Pop, Pop, Pop. Three swift, consecutive pops rang out in the afternoon air. My boys, still little back then, were crouched around the TV watching something on Disney while I plugged away on the computer. Not immediately sure what we’d just heard, I grew suspicious when our dogs, who normally yapped at ev-er-y-thing, sat frozen in silence. I headed over to a window and pushed back the blinds. Like a scene from some action flick I watched a hooded figure, brandishing a handgun, hastily cut through my neighbor’s yard.
In a panic, I ducked back and issued my confused kids away from our big, tall windows. We’d known that our neighborhood (the one that less than 50 years prior had been donned the Blue Blood section) was in a downward spiral, but not in my wildest imaginations had I ever conjured up a plan for dealing with gang warfare.
9-1-1 called, I watched and waited. The police were no strangers around those parts so their response time wasn’t always swift. But on that day it only took minutes for a small army of uniformed officers to file onto the block. After a bit of investigation, a detective clued me in on the details. Apparently, the masked man’s cross hairs had two neighboring drug dealers in sight.
Obviously the targeted residents were less than welcome neighbors, but still I couldn’t help but feel a sense of compassion for them that afternoon. In my mind, they were terrified at the knowledge that someone had just attempted to blow a hole through their flesh. I envisioned the two of them hiding out three houses down trying to map an escape route. Then reality smacked me across the face as I dared to step out onto my southern front porch. Looking in their directions I found the two black men gleefully busting a few moves on their lawn like they were celebrating a touchdown. Not a half an hour earlier a gunman plotted their demise and their best response was broad smiles and a victory dance.
I wanted to shake the smirks off of their idiotic faces. To ask them if they had a death wish. To remind them of the jeopardy they’d placed us all in because bullets always hit a target.
In that moment my compassion morphed into righteous anger.
Following the recent Ferguson story, I couldn’t help but reminisce about that sunny afternoon. You should know the town we lived in was a fair mix of races and income levels. And our neighborhood, the Old West End, was caught up somewhere in the center. Once charming southern homes with built-in butler’s pantries and broad porches had fallen into various states of disrepair as their aging owners faded and businesses headed elsewhere. The next generation had mostly fled the nest and so were apt to settle for a cheap deal to be rid of the trouble of up-keep on “mama’s house.” Those good real estate deals appealed to many, but not everyone had the same expectations for what living in community should entail.
Some families had money to invest in renovations and some (like us) did their best to simply maintain the old houses. However, a few others (like the stupid, laughing, human targets) seemed to make it their goal to turn their property into a grass-less, dirty junkyard with a revolving front door for criminals. Now I’m not the kinda homeowner who fancies matching mailboxes and subdivision codes, but I did take issue with adults peeing on their front lawn, the renter behind us who attempted to run his girlfriend over, and the street basketball players who tried to intimidate me as I drove our family van full of kids down our street (and those were just a few of the incidences we witnessed or were victim to).
In the near decade we lived there, I attended numerous town council meetings, countless neighborhood planning sessions and one “end the violence, take back our town” event. The majority saw the problem, but no one seemed to have the ability to reign it in. Council members clutched to their wallets and refused to upgrade their rental slums, the planning sessions were at times rife with in-fighting and the end violence event was nothing more than a preaching opportunity with a coffer to pass.
The last straw came when we returned home one evening to find a young black man peering in our windows. I confronted him only to be told he was “looking for Keisha.” After alerting my neighbors to be on the lookout, I began to relax and settle in when there was a knock on my door. It was an officer with the young man cuffed in the back of his cruiser. Apparently, since Keisha wasn’t in my house, he thought perhaps she was hiding in a neighbor’s shopping bags that happened to be in the neighbor’s open car.
A fierce rage swelled inside of me as I considered the events of that night. My children and quite frankly I were unsettled at the notion that a stranger was casing our house, inventorying our belongings. I was annoyed that my neighbor wasn’t free to unload his vehicle without the worry of an intruder following in his steps. And I was disgusted that a young, able-bodied man was setting himself up for a life of criminal behavior and all the consequences that entails. Not sure they’d ever been asked before, but I boldly requested that the officers set me face to face with their captive. They readily complied and I found myself a footstep away from my restrained, would-be burglar. Drawing from that deep, mother bear well inside of me, I roared a litany of accusations and admonishments. In my motherly hysteria I imagined his own mother and wondered if she knew the whereabouts and activities of her child. Profanities and racial statements weren’t part of my diatribe, there was no reason for ugly words or hatred, I wanted only to scare him straight. My finally statement included a threat, not a promise of violence, but a commitment to safeguard my family and keep him accountable should he ever venture into my neck of the woods again.
Michael Brown looked a lot like that young man and like the dancing idiots. Not because of the pigment of their skin, but because they all seemed to place themselves outside of the law. And to do so with a wanton disregard for justice or the common good. Brown took what did not belong to him and then unashamedly strutted down the middle of the street. He wasn’t a little punk juvenile with a half-formed conscience who hides his petty crime and tries hard to stifle those nagging-gut feelings that call him to guilt. No, Brown proudly clasped his ill-gotten goods in hand and called attention to himself. Furthermore, like the dancers with a death wish, Brown antagonized the opposition and gave no thought to the reality that bullets must land somewhere and actions have consequences.
Like those circle-talking public meetings, the media coverage of this case has done little to offer solid solutions or report unbiased truths. My local newscaster referred to the grand jury decision as “a failure to prosecute.” For whom was it a failure? I thought the grand jury was convened to review the evidence and make an unbiased decision, I didn’t know they had a “mission” to charge the officer and that anything less was a failure. Really, the failure comes on the part of those who enabled Brown by excusing his criminal behavior which ultimately led to his death.
The problems in Ferguson, just like in our old neighborhood, aren’t the result of race. Everyone one of us belongs to one overriding human race. The same Creator Who was responsible for breathing life into my soul, breathed into the eternal souls of the thief, our neighborhood drug dealers and Brown. We came into the world the same way and we’ll all be called from it some day. Nothing in our pigmentation set the scales at differing levels, we are equals.
I wish that Michael Brown had considered himself equal to the convenience store owner rather than choosing to place his desires above that man’s right to make a living. I wish that Brown had recognized that the street was public domain and that he wasn’t above the drivers for whom the roadways were constructed. I wish that he had counted Officer Wilson as an equal and had spoken with common courtesy and acted in obedience to the law. Brown should have considered his friend as an equal, too and understood the jeopardy he was placing him in. Unfortunately, everything in his behavior that fateful afternoon would seem to indicate that Michael Brown considered himself above, above the common good, above the commandments, above the law and above at least three other men.
Our problems erupt from our hearts. When one man thinks himself bigger, better, more worthy or entitled than he casts another down. Our society has increasingly pushed the Christian faith aside or corrupted its Truth and in doing so it has separated itself from the one and only solution to our dilemmas. Without recognizing our One Creator, we cannot see that we have one Father and as such we are equal. By rejecting the examples of Christ, we fail to understand that freely acting in humble service to our fellow man is the truest expression of charity and the ultimate source of our own fulfillment. If we want justice, if we want to change the course of our society then we need to get to the heart of the matter. We need to close our eyes to the exterior once and for all and look deeply within. Only then will we see one another as we truly are and only then, we will finally let go of the dividing tensions which have already claimed too many lives.
Like the poor man and Lazarus, I imagine Michael Brown would send back a message if he could. A warning to his brothers and sisters that all life is precious and that there is a right Judge Who reads the heart and casts the final verdict.