Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Just or not, what the Ferguson decision really shows us

As you no doubt know by now, I am a geek.

Among the geekier things I've done in my life, I once attended a convention in 1996 for fans of Godzilla movies and Japanese science fiction. While there I bumped into a guy at a dealer's table. He was trying to think of the name of an old Japanese TV series. I told him that from what I overheard, he was talking about Space Giants. He was relieved and thanked me. We got to talking about all the crazy stuff we watched and played as kids and I found that not only did he enjoy Godzilla, but Star Wars and comic books as well. Yet like many such random connections at public events, it was a fleeting and kinetic one. I never got his name. Nevertheless, I sure did enjoy talking to him.

Did I mention he was black?

I happened to be white, he happened to be black, and we both happened to share a love of Japanese geek culture. Should race matter in that story?

Sadly, it seems that it does. In retrospect, I wonder what might have happened if that conversation had taken place outside on a street. Would a police officer have stopped and asked "Is that man bothering you?" Statistics would indicate that it is at least a possibility. 

That hypothetical situation gives me a personal glimpse into what life must be like for an African American citizen of the United States. Yesterday's news has brought that to the forefront of nearly everyone's mind but not always with the same understanding.

A grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri decided that there was not enough evidence to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, on charges after he shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African American youth, last August. A night of fierce rioting ensued upon the announcement that there would be no charges. This prompted the Right Wing to take to social media and display themselves at their vituperative best (or worst.) In fairness, they were not alone. Many Twitter and Facebook users decided to take social media as their personal platform to voice their racist beliefs. Wil Wheaton, yet another member of Geek Nation...heck, he might just be President of it, was the target of much of this abuse after he voiced his own opinion on Ferguson. He retweeted the responses in order to let the ugliness speak for itself, not mention the horrendous grammar of their authors. While racist epithets of this kind are ugly enough, it is the ignorance behind them that really gets to me and underscores every fear I have for society. The true ignorance, that is. Allow me to explain.

There is no way to morally justify the riots that have been unfolding in Ferguson. Violence, looting, and the destruction of property are very seldom the solution to any problem. As Dr. Martin Luther King himself put it: "The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility."
But that does not mean that we should not try to explain and to, more importantly, understand why the riots are happening. More to the point, look to the words of The Daily Show's Jon Stewart: "If racism is something you're tired of hearing about, imagine how exhausting it must be living it every day."

Being white, I have never been followed through a store. Admittedly, I have been pulled over by police a few times for speeding. Each time, I was treated with nothing but respect by the officer involved. Given the events of Ferguson and hard data on traffic stops (see first link), one can conclude that this respect is not enjoyed by all citizens, especially those of color.
Can you imagine that? Can you identify with going through life feeling as though a target is painted on your back? Not only that, but that the society in which you live is one of legal and duly legislated racism? 

Michelle Alexander makes the case for that latter and startling assertion in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. "We have not ended racial caste in America," Alexander argues. "We have merely redesigned it." By the systematic targeting and marginalization of communities of color, the criminal justice system acts as a formal mechanism by which to keep African Americans relegated to second-class status. It would appear that the operating axiom here is "If your hate is no longer socially acceptable, make it legally acceptable."

Ironically, voices of opposition are met with a number of appeals to this very system. "There is an order in things," it has been said. "We have a rule of law." "Trust the process." "If you want change, then it must be through voting and active participation in the process." All well and good and not without a good deal of truth.

Unless the system was designed to be against you.

How long could you take it? How long could you trust in a judicial system that just doesn't appear to be on your side? How long could you tolerate hearing "you and your voice don't matter?" In addition, imagine that you are African American and you're reading those previously linked comments from Ann Coulter, Ted Nugent, and Brit Hume of Fox News. How would you feel? They're talking about you and your family, after all. Wouldn't you begin to feel angry? Wouldn't you begin to feel left behind? After a while, this anger continues to pile inward on itself until like a nuclear reactor it reaches critical mass. Right, wrong, or indifferent, an explosion is the result.

Yes, I'm aware that the analogy is not entirely scientifically accurate, but I'm making a point here.

The riots in Ferguson are a very natural reaction. As a colleague of mine at the university said regarding the Ferguson situation as a whole: "It makes no sense and yet it was predictable." Just like a hurricane or a tornado, you could see the storm coming.

"But wait," you might say. "In our society of laws and political process, wasn't the grand jury verdict the correct one?"

Well, you might be on the side that says that there simply was not enough evidence and there were too many conflicting stories involved to indict Darren Wilson. Conversely, you might be on the side of Al Sharpton and the Brown family attorney who claim that a "first-year law student would have done a better job" than the prosecutor involved. It almost doesn't matter.

We will likely never see the full evidence that went to the grand jury. Similarly, we will very likely never get to hear the rationale of the jurors. Regardless of the legal correctness of the verdict, we still have a problem. The reaction to the verdict is the strongest possible indicator to our nation that people are feeling discriminated against and that there are numerous examples that underscore the problem of race. A segment of our nation feels at best marginalized and at worst targeted. The perception exists irrespective of the legality of the verdict and this conflict will not go away until it is faced head-on. 

Even more unsettling is the fact that African Americans are not the only ones feeling marginalized. Homosexuals experience similar degradation and marginalization where they are called "sinners" and where their marriages actually require votes and judicial action in order to happen. Similarly, women still face their own form of dehumanization. Yes, they do. One need only look to the recent GamerGate scandal to see this fact.

That latter point brings me back to Geek Nation.

My good friend Dorkland, himself an ambassador of sorts among geeks, puts it rather succinctly: "So many of us were brought up on a steady stream of comics, science fiction, movies and other media where the moralities were clear cut. We should know better than this, and we need to stop being silent. When someone says something hateful about the LGBT we need to shout them down. Not because of our friends who are LGBT, who can fight their own fights, but because it is the right thing to do. The same when people say hateful things about people of color."

Previously in the post, Dorkland describes his own geeky friend who happened to be African American. Like the man I kibitzed with at the Godzilla convention, Dorkland never really saw the guy as black. He simply saw another person interested in the same things that he was. When I think that my friend at the convention, however brief and momentary of a friend he was, may have faced his own experiences with profiling, his own legal barriers, and his own racial insults hurled at him, it fills me with a great sadness. From our short yet laugh-filled conversation, I could tell there was no difference between us.

Except, perhaps, in the eyes of established systems, entrenched after hundreds of years of hate.

Ferguson shows us many things. One of the primary among them is that the issue of race must be dealt with and we must be the ones to make the change. No longer can the default response be "the verdict was right and the rioters are now the ones breaking the law." However much veracity that statement may hold, it shows an utter ignorance of the underlying problem, namely the anger burning in people after years of not being heard.

Violence. Vandalism. Lawlessness. Oppression. Anger.

Say, didn't we see all that with another set of "criminals" back in the 18th Century? Maybe around Boston?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets


  1. Sarah said: "Brilliant!"
    Bernard said: "Sick."
    Melissa said: "Great article! You might want to see some of the feedback on the I Love it when I wake up in the morning and Obama is President page. Proud of you referencing "The New Jim Crowe." I recommend that book quite often. Good job and so well said/done."
    George said: "Another solid post, my friend."
    Collette said: "As usual Jon, insightful and thought-provoking."
    Smitty said: " Jon, I am a fan of you. As much as we disagree on fundamental political positions, I am still a fan of you, and this article is a wonderful example of why. You were able to give voice to many of the points i've been trying to get across for - well, since the day Wilson executed Brown. Regardless of the right or wrong of the rioters, we need to address their motivations before we condemn their behavior. Until we stop treating an entire demographic of the nation as a lower class of human, we cannot demand a different type of reaction when they have been oppressed for generations."