Ferguson's lesson to our black sons: Your lives don't matter
A St. Louis County, Missouri grand jury has decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. Honestly, I cannot say I am the least bit surprised by the decision, because I did not expect things to unfold in any other way. I wanted to be pleasantly surprised, but past experience convinced me otherwise. And it is unfortunate to have to think that way.
But that does not mean that I — as a black father with a black son — am not troubled by the news and have nothing to say about it.
Black lives do matter, to be sure, but the grand jury is telling us that we really don’t matter. And once again, as we face another case of an unarmed young black man gunned down by the law in cold blood without recourse, without justice, we have to decide what to make of this information, and what to take from it.
My son Micah, who is about to turn five years old over the holidays, might be too young to comprehend what is going on in Ferguson, because for him, good guys and bad guys are still mostly limited to super heroes and cartoons. But one day I’ll have to explain it to him, as I fear for his safety and the kind of America he is growing up into, which sometimes is no country for black men.
I always hear black parents giving their children, particularly black boys, advice on what to do if stopped by a police officer. Don’t argue with the cops. Don’t talk back. Always say “yes, sir” or “no, sir.” Don’t make any sudden moves and always tell the officer you are reaching for your license and registration. And so on, and so on. One black family even took it upon themselves to take their son to the police station after they moved into town, so the police would know the boy if they come into contact with him on the street.
Now don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt that black mothers and fathers want nothing but the best when they impart this knowledge to their offspring. And I am certain that such information can save and has saved innocent lives. Yet, I fear we run the risk of lulling ourselves into a false sense of security by thinking we have complete control over the forces at play, when we really do not control the police, the courts or the prisons, despite our best intentions. The sad fact is that my child, or your child, can follow all of our instructions, but still end up a statistic.
Rather, shouldn’t someone — namely we — tell these cops to stop killing our babies? And while the powers that be are so preoccupied with protests and riots in the wake of the grand jury decision, what if they had invested half as much energy in ensuring the safety of our children?
When it comes to my son, I should be able to focus on the positive and aspirational, on telling my son he can become president one day because he looks like the president, not instructing him on how to avoid death by bullets because he fits the description.
Unfortunately, Michael Brown joins a long list of young men of color too long to mention, with Emmett Till, James Powell, Anthony Baez, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Jordan Davis as only a handful of examples. They were taken from us much too soon, whether from police officers who believed they had the power to end their lives, or from vigilantes, thugs and lynch mobs who empowered themselves to act in such a manner.
Ultimately, society empowered these killers, who were conditioned by a society that criminalized the badge of slavery hundreds of years earlier. Under slavery, all white men were deputized to uphold the social order, which meant keeping slaves in line, with a legal sanction to kill black folks if necessary. This mentality continued through Jim Crow up until the present day, which is why so many white men can murder black boys in the twenty-first century with reckless abandon, no punishment and perhaps even a reward.
Meanwhile, as I teach my son about social injustice and the civil rights struggles — about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and the movement to turn bad laws into good laws — I must help him understand that this is not ancient history, and we are not yet in the promised land.
Michael Brown was shot like a dog and his body was left out there for 4 ½ hours — not 100 years ago, not 50 years, but in August of this year. Ferguson is happening now, and we are living it.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove.