[Alan Felton] What would you do?
We’re delighted to welcome the Rev. Alan Felton to our pages on this fourth weekend in Advent. Alan currently serves as the pastor of Resurrection UMC in Durham, and in his copious spare time he’s also a preceptor at Duke Divinity School.
What would you do?
What would you do if year after year unarmed members of your community were gunned down in the street by police officers?
What would you do if year after year the legal system returned no justice for these acts of violence?
What would you do if you lived under the constant pall of suspicion and distrust by your neighbors of other races?
What would you do if the American dream of peace and prosperity were denied to you over and over and over again?
What would you do if you were repeatedly told to respect a “system” that was never designed to respect you?
What would you do?
You might do what was done recently in Ferguson, Missouri. You might do what was done in Los Angeles a generation ago. You might do what was done in Watts and other communities still another generation in the past. You might just go out burn the bitch down.
Media outlets were quick to broadcast the anguished reaction of Michael Brown’s mother hearing that her son’s killer would not be indicted on any criminal charge. That broadcast included the boiling over anger of Michael’s stepfather who repeatedly screamed to “burn this bitch down.” Part of Ferguson went up in flames soon thereafter.
The media was quick to focus on this angry response and blame it for the violence happening in the wake of the grand jury’s action in the Michael Brown case. The media was quick to do this because it allowed them to take the focus off the real crime, the killing of an unarmed black kid, and return to telling the comforting myth that our system “worked” even though not everyone agrees with the outcome.
The media also wanted to feed the desire to name “good” and “bad” guys.” The violence was quickly dismissed as the work of a few criminal elements or “outside agitators.” The so-called looters were obviously “bad” elements. They were the anomaly. They were misguided. They were the ones who didn’t respect the process. Maybe (never said directly but strongly implied) they were the ones who just didn’t know their place.
Yet, what would you do if were Michael Brown’s mother or father or stepfather? What would you do if your son’s body had been left lying in the street on public display for nearly five hours after he was gunned down? What would you do if your dead child’s character had been demeaned and vilified for months after his body had been assassinated? What would you do if you were part of a community where these things and worse happening are not unusual but the norm? What would you do?
I grieve the violence in Ferguson. I am sorry for those who lost their businesses. Yet, I don’t grieve them more than I grieve the death of Michael Brown. Insurance can rebuild at least most of what was lost in the flames of Ferguson. There is no replacing what was lost when Darren Wilson and Michael Brown met in the street on August 9.
That’s why I urge us to not be so quick to condemn a grieving stepfather when he cries out “burn this bitch down.” I don’t condemn him because that is exactly what I wanted to do when I heard the decision of the grand jury. My first inclination was to go grab a rock or a bottle or whatever I could get my hand on and go throw it through a window somewhere. My first thought after hearing the news from Ferguson was “I hope they burn that bitch down.” I didn’t go to any of the marches taking place that night or since because I was sorely afraid I would pick up a rock or make a Molotov cocktail and start doing just that.
I’m well educated and middle class.
I don’t have to worry that my son will be harassed or shot by police.
I’m the son of a retired police officer.
I’m a pacifist, a student of Gandhi and King.
I’m a pastor.
I received the news from Ferguson sitting in the church I serve with the cross of Christ I preach under every week in front of my eyes.
And, still, all I could think was “yes, let’s go burn this bitch down.”
W.E.B. Dubois once wrote, “A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.” For those of us who are protected, always have been protected, and always will be protected by the American legal system, maybe it is hard to understand the angry reaction to the grand jury decision. Yet, for those who not only read what Dubois wrote, but live it every day, it’s not so hard to understand the anger and the violence.
I can’t possibly understand the depth of anger and grief experienced by Michael Brown’s family. But, I can refrain from condemning them. I can try to walk a few feet in their shoes. Maybe if more of us would do that, we might go from wanting to burn this bitch down to celebrating justice for all.