I watched the Ferguson situation unfold from across the world, in another culture. I don't know the nuances, I don't know who is at fault, but I know one thing. We all see situations through the lens of our own experience. Here is mine.
I went to college in downtown Chicago. It was an area with a reputation for both street violence and police brutality. One day Isaac and I were coming home from having watched a movie and stopped at the McDonalds down the street from our school to grab a quick burger. We were sitting discussing the movie when a black man in a wheelchair with a cast or bandage on his foot started wheeling around the restaurant and asking for change. This was common - there was a homeless shelter around the corner and although panhandling in the restaurant wasn't allowed, it happened often.
A white cop came in to usher the man in the wheelchair out of the restaurant (also common). He told him to move along and the man grumbled and avoided obeying. The cop requested again that he move towards the door, and the man again sort of avoided and grumbled and complained, with his voice rising and people turning to watch. The cop reached down and took hold of the back of the wheelchair to move it forward towards the exit. The man in the wheelchair resisted, reached down and pulled the footrest off of the wheelchair and brandished it at the cop, yelling at him. Totally inappropriate behavior towards an officer of the law.
At that point the cop also lost it. He grabbed the footrest from the guy, pushed him against the wall, and began beating the man's leg (with the bandage on it) with the footrest. They pushed each other back and forth from wall to wall and there was blood from somewhere and as a woman screamed and said, "CALL THE COPS!", they pushed each other out the door and down the street. That was the end of what I witnessed.
When things happen like Trayvon Martin or the situation in Ferguson, I always think back to that situation. Sometimes people attack cops and often they are incredibly disrespectful. I also know that sometimes cops lose it and do things they should never do. I tend to think that the burden of responsibility lies heavily on the police. They are officers of the law. They are, by definition, guarding against lawlessness. So it should come as no surprise when those that they deal with are unlawful, disrespectful, or violent. They are trained to respond appropriately. It is NEVER acceptable for a cop to lose his temper and explode in anger, even when they are being treated unfairly. How sad is it that in that situation we were in desperate need of an officer of the law, but the screams of the witness went unheeded because the law was already there and was escalating and beating rather than averting a crisis? I also know that most likely that situation was never publicized because, you know what, who is to know? If it's a homeless black man with no advocate in a ghetto McDonalds, the cop subconsciously probably thinks, "No one is going to report this."
There's another experience that provides me a lens through which I view these situations, and it's being refined right now, across the world from Ferguson. I mostly grew up among a minority people group in this country. They are black and they are of a different culture, race, religion, and just about everything than the rest of this country. I grew up surrounded by a very tense political situation as rebels fought the national government, often in very inappropriate ways. I heard the frustration of the local people as they felt different, unheard, unempowered, voiceless, systematically disenfranchised, scorned, and sometimes persecuted. They were sometimes afraid.
And now here I am, doing language school in the center of the majority people group. I have been having conversations about the diversity of this country. I am astounded by the entirely different perspective they have. These are good people here. They are proud of the diversity of their country. They see the minority as a part of the this beautiful nation... different but part of it. Where the Papuans would say that the money, power, and cultural superiority flows from here, the people around me do not see themselves as privileged. They know there has been a political struggle across the country but it is seen as separate. They would never view themselves as a part of the problem. Why? They respect the minority. There may be a certain stereotype of the minority as ignorant, lazy, and uncouth, but they aren't going to judge people by that stereotype.
It's been a bit shocking to realize just how different the two sides see the same situation. Because I am seeing this as the situation in Ferguson unfolds, I realize that I am seeing us in the mirror. This majority group is like us in the US. We struggle to understand that situation because, well, it is possible that some guy attached a police officer and the police officer shot him in self-protection. We DO NOT see the systematic struggle because we don't personally feel prejudiced and we live entirely separate from the reality that is everyday life for the minority.
I think that's the crux of what I'm realizing. We are clueless. See, here's the thing. Systematic struggles stay the way they are despite individuals being personally blameless and unprejudiced, because the system perpetuates itself. This is a great blog on that topic. Read it. We also don't realize just how much powerlessness feeds the abuse of power. We look and see poverty, crime, and educational problems, and don't realize how much that exact problem allows a cop to do something that he would never do across town in our neighborhood. We see a problem that is not OUR problem, that we aren't personally contributing too, and forget that in a society, every member of the society contributes to the system. If the system is unjust, then as a part of this society, we are a part of injustice. And we are, indeed, our brothers' keeper.
I don't have answers. I know it's complex. I just also really believe that we have to open our eyes and realize that we ARE a part of this, and it IS our problem.