I’ve never been to Ferguson, Missouri and know nothing about the town. If Michael Brown hadn’t been killed there, and if this recent furor hadn’t risen up there, I would likely never have heard of it. But now, this place name will become a term symbolic of suffering and confusion, like Columbine or Waco, reminding us of another horrific event that makes no sense. The name Michael Brown – a common name by itself – will also become infamous, like Trayvon Martin or Rodney King, as one more in a long series of black men victimized by a racist culture. The sad question we want answered again is: will there be justice this time?
In ways, American culture doesn’t change much, even as it seems to change dramatically. From the Scottsboro Boys in 1932 to Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. in 1975 to Rodney King in 1991 to Michael Brown in 2014— the list could keep going. Last weekend, I went to see Crosby, Stills & Nash live, and they ended their second set with the Buffalo Springfield hit “For What It’s Worth.” Stephen Stills wrote the song in the mid-1960s, when the political climate was as confusing and divided as it seems to be now. With lyrics about people “singing songs and carrying signs, mostly say: hurray for our side,” he also reminds us that there are “battle lines being drawn . . . nobody’s right when everybody’s wrong.” I couldn’t help thinking about the people in Ferguson, Missouri.
I don’t have any profound insights about the scene on the ground or about what racial justice in America should look like. Too many articles I have seen on social media have been purported as must-reads; I’ve read some of them. All I know is: racial justice is long overdue, and anyone who denies it can’t be looking at the facts.
As a teacher, I push the notion that a failure is only a failure if you don’t learn from it. We learn what not to do from our mistakes, which should lead us down the right path next time. I half-jokingly tell my students that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. We’ve seen this before, what we’re seeing in Ferguson, and that’s what makes it so crazy. We have to ask: Again? Our failures should have taught us by now what not to do.
To borrow Stephen Stills’ phrase, for what it’s worth, I want to say thank-you to the peacemakers, the people I have seen on TV begging the police and crowds alike to stop violating the rules of human decency. Among the inflammatory actions – some by police, some by the media, some by nameless citizens – there are people pleading for calm. God bless them! God bless the people who are standing bravely and peacefully, speaking truth to power, calling for justice in righteous ways.
That’s all I’ve got. I haven’t been to Ferguson, didn’t know Michael Brown, and don’t have any answers for the looming questions. I just want peace to come to all of the people affected, from Michael Brown and his family to people far away who, like me, are distraught by such obviously fractious events. And if we’re honest, if we learn from yet another failure, we’ll agree that this, which should never have happened, should be the last time.