Living in an RV as a touring musician, I have the convenient luxury of avoiding news stories until I choose to begin reading about them. If they aren’t brought to my doorstep, I can elect to remain blissfully unaware. (For example, I haven’t seen any of your ice bucket challenges, though I offer sincere congrats on all the money you’ve raised).
But a couple of weeks ago, from a cabin on the South coast of Maine, 1,400 physical miles from Ferguson, Missouri (closer to a million if we are dealing in the realm of metaphor), I had a night off. As a thunderstorm outside grew more and more apocalyptic, I saw on twitter that two journalists had been unjustly arrested, and that there was a no-fly zone and what amounted to a media blackout in (Not Iraq, not Libya, not Palestine, not Egypt, not Afghanistan) St. Louis, Missouri.
I should stop here and apologize to the people of Ferguson that *this* was the thing that caused me to no longer be able to ignore the story.
But it served its purpose. As I got angry about constitutional violations, I began to read further. I read about the tanks. I read about the tear gas. I read about how peaceful protests turned to riots when police either (depending on who I read) incited peaceful protesters into rioting, or at very least did a pitiful job of de-escalating the situation. And most importantly, I learned exactly what caused all of this. That another unarmed man, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, was shot and killed by police.
In a fit of what I considered to be righteous anger, I fired off a Facebook status / tweet that I knew full well would incite a particular demographic among my friends and followers. It said this: “If you considered taking up arms to support Cliven Bundy, but aren’t considering doing the same for Ferguson, kindly unfollow / unfriend me now.” It was clumsy, needlessly antagonistic, and probably did the opposite of what my heart was intending, which was to yell at my as-of-yet still blissfully unaware friends: I STOPPED IGNORING THIS TONIGHT AND IT’S BAD, AND IF IT’S AS BAD AS IT SEEMS, THE IMPLICATIONS ARE REALLY HORRIBLE AND UNPLEASANT TO THINK ABOUT, SO I’M SORRY, BUT I’M HAVING A HARD TIME PROCESSING THEM ALONE AND I NEED YOU HERE WITH ME ON THIS SIDE OF THE RUBICON.
Or something like that.
Since then, a lot more details have come out. Michael Brown wasn’t perfect, which I guess Ferguson police thought was relevant to the shooting, but others did not, including, maybe, officer Darren Wilson. Michael Brown attacked officer Wilson, or he didn’t. Officer Wilson had a broken orbital bone. Wait, no, scratch that, he didn’t. There were six shots fired, or maybe eleven. There are a lot of discrepancies. What isn’t disputed is that Michael Brown’s body laid in the street for over four hours.
Then the fallout. The peaceful protests. The violence. The arrests. The militarized police. The not-so-peaceful response to the police. The teargas. images reminiscent of both Watts and Bahrain. Another man, Kajieme Powell, was fatally shot in St. Louis as he rushed towards officers with, according to them, a knife raised, less than three feet away. Except video showed that it actually happened slightly different than that. (<– WARNING: GRAPHIC VIDEO) The police waited until ten days (and a lawsuit) later to file an incident report, only when they did, it was incomplete. No official details of the events immediately leading to the shooting have ever been given by the police. People (including the KKK) inexplicably raised over $424,000 (so far) for a police officer whose legal and medical bills are covered while he is on paid leave. Gofundme.com made a statement that they wouldn’t disallow the project, but they would delete the literally thousands of the most vile, congratulatory, and racist comments you can imagine (eventually having to close comments altogether), but I guess that makes sense when you consider that Gofundme.com will make over $36,500 as a result of the projects. The national narrative began to shift from “Unarmed Black Man Shot by White Officer” to “Looting and Rioting”.
Then the auxiliary stories. One officer, Dan Page, was fired for bragging about being a killer, and another was put on suspension for yelling “I’LL F***ING KILL YOU” to a camera that was filming at the time. A story surfaced about a man who was charged with destruction of police property because he bled on a uniform after being mistakenly arrested and unjustly beaten. Justin Cosma, one of the officers that arrested a journalist is under investigation now for hog-tying a 12-year old. I’ve also learned more about the city government structure of the North County in Missouri; namely that it’s made up on dozens of tiny municipalities, all of whom have their own police forces, and all of whom make most of their income from ticketing its citizens, and among which, Ferguson is by far the worst. John Oliver weighed in, brilliantly. Jon Stewart did the same.
These are all links of stories I’ve read in the last two weeks. You see, I stopped ignoring this, and it’s bad. And if it’s as bad as it seems, the implications are really horrible and unpleasant to think about, so I’m sorry, but I’m having a hard time processing them alone, and I need you here with me on this side of the Rubicon.
The last show of my Summer tour happened to be in St. Louis, and my brother had suggested that maybe my Facebook activism wasn’t fixing anything so if this was something I cared about, maybe I should go volunteer. So I did. I took a day (and then another day) to be in Ferguson, to meet people in person, and to hear their stories. I’ve already directed you to a lot of articles, so now I want to tell you a couple stories that I heard first-hand.
I went to Greater St. Mark’s Church. (SIDE NOTE: St. Mark’s was the church that opened its doors to those who had been tear gassed in the streets. It was the church that the Police raided THREE TIMES. A church. Their justification? That the church was allowing people to sleep there, thus violating the zoning regulations. In at least one of the raids, the police confiscated the medical and first-aid supplies that were being used. You could stop here and be angry, if the rest of this is too long. But you should keep reading.)
I talked to Kim, a genuinely kind and funny woman, who spoke to me about having been arrested a week prior. She was marching peacefully (“We had signs and one bullhorn. Nobody had weapons, though. We know better.”) when three tanks pulled up and bottlenecked the march into a parking lot, so that the only way to get out was to walk forward, past (see “at”) the police officers. Then they were told to disperse. When they asked what direction they were expected to go, surrounded on all sides, the police began to teargas and arrest them. You could stop here and get angry, if the rest of this is too long. But you should keep reading.
Kim and her 17-year old sister Katie went to jail. Despite asking what the charges were, none were explained to her at the time. Katie’s track and cross-country scholarships are now in jeopardy because she was arrested. It wasn’t until Kim was being released that she was finally told what she had been arrested for: failure to disperse.
It sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it? That police would surround a group of people, giving them no direction to leave, and then tear gas and arrest them when they don’t leave? It sounds like the sort of thing a crazy person would make up.
But see, I’ve talked to crazy people before. I’m a musician. I’ve played shows in just about every major city in the country. I know when a homeless guy is telling me about his “best friend Mel Gibson” and how he has a “million dollars in a bank, but can’t remember the account number”. I’ve spoken to guys who are angry about the illuminati, or convinced that they are Jesus. I know what crazy is.
Kim? I would hang out with Kim if we lived in the same city. Kim wasn’t crazy. What was crazy was that Kim wasn’t angry or gesticulating wildly in an attempt to convince me. She was just matter-of-fact about it, like I might shrug when I told you my dad was a professional cowboy. Yeah, it’s unusual, but *shrugs* when you grow up with it, it’s just normal.
She also told me about how the police in that area are known for what is called “free-casing.” I wasn’t familiar with the term, so she explained. “Oh, it’s when they have drugs from an earlier drug bust, and they pull you over, and lean in your car, and ‘oh! what’s this?’ now those are your drugs.” she grimaced. “My brother is actually in jail right now from a free-case. The cop said he saw my brother selling weed all day, but he had ten dollars in his pocket. He was like: ‘If I’ve been selling weed, where’s all my money?’, but…”
Another resigned grimace, followed by the kind of smile you make when you realize your story sounds unbelievable. “It sounds crazy, right? If I wasn’t from here, I would be like ‘yeaahhhhh right’; I mean, everyone that gets caught with drugs always says it isn’t theirs, right?…” she paused to reflect, “yeah, it sounds like I’m full of it, but it just happens all the time around here. You just make sure your car is registered, your lights work, and you don’t speed, because if you get pulled over, there’s a good chance you’re getting free-cased. There was one officer, if you ever saw him, you knew 100% you were getting free-cased…” she turned to her mom, who had joined us. “What was his name? Bobby… Bobby something. Someone finally caught him doing it, so he’s in jail now. You can Google it, probably.” (I did.)
My friend Ryan, who I’d harangued into being my ride, took me back to meet up with my family. We were supposed to go back to Texas the next morning, but I didn’t feel like I could leave yet. So when I woke up, I instead went back to Ferguson to help a local pastor, and to listen more. I ended up walking up and down the entirety of West Florissant. I went into the convenience store where the security camera shows the last known recording of Michael Brown. I was in the McDonald’s where the journalists were arrested. It was calm, and well over one hundred degrees. I walked probably three miles, alone, with no weapon or means of self-defense. I never once felt in danger.
That’s not entirely true, actually. I did feel in danger once. I talked to a man who worked in an insurance office. “They did this to their own city, let them clean it up.” he barked at me. “What we need? We need everyone to leave. Get out. Let them deal with their own s***. The best thing you can do is leave.” He was one of three white people I talked to, and the only person I thought might pull a weapon on me.
I talked to Kemily, who works at a beauty supply store that had taken some damage in the rioting. “I was right here when it started”, she said. “A bunch of people were marching out there, and just out of nowhere, 4 cop cars roll up, and block everyone from being able to go anywhere.” Her tone sounded remarkably similar to Kim’s. She wasn’t angry, she wasn’t gesturing wildly in an attempt to convince me of anything. We were just having a conversation, as calmly as I might have with you. “I was outside, right there,” She pointed to the front door. “And they started yelling at the crowd to disperse, but they were pretty well blocked in, so I’m not sure where the cops wanted them to go. Then a couple of the cops started yelling ‘GO THE F*** BACK TO AFRICA, N*****S!’ –out of the cop car! can you believe that? So some guys got angry, and yelled back, but what can you do, you know? You can’t fight them, so you just stand your ground. But there was this one white guy who wasn’t from here, nobody knew him, and he started handing out molotov cocktail supplies to some of the younger guys, so everyone started pushing him out. Nobody from here wanted that, but he was giving them to the young guys; to whoever looked the angriest. Everyone around here knows better, that just gives the cops an excuse to shoot you, so they pushed him out. The cops took him, but we couldn’t see where they took him.”
“Everyone from here knew to stay peaceful. There was some people not from here who really tried to rile up the crowd, but honestly – most of the people weren’t violent until the cops got real violent and started teargassing people. Then it was just like ‘we got to get the world’s attention, if following the rules gets us tear gassed…” she trailed off. “I don’t advocate looting. It’s misdirected, but… it got the world’s attention, so…” she trailed off again. “…who knows. I want it to be peaceful again, but every time we tried to be peaceful, the cops started teargassing people again. I think everyone’s just tired now.”
I’ve talked to crazy people.
Kemily wasn’t crazy.
I sat in a town hall meeting curated by Sirius/XM, and listened to voices from the community, voices from black leaders. Martin Luther III was there. Aside from the sound guys from Sirius/XM, I was the only white person in the room.
I listened to Pamela Means, the recently-elected president of the National Bar Association. (CLARIFICATION: That’s the Bar whose test you have to pass to become a lawyer, not the bar whose stool you have to occupy to get a drink.)
“This is not just a black and white issue” she said. “This issue is, if it is about any color, a blue issue. The officers who are otherwise good officers refusing to stand up for what is right, and instead choosing to be loyal to The Shield. Covering up for the wrongdoings of the bad officers because it is a brotherhood.”
Let’s stop here. All of the stories I’ve told you so far are from Ferguson. But there are countless other stories, even from the last 5 years, of deaths caused by overzealous police officers, many of which, the victim’s “innocence” could never be called into question. It took me until today to decide what aspect of this problem that I want to write about, and thus what solution I am hoping for.
Is it a race problem? An economic problem? A spiritual problem? A problem of unity? A lack of leadership? corruption? systemic failure of the justice system? An utter lack of love for one’s neighbor? White flight? mistrust of the police? Decades of frustration coming to a head because of a lack of justice? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
It’s a many-headed beast, rife with centuries of history that brought us to where we are now. These are all problems that I learned about as I listened in Ferguson and read articles. And I don’t have anything even resembling solutions for many of them. But please, pick any one of them and get serious about looking for a solution, while on a personal level, remembering to love your neighbors (and not just the ones that look like you). Have a cookout, and invite them over. Get to know them. If you’re awkward and uncomfortable, admit that you’re awkward and uncomfortable, but you’re asking for help on how to relate. (these are also suggestions from JR, whom I met in Ferguson). The more you know people who are different from you, the less you’ll fear them.
But there is one aspect that I would like to address specifically, and that is police brutality. From the night I brought this up, there was the argument that “You don’t know what it’s like to be a cop in those areas.” (“those areas”, in this case, were an otherwise nondescript midwest neighborhood, but we can save that for later). The point is valid, though. I don’t know. And unless you or your family is in law enforcement, neither do you. But that’s a solvable problem.
See, despite the horror stories that I’ve read, I still absolutely believe that there are good cops. I know some of them. In fact, I’m inclined to believe, based on officers that I’ve talked to, that the majority of police officers are good cops. But Pamela Means is right: when good cops feel pressured into shutting up, into being more loyal to The Shield than The Truth, they’re not good cops. When trust is repeatedly betrayed, public opinion begins to diverge between “Cops are murderers” and “Cops are the good guys, no matter what”. Both of those are incomplete at best.
What if there was a way to protect the good officers, while providing accountability for the bad ones? What if there were video of Michael Brown’s shooting? I don’t need to see it, but I would like to know that whomever is investigating the case had seen it. What if there was no longer a question of “he was running away with his hands up” vs “he was bull rushing the officer”? What if conflicting stories were easily decided by video?
I’ve dropped a lot of links on you already, and I hope you read them. I need you on this side of the Rubicon. But I’m leaving you with one more: this is a petition that I have signed that I would like you to read. In it, it lays out seven steps that would actually help law enforcement avoid false charges, and keep them accountable when they overreach their authority. Cameras have already proven to be highly effective, according to a Cambridge study, and in Rialto California:
“THE Rialto study began in February 2012 and will run until this July. The results from the first 12 months are striking. Even with only half of the 54 uniformed patrol officers wearing cameras at any given time, the department over all had an 88 percent decline in the number of complaints filed against officers, compared with the 12 months before the study, to 3 from 24.
Rialto’s police officers also used force nearly 60 percent less often — in 25 instances, compared with 61. When force was used, it was twice as likely to have been applied by the officers who weren’t wearing cameras during that shift, the study found. And, lest skeptics think that the officers with cameras are selective about which encounters they record, Mr. Farrar noted that those officers who apply force while wearing a camera have always captured the incident on video.” – Source: this article from The New York Times
It’s not a perfect petition. Hardly any petition ever is. Maybe you don’t think that some of the offenses listed should be felonies. Cool. Maybe you only agree with 6 of the 7. Great. It’s still good. And it has some momentum. Let’s get it in front of lawmakers who can clean up the rough edges and put it into practice. It’s well past time.
It’s going to take me a lot longer to process everything that I have learned and continue to learn from Ferguson. It’s unpleasant sometimes. But it’s time we, as a country, grow up and stop ignoring things that are unpleasant. Because if this isn’t already on your doorstep, I fear that one day it will be, in a way that you can no longer choose to ignore.