Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/11/2014 (878 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Cameras love things that burn. They especially love the way things burn at night, when the gorging flames of some unhappy structure cast an ominous light. They flock to those burning things, not as moths, but more like worshippers to some amoral God: The existence of the fire is proof of purpose enough.
We all saw Ferguson, Mo., burning on Monday night, because that is what the cameras loved. Of the people and their pain, we saw comparatively little to give context to the flames, and this is how Burning Things are made out to matter more than hurting people. It is also how we satisfy our urge to look, while absolving ourselves from the weight of what is being said.
Those words -- "we," "our" -- do not sit quite right. When I write them, I am thinking of people like me. Those of us who, by the virtue of race and class and place, have the privilege of choosing when and how or even whether to consider the harms that entire communities live. The content of mainstream news is most often decided by the directions of our gaze. Besides, there is nothing I can offer to those who bear the weight of it every day, except my solidarity.
The protests in Ferguson were well-planned. After police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed Michael Brown, the community mobilized in a way that should be humbling, for all of us who have seen injustice and done nothing. They formed a coalition, Hands Up United, and a planning website, noindictment.org. They spent weeks learning and practising non-violent resistance, building support networks, and fine-tuning tactics. Their demands were clear. They were prepared.
When the grand jury decision came down -- no indictment for Wilson, so no trial and no chance to cross-examine the officer's account, which strains credulity at critical points -- they put those plans in motion. All across America they marched, and chanted, and raised their hands. For awhile, they sat in a damning silence around the Ferguson police HQ, a mass testament to a grief and righteous anger that has been generations in the making.
But cameras love things that burn, and there was no fire with most of the people. Not the kind you can see, anyway. And so CNN lit on them for some moments, then cut back to the flames. Ferguson burning, that was the story that read the most simply, an open-and-shut case. It was the story that most neatly avoided any uncomfortable reckoning with what was happening. If Ferguson was burning, then everything around it was suddenly just tinder, disappearing in a swirl of ash.
Oh, it's just so damn easy to shrug and say, "I would support them, but they're hurting their own cause. They won't get many supporters, this way."
Let's talk about that, for a moment. We hear it every time movements toward justice reach a boiling point. We've seen it in Canada just plenty, the rush to write off entire communities because Things got broken, barricaded or burned. And sure, sometimes property gets damaged in mass uprisings, smashed by some combination of provocateurs, opportunistic riot tourists who travelled from miles away, and people who find other outlet for their rage.
That does not discredit a movement. Because the belief in the fundamental humanity of a people cannot be qualified. If it can be qualified, then it is not a belief in inalienable rights: It is a belief in rights as a cookie for collective good behaviour. How terribly paternalistic, to decide that the validity of calls for justice is dependent on not just some, but every single member of the affected community behaving in a way of which outsiders approve.
In other words, if we allow ourselves to be more outraged about flames than systemic injustice, then that is a failing of our moral fibre. Not the movement's.
Still, some folks love to bring up Martin Luther King at times like this. So forgive me that I will too, quoting from his iconic Letter from Birmingham Jail. The entirety of it is as urgent today as it was in August 1963, but today my eyes repeatedly slide over this.
"I have almost reached the conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner," King wrote, "but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action... ' "
What protesters in Ferguson, in Chicago, in Oakland and New York and all across America are asking for is a full measure of humanity; the right not to be gunned down with impunity by actors for the state; the right to have their lives seen as worthy of protection.
This is not an academic question. In Cleveland last Saturday, a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice was gunned down at a playground by a police officer, for the crime of playing with a toy Airsoft gun. Just a child, doing a thing children do, perhaps acting out things he'd seen in movies or on TV. There is a video of what happened: A police cruiser suddenly pulled up, and in less than two seconds an officer had leaped out of the vehicle, fired off two rounds at near point-blank range. It took more than four minutes before any police officer provided first aid, and Tamir Rice died in hospital on Sunday.
Until there is meaningful change in the U.S. system, this will happen again and again. To turn away from that because things were burning, is to decide that Things matter more than Black Americans' lives. That isn't justice, it is not empathy or compassion, and it simply isn't right.
A final note, on Ferguson. Later, after the cameras had been put away for the night, police sent tear gas flooding into a local coffee shop, MoKaBe's, which was considered a safe place for protesters to gather, talk and rest. Police threatened to arrest people standing peacefully on the café's patio, if they did not disperse; the owner, who has supported the protests from the beginning with resources and space, insisted that it was her property and nobody had to leave.
That is what a community looks like. And though I followed it on Twitter through the eyes of those who were there, I never did see it on TV.