Social Justice

Talking About Michael Brown, Social Justice, and Why #BlackLivesMatter This Thanksgiving

What happens when our family and friends disappoint us with their ambivalence? Read More

By / November 26, 2014
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

For hours on Monday night after the announcement that Darren Wilson would not be indicted, I stared at my computer screen feeling as though no language could be adequate. My heart was and still is with the expressions of grief, shock, outrage and solidarity. Each post in my Facebook feed offered something of that ilk: a poem by Langston Hughes, clips of Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden urging “positive change,” quotes from Atticus Finch and James Baldwin. Simple expressions of sadness hit hardest.

Every so often, disagreement would flash across comment threads—but it seemed designed to provoke, usually to troll.

I tried to imagine those who were unsure, who didn’t live in an echo chamber of either ilk, not getting constant reinforcement from either script, that “black lives matter” or that the a police officer had lawfully killed a violent thug.

Twenty hours remained before I was due to board my flight home to Cleveland for the Thanksgiving holiday. I knew that I was bound to encounter someone just that unsure—maybe a cousin, a high school acquaintance, or a neighbor. I knew we’d be even more likely to talk about the deaths of black people at the hands of police, with a family member on staff at the school that was attended by Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy shot and killed by the Cleveland police after waving a toy gun.

That’s the Thanksgiving trope: gathered around a picturesque table laden with food and beatific expressions of gratitude, somehow all the fissures and disagreements, personal and political, that lurk beneath the familiar façade find a way to leach into the dinner talk. Were we going to shout our slogans, condemn loved ones’ inadvertent condoning of racism and targeted police violence? What happens after we demand that our less social-justice-oriented family members adopt our frame of mind, and then they disappoint us with their ambivalence? Some awkward passing of the Ocean Spray cranberry sauce and a desultory goodbye kiss on the cheek?

I thought about the Passover seder, how, while the wise child and the rebellious child are having it out over their strongly-formed opinions, Jews are still obligated to make space for the simple child, who asks only, “what is this?” and for the one who does not even know how to ask a question. What follows is the best response I could brainstorm (originally posted on Facebook).

Presumably the grand jury deliberated on evidence, conflicting accounts, information presented on all sides as “the facts.” In fact, reports show they may have been provided with an overabundance of evidence, an unusually voluminous document dump of the type usually reserved for trials.

There must be, I can only assume, legally compelling reasons for not indicting this officer. “The jurors had to consider whether Officer Wilson acted within the limits of the lethal-force law,” according to the New York Times, and evidently they did.

But there were legally compelling reasons to acquit George Zimmerman, and the officers who beat Rodney King. We have yet to find out what actions if any will be taken against the officers who killed Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, or Ezell Ford. With Darren Wilson, the decision to decline indictment is tantamount to saying Mike Brown’s death, along with others, did not require any retribution or response.

The arguments that every one of these acts, to say nothing of hundreds more, were done in self-defense implies that, black men always represent potential criminality and lethal threat—even when they are found (too late) to be unarmed. When, each time, the law condones use of lethal force against black men, when there are no consequences for actions that result in death, the message to those who kill is: “You did the right thing.”

The result: black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white ones.

If you are confused or intimidated by people’s outrage, anger and sadness: we are not “making” race an issue. We are naming the central role that race plays in civilian deaths at the hands of police officers. Deaths that represent lives so insignificant that their loss does not warrant a trial—these deaths only happen to black men.

To insist on examining each of these strictly on a case-by-case basis only illustrates a larger point: that there are a seemingly inexhaustible number of legal rationales for killing a black man.

Every time our juries, our police forces, our judges and our media, paid for by our taxes and our consumerism—condone the notion that some people’s lives really are just that insignificant, we bring ourselves closer to that same judgment. This matters for you. Black Lives Matter FOR. YOU.

When speaking to Jewish family, I recalled a sermon from Rosh Hashanah called Ferguson/Fargesn, about the mandate for Jews to remember that it was us who were “stopped and frisked” –

“If anyone could identify with young men magically deemed pathologically criminal for no other reason save their ethnicity, it would be Jews… Now we are not the ram in the story of Isaac’s sacrifice. We can be the angels, who are not afraid, who speak for God – “don’t put a hand on the boy!”

 

 

Amy Schiller writes about politics, feminism, philanthropy, and pop culture. Her work has appeared in The NationSalonThe Daily Beast, and The American Prospect. Her website is amybessschiller.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

(Image: Scott Olson/Getty)