A Portland police officer hugs 12-year-old Devonte Hart at a Ferguson protest in Portland, Oregon, last week. Devonte was holding a sign offering free hugs and the officer asked to take him up on the idea. Photo by Johnny Nguyen.
I waited three months to hear the phrase - the phrase that etched another devastating moment into the history of America. When it finally came, I prayed for the Brown family, who had to endure a painful Thanksgiving dinner with one less light at the table.
Since the death of Mike Brown 135 days ago, 14 more teenagers have been killed by police officers.The latest death was 12-year-old Clevelander Tamir Rice, who died within seconds of a police encounter on November 22nd. I prayed again, for every mother and father who now holds their children close each night, not knowing whether the ones they love will make it to see the next day. Talks of “community healing” don’t even work as a Band-Aid for this hydrant of misery.
Despite the fact that this ruling leaves me consumed by grief, rage, and despair, I have to admit that I’m not surprised.
Only 1 in 15,000 federal grand jury decisions result in no indictment. As the saying goes, “A grand jury would indict a ham sandwich.” But historically, racial inequities have had an unsettling presence in criminal sentencing. Grand juries acquitted those involved in the deaths of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Trayvon Martin.
While I was in Ferguson in August , a group of community organizers involved with Black Lives Matter went door-to-door to talk to residents in the Kirkwood neighborhood, the location of District Attorney Bob McCulloch’s home. They set out to inform neighbors about one of the community demands of Ferguson residents: they wanted McCulloch to recuse himself from the case and allow for an independent investigation of Darren Wilson.
That request was denied. Instead of pursuing a trial like a district attorney would in a case not involving a police officer, McCulloch held a mini-trial for the grand jury, playing the role of prosecutor and defense. So, I wasn’t surprised that Officer Wilson was cleared of any wrongdoing.
But I did brace myself for what was coming next.
The violence and destruction in Ferguson were terrible for me to witness. In one night, the social fabric of an entire community was thrown into upheaval—a stark contrast from my visit with hopeful community organizers in August. The horrifying images were like a war zone: Fire. Gun shots. Surveillance. Tear gas.
I don’t know who initiated the looting or what their ultimate intentions were, but this violence was an echo of the inhumane actions committed against our brothers and sisters in this “post-racial America.”
While Martin Luther King Jr. said “a riot is the language of the unheard,” it is our responsibility as a community to support the reconstruction of a town that changed the nation. And to make sure their voice is heard.
We owe a tremendous amount to Ferguson, the community in suburban Missouri, and to #Ferguson, the digital community that emerged on social media. The loss of Mike Brown put the crisis of racial profiling and police culture on a bright stage. It ignited a conversation across divided communities about what racism in America looks like, a conversation that’s harder to ignore.
In my day-to-day life, I’m talking more about the disparities of how people of color are treated when stopped by the police. On too many occasions, a police officer has looked at a young man of color - and seen him as so much of a threat - that their immediate reaction is to shoot. To kill. These are crimes of racial profiling, but there seems to also be some sort of social illness that has infected the judgment of those who are trained to protect and serve. Quoting author Tim Wise, who wrote about his fellow white people last week:
As a general rule, nothing we do will get us shot by law enforcement: not walking around in a big box store with semi-automatic weapons (though standing in one with an air rifle gets you killed if you’re black); not assaulting two officers, even in the St. Louis area, a mere five days after Mike Brown was killed; not pointing a loaded weapon at three officers and demanding that they—the police—”drop their fucking guns;” not committing mass murder in a movie theatre before finally being taken alive; not proceeding in the wake of that event to walk around the same town in which it happened carrying a shotgun; and not killing a cop so as to spark a “revolution,” and then leading others on a two month chase through the woods before being arrested with only a few scratches.
The realities between Black America and White America are entirely different.
The St. Louis grand jury may have finalized their decision, but the federal Department of Justice is still in pursuit of an independent investigation into Wilson’s conduct on that day. They’ve also committed to a system-wide investigation of the Ferguson Police Department in order to establish trust within the community. And even though Darren Wilson has announced his resignation from the Ferguson Police Department, the quest for justice is far from over.
And what does justice look like? A system change.
Two generations ago, American culture hit the pause button on the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Now, there is a window to resume that dream of equality that we all hold dear. We must build homes of resilience. We must create communities of justice and truth. Until then, we take to the streets. We raise our hands and shout to the sky in a unified voice of triumph.
Despite the odds supporting the status quo, demonstrations in solidarity with the people of Ferguson have flourished in almost every major city. Oakland activists chained themselves to trains and disrupted the BART transit system. New Yorkers brought an alternative “justice” theme to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Organizers in Seattle staged a “die in” demonstration at Westlake Mall. Hundreds joined a 120-mile march from Ferguson to the governor’s mansion in Jefferson City. Across the country, tens of thousands shared the hashtag #BlackOutBlackFriday, a call to boycott the traditional Black Friday spending and to support black-owned businesses.
In my home of Portland, we’ve maintained a presence almost every day since the Ferguson ruling. Thousands have gathered to pay their respects to Mike Brown, and to those whose lives were lost to the pattern of police violence in Portland: Kendra James, James Chasse, Keaton Otis, Aaron Campbell, and others.
Last Saturday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson lent his voice to one of the Portland demonstrations. The rally was followed by a peaceful march that lasted a symbolic four-and-a-half hours (the length of time Ferguson police left Mike Brown’s body lying the street). The Portland Police responded with flash bomb grenades, charging in their riot gear, and corralling the remaining protesters for half an hour in the cold under threat of arrest.
Despite that dismal scene, a different moment resounds with me. Days earlier on Tuesday, photographer Johnny Nguyen captured an astounding image of a Ferguson protest that rose to the top of the global narrative: 12-year-old Devonte Hart tearfully embracing a Portland police sergeant.
Does it fill me with hope? Yes.
But I worry to myself, “What will happen to the next 12-year-old black boy who is approached by an officer? Will he end up like Devonte … or like Tamir?”
Related Reading: Remembering the Black Women Killed By Police.