On August 9, 2014, Police Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown to death in Ferguson, Missouri.
What’s been your reaction? And how do you respond if different wording is used?
Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown.
Our own prejudices and the baggage we carry affects profoundly how we see a case like this. For me, this brings about a strong case of déjà-vu: 1994-5, the years I met my beloved wife (and then married her!) The years of the OJ Simpson trial. I still remember where I was when I heard the verdict. I had followed the case closely and the evidence was damning. Blood all over OJ’s clothes, his house and car. It seemed impossible that he would be found ‘not guilty.’ But I was naïve about the effect of race on a trial like OJ’s. As many have concluded, he was never going to be found guilty by a majority black jury. Not in a million years.
I still remember my wife recounting her conversation with one of her co-workers, a black female psychologist, middle class, educated and successful. Paraphrasing, she said something like this, ‘It’s not that we think OJ’s innocent, but just this once, it’s nice to see one of us ‘beat the system.’ Black men, in particular, receive such poor treatment at the hands of the police, for once it’s the police who didn’t come out on top.’
And despite being white, I understand this sentiment. The reality is, race is still a huge issue in America and black men are often treated badly by the police to put it mildly. They aren’t just pulled over occasionally. It happens a lot and it’s clearly based on race. But black men are more likely to be involved in criminal activity, comes the response. Yes, that may be true. Or is that a function of class rather than race? It all becomes very messy.
Back to Michael Brown.
I have read a fair amount about the Michael Brown shooting and I’m still somewhat confused. Brown was caught on CCTV robbing a convenience store. That one’s easy. An altercation took place between Brown and Wilson at the car. Some say Brown reached in and punched Wilson. Others say he didn’t. After Wilson fired a couple of shots, one grazing his assailant, one missing, Brown took off down the road and then stopped and turned towards the policeman. Here we then have several witnesses whose testimony is contradictory. Some say he ran towards Wilson, some say he raised his arms, some claim he didn’t. Whatever happened, Wilson fired 10 more shots at Brown, killing him. Obviously he claims self-defence. That’s all he needs. The exact wording in the legal code which permits lethal force is this:
The suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others.
The suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.
You can see the problem, I’m sure. As long as the officer thinks s/he’s in danger, s/he can use force. That’s how it works. And that’s often how black men die and police officers avoid prison.
Let me back up and tell you a little story of my own. We’d just started living in Torrance, CA and I was returning from our local store with a bag of groceries. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed three hooded figures tracking me on the other side of the road. I guess I wasn’t switched on enough, because as I reached a darkened area on the sidewalk, they ran across the road and demanded money. One brandished a knife.
Playing for time . . . er, or just being rather foolish, I tried to slow them down and allow myself time to think by asking a question! I know, I know, not the brightest spark. Now, come on, just hold on a minute. What are you–? . . . at which point, the guy with the knife moved forward. They grabbed my bag and took off. With a quart of milk and a lump of cheese. Oh and my wallet – that’s when I realized why I’d been stalling. So, of course . . . I immediately ran after them. No thinking. No concern for my safety. No consideration about further endangerment, possibly guns. Just . . . ‘hey, you’ve got my stuff!’
They jumped in a car and took off. I eyeballed the license plate and within 15 seconds of the robbery, I was calling the police. Two of the officers were very professional. A third was an imbecile, knew nothing about my case, but arrived to poke his face in the back of the Cruiser and ask stupid questions.
Here’s a remarkable end to the story. The following day, a man knocked on our door and handed me my wallet. He’d found it in a gutter about 200 yards down at the junction. Evidently, after seeing me pursue on foot, the thieves had panicked and tossed it out of the window. All my credit cards were there, my driver license, all but around $50 in cash. I thanked the man and then praised God!
What did I learn from my brief adventure? First, that under stressful circumstances, we don’t think, we just act. And sometimes we act foolishly. I have no clue why I ran towards the thieves. I just did. Second, police officers in the States carry guns. They bristle with them. Guns kill. Very quickly. Always, always obey a police officer. Simple as that. You do not need to understand, you just need to obey. Why? Because guns kill . . . very quickly.
Michael Brown was a petty criminal and he was foolish to stand up to a police officer. He made a foolish mistake. After taking off down the road, he turned and faced the police officer. Who knows exactly what he did next? It certainly seems as though he ran towards a policeman who was pointing a gun at him. What was he thinking? Answer? He wasn’t thinking. How easy it is to damn such foolishness. Yet, panic and stress cause people to do foolish things.
I’ve done it myself. I’ve run towards danger, not away from it and for the life of me, I don’t really know why. Except I can be foolhardy sometimes. If one of those youths had turned, pointed a gun and shot me, my explanation to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, ‘I ran towards them and they shot me’ would surely have caused the great saint to shake his head in disbelief. That didn’t happen thankfully. But it could have, I suppose.
In Michael Brown’s case, his actions cost him his life.
I was watching a show the other day called ‘Forever.’ A police sergeant talked about shooting an assailant in the leg as part of their training. It mystifies me that Officer Wilson shot Brown twelve times. Four of those shots hit his head and neck. The rest hit his right arm. None hit his legs. I’m sorry but I don’t accept the defence, ‘you need to shoot to kill.’ No, you don’t. Not when you’re the only one carrying a firearm. Michael Brown was clearly unarmed. But he was reaching into his jacket, wasn’t he? Possibly. The testimony on that is the most confused. Some say he had his hands raised. Others dispute this. Regardless, I don’t accept the ‘shoot to kill’ defence. Feel free to disagree.
Okay. A few final thoughts, based on Christian conviction.
First, rioting never solves anything. It’s simply the unlocking of our baser nature and damages not only local businesses (often black ones) but race relations generally. We hate the police so let’s commit crimes . . . bringing us into contact with the police. How foolish is that?
The massive divide between blacks and whites in America was highlighted by the OJ Simpson case. Around 90% or so of blacks approved of the verdict. Only 10% of whites did. The chasm may have been even larger. Two communities with vastly different perceptions of ‘how the world works.’
Enter Jesus Christ into a world of kings and slaves and violence and greed and religious hypocrisy. Each class in Jewish society separated and the gaps impossible to bridge. In first century Palestine, you were born into your class and you stayed there. Enter Jesus with a message of salvation for all people. The wonder of the church is that it’s a community of both Jew and Gentile. Read Ephesians. Jews of every class and Gentiles of every shape and size. A radical, world-changing concept. Perhaps even more remarkable is that this idea of unity between classes, races and genders dates from two thousand years ago. Aristotle and Plato never imagined such a thing. Nor did the Founding Fathers, tied as many of them were to institutional slavery.
Yet how could it be otherwise in a faith founded on Love?
Furthermore, the one thing which seems impossible in our world has been accomplished by God: Reconciliation. Of all the people in the world, Christians should understand this best. God has bridged the gap between Himself and his creatures. And he calls for us to be involved in efforts of reconciliation which reflect his character. We shouldn’t need Nelson Mandela to show us what reconciliation looks like. God has already provided the perfect model in his Son.
I have a dear friend in California who’s black. We worked together at the Red Cross. I worked with a lot of African-Americans at the Red Cross. I haven’t spoken to him about Michael Brown, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he viewed the shooting very differently to me. Nevertheless, what unites us far outweighs that which divides us.
We are brothers. We are sons of God.
We are neither black nor white but children of God.
Called to a ministry of reconciliation. For the sake of the one whose love cost him his life. Poured out to reconcile us to our heavenly father. Amen.
© Richard Collins 2014
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