael Brown bringing on his own destruction, or as Darren Wilson acting with unrestrained racial animosity and brutality? Is the prevailing image in our mind one of lawless looting and destruction, or peaceful protest for the sake of justice? Are we inclined to think of the police as protectors of the community, or as militarized thugs and provocateurs? Do we blame all of this unrest on individuals who choose not to apply themselves and who choose not to play by the rules of society, or do we consider it the inevitable result of the structural racism that seems most unrecognizable to those who benefit from it the most?

Yes, this story is a complicated one. It’s complicated even if we choose to focus solely on the matter of fairly determining whether or not Officer Wilson had the legal right to fire six bullets into Michael Brown out on Canfield Drive this past August 9, but it is especially complicated if we chose to consider the role that race played in shaping how the incident played out. How much of a threat did the unarmed Michael Brown really pose to Officer Wilson, and how much of that “threat” was due to prejudiced perception? How much of the interaction between the two was tainted from the start by the sociocultural milieu in which a young black male is confronted by a white cop from an almost entirely white police force? How much of Wilson’s readiness to squeeze the trigger once and then keep on squeezing it until Brown lay dead in the street was related to the perhaps unconscious belief that black lives matter less than white lives? Justice for Darren Wilson might very well require us to focus narrowly on the existence of a reasonably perceived threat. Justice for Michael Brown, on the other hand, requires us to consider so much more. It requires us to ask ourselves why the high school that he went to was nowhere near the quality of those in predominately white neighborhoods nearby. It requires us to consider the almost 40% unemployment rate for black teens as compared to just over 20% for white teens. It requires us to consider the adversarial relationship between the nearly all-white police force and the predominately black community in light of the disparate nature of the policing and the role that traffic tickets, court costs, and fines play in the financing of white-run municipal governments and in the perpetuation of poverty among black municipal residents.

What, then, is a Buddhist to do about it? Yes, this is a “Buddhist blog”, isn’t it?! There may well be as many answers to that question as there are Buddhists, but I can think of two broad categories into which those responses might fall. One involves us thinking of this world as a samsaric realm from which we must attain liberation lest we continue to be reborn within its ocean of suffering. The other is to realize that the ultimately artificial distinctions of samsara and nirvana stem from our inability to realize the inherent emptiness of all phenomena. Once the ultimate nature of emptiness is realized, samsara and nirvana are seen as one, and the world ceases to be something from which one feels the need to seek liberation. It is out of this second broad category, that of Mahayana Buddhism, that the ideal arose of foregoing one’s personal liberation for the sake of helping others navigate these roiling waters of samsara – the so-called bodhisattva ideal. Do we then tend to think of the killing of Michael Brown and all of the unrest that has ensued as just another, albeit very intense, distraction from the practice of self-liberation, or does our witnessing the suffering of our fellow human beings in Ferguson inspire us to  try to be of service somehow? And, if so, how? How does one lone individual help change social conditions that have been generations in the making? 

The more routine our life becomes the easier it becomes to decide where our attention and energy is required – if indeed we “decide” at all. For there are times when life is so predictable that there is little discernment whatsoever; we simply live out our routine, our karma, reacting to things as habit dictates, unmindful of the various decision points that actually exist from moment to moment. At other times life events happen that are so out of the ordinary, whether for better or worse, that they shock us out of our routinized patterns and let us know in no uncertain terms that we have a decision to make: how will we conduct ourselves in the midst of these new circumstances that life presents?

Those of us who engage in a spiritual practice of some sort that involves our “waking up” – living consciously, with mindfulness, intentionality, discernment, and authenticity – might come to find it more and more difficult to live according to routine. Depending upon our orientation we might wonder what God wants us to do, what the universe wants us to do, what action reflects our truest self or feels most authentic to us, or congruent with our spiritual values. When we look at life from such a perspective, very little, if anything, is routine anymore. Our work, our relationships, the way we spend our free time, the food we eat, the things we buy, and the way that we approach our basic tasks of daily life all become worthy of greater scrutiny.

Being a Zen Buddhist, my “waking up” involves regular meditation which, of course, involves withdrawing from the world in at least some measure in order to “practice”. But Zen Buddhism is also rooted in the Mahayana tradition which espouses the bodhisattva ideal – the ideal of taking part in the affairs of the world in order to assist all beings in their liberation from suffering. Thus, there is a dynamic at work, a periodic withdrawal from the affairs of the world in order to gain greater clarity of vision as to how to act upon reengaging with the world. When our practice is oriented in such a way, even the seemingly solitary practice of meditation is engaged in with and on behalf of all beings. In the ultimate sense, then, the practice of meditation and the practice of acting in the world transition one from the other so seamlessly that it cannot be said that the two are separate at all.

In recent years our country has experienced terrorist attacks, calls for war and calls to refrain from war, mass shootings, bitter political division, and now civil unrest in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown. With such a profound absence of peace it is very tempting to withdraw from the affairs of the world and retreat into whatever meditative state of peace we might be able to cultivate. We might even rationalize such a withdrawal by saying that we are “being the peace that we seek” or that we are “changing the world by changing ourselves.” So, would I dedicate a meditation period or two to the people of Ferguson and feel as though I’ve done what one person can do, or would I take my white-faced being up to Ferguson in order to stand with the people there? Not because I’ve tried Officer Wilson in absentia and found him guilty of murder, but because the people of Ferguson are grieving and crying out for justice.

Can we protest and practice all at the same time? Can we engage the world with acceptance and equanimity even as we aspire to awaken along with it? Can we raise our voice along with everyone that we are walking with so that the world may hear itself, and listen to itself, and change itself – orienting itself toward justice, and the alleviation of suffering? These are the questions that were going through my mind as I made my way to Ferguson in order to walk with everyone gathered and gathering there seeking justice.

Ferguson is not some urban wasteland that you might expect would be the scene of so much unrest. It is much like any other middle-ring suburb. Sure it is a little frayed around the edges and showing signs of the poverty that exists there, but it is not all that different in appearance from the neighborhood in which I grew up, or the one in which I now live. But how would Michael Brown’s memoir differ from the one that I’ve been writing on the pages of this blog? Was he able to know the peace and stillness that I knew as a child? Was he able to sense his connection with everything, as I did? I know in perhaps the tiniest of ways what it’s like to grow up knowing that there’s a war zone waiting for me out there in the larger world. For me it was growing up with the specter of Vietnam lurking on my horizon. For Michael Brown it was a racist world that was always lurking just outside his front door.

We tend to think sometimes that those who are of a different color than we are, or who live in a different place, or who have a different worldview than ours must be different in all ways that we can possibly be different. And yet Michael Brown, as I was, would have understood the stillness in the motion of the dragonfly that hovered above the crowd surrounding his memorial out there on Canfield Drive. He would have known what it was like to have the heavens open up on us with rain as we made our way up West Florissant Avenue. He would have known that nature still abides in the nooks and crannies of a stream that still meanders under the roadways and amidst all that has been built up around it, It still abides in the overgrown stands of trees between Ferguson Avenue and the railroad tracks, and in between the industrial yards clustered together out there on the other side. And he must have known what justice felt like, and what it would feel like out there in the world outside of his front door. Some might think that justice for Michael Brown refers only to something that might come out of a courtroom somewhere in this town, or another. I think that justice for Michael Brown involves a whole lot more. I think it involves us seeing him, and respecting him, and understanding him for all that he was and is. I think it involves us working in order to ensure that none of us has to live with the specter of injustice lurking just outside our front door. I think it involves protest, and I think it involves practice.

Image Credits

All images taken by the author.

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank


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