And, here we are again. As the holidays and the time of thanksgiving draw nigh, we again see flames over the all-American community of Ferguson, Missouri. Once again, a dead black youth and a police officer with a clear conscience, exhonorated by a system that seems to inevitably preside over this increasingly familiar grim scenario.
The news report had just aired when I stepped out onto a dark street in quiet Cambridge, MA, home of the American Revolution. A small group (very small) of lily-white Harvard college students were predictably marching down the street chanting "USA, KKK - How many kids did you kill today?" An echo of a bygone age. An age when one man had a dream. Today, a man who sits in the oval office tells us to not loose hope in that dream. But, the fire and the killing seem to go on. (I recall a black man looking on with a curious stare at the half-dozen white students apparently trying to make the rest of us a touch less complacent for one moment that night.)
Yes, we've been here before. We always seem to end up here again. The question is, how long 'till next time?
Other obvious questions come to mind. What really happened? Would the white police officer have reacted differently (even to the degree of angling his weapon a tad lower) had the suspect been white? If a white boy had died this way (thief or no) would the predominantly white grand jury have decided differently? Questions to which we'll never have the answers. The witnesses always seem either to tell contradictory stories or fail to materialize altogether. Historians will probably do the same.
The real question is, how far have we come, as a nation? We've come a ways. But, it's all still there, inside us. The darkness, the fear, the hate. Hate and distrust of those unlike us. We've all heard the hateful slurs, the insults, the obscenities; words that go back all the way to the days of slavery. I grew up hearing those words. In traffic disputes, in bars...wherever. As I've grown older, I've wanted to believe it was fading. But, it never does, does it? Even as we deny it, scoff at it, insisting it's all behind us. It's all still here. It never left. Will it, ever?
I remember Rodney King. There, we had a camera as a witness. The merciless beating of a man as he lay defenseless on the pavement. A moment later, a voice over a police band...a chuckling voice of a cop delightedly making racial slurs after he'd done the deed. The jury picking the video apart frame by frame, examining every move under a microscope, trying desperately to avoid seeing the forest for the twigs. Jurors...white jurors anyway...just don't want to convict in cases like this. Cops riddle a young black man with bullets as he stands in his own doorway reaching for a comb. Acquitted cops hugging their kids and making statements to T.V. interviewers without a trace of guilt on their faces. A video of highway patrolmen or bailiffs roughing up a white woman makes it to the evening news, and the public is shocked and critical of the police. A black kid gets shot to death by a white cop, and white America collectively wracks its brains to find a way to acquit the white cop. His guilt or innocence never seems as important as feeling secure in our moral rectitude. And, just perhaps...our superiority?
Yes, we have come a ways. There's no denying that. But, why do we seem to keep passing the same signposts again and again?
Happy Holidays, America.