Ferguson Protests: A Time For Listening

Ferguson Protests
“Hands up! Don’t shoot!” signs displayed at Ferguson protests on Aug. 14, 2014. (Photo: WikiMedia Commons, Jamelle Bouie)

Tuesday morning the world woke up to news that not only had a grand jury determined that a trial was unnecessary in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., but that riots and looting had erupted.

St. Louis prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced late Monday night the grand jury’s finding of “No True Bill,” that there was insufficient evidence to support a trial in the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. The decision was based on the testimony of Wilson and conflicting testimony of eyewitnesses who recounted different versions of events and physical evidence. It’s reasonable to surmise that had Wilson been indicted, it would be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of murder.

Yet, it’s also true that we may never know. Unless a continuing federal investigation comes to a different conclusion, Wilson may never be cross-examined. Eyewitness testimony, which has been historically proven to be unreliable, seems to have played a role in the grand jury’s decision.

After waiting for several hours for the verdict, which was reached in the afternoon, the culmination of a building tension that had cast the eyes of the nation on Missouri for the last three months finally came to fruition. Tears of anger and frustration gave way to violent outbreaks that included arson, burglary, unlawful assembly, as well as drugs and weapons possession.

Headlines greeted the public with their morning coffee: “Chaos in Ferguson,” “Hell Breaks Loose” and “Streets Flare Up,” among others, fueling social media to carry the message forward that the story is in the protest itself, not the system being protested. The nighttime announcement, especially considering the fact that a curfew had been in place in Ferguson since this summer specifically to quell violence, begs the question about whether the timing was another example of manipulation by a system designed to distract from the more pressing issues at hand: the systemic failings of a society built on oppression.

Facebook and Twitter are rife with speculation, accusation, disgust and judgment. Leaders across the nation condemned the violence and pleaded with critics to protest peacefully, as many took to social media to speculate on the behavior of “savages” and “animals” who are looting “instead of Christmas shopping.”

Here on Long Island, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) took the opportunity to not only denounce the violence, but also to take verbal shots at President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder for having spoken out before the grand jury rendered its decision.

“Any violent demonstrations against this grand jury decision must be condemned by our national leaders – particularly President Obama and Attorney General Holder,” he said in a statement. “Justice in our country must be determined in the courtroom not by violent demonstrators in the streets or biased advocates, such as Al Sharpton, who appeared in the media demanding a rush to judgment.”

Yet what about the demonstrations? The riots and the looting we should condemn? What do they mean? It’s hard for a white suburban mother in the Northeast to understand a race riot in the heartland. I don’t pretend to understand the full implications or the entire scope of historical context.

Martin Luther King Jr. called riots “the language of the unheard.”

These riots are communicating rage. They are communicating frustration. Perhaps instead of looking at the manner in which they are communicated perhaps we might seek to answer the questions that they ask.

The Corridor Counts, a collective of advocates and professionals from central Nassau County’s minority communities, issued a statement calling for a “calm and an orderly response to this decision,” while urging the public to mobilize and act in meaningful ways to target not just the response to perceived racial injustices, but to constructively work to achieve a more just system.

“TCC calls on our local officials to break their silence understanding that today’s Ferguson is tomorrow’s Nassau County,” the group said. “The need for a Civilian Complaint Review Board and constructive use of tax dollars to educate and care for all of our youth are real answers to begin to address some of the many concerns we face together.”

Mostly, the group urges those who have remained quiet to break their silence, as “violence finds comfort in silence.”

If we perceive the riots as the concentrated voices of those who have been quieted, the ricocheting screams of childless mothers, the wails of those who have known only systemic injustice, I wonder what we will hear if we just listen?