This essay is an attempt to make sense of the conflicting perspectives I’ve encountered regarding the events surrounding law enforcement and people of color. The names have been changed where necessary to protect the perspectives of my current and former students who have entered into this conversation with me.
“Mr. Nentrup, did you see the Ferguson story last night?”
“Yes. It was horrible.”
“Man. That mob.”
This is when I knew this conversation with one of my students wasn’t going to be small talk. “That mob,” is when I knew it wasn’t going to be two people agreeing. Curtis is a good kid. A good, white, rural, Christian kid. And that’s what was now the lens through which I was seeing him. Yes, I was aware of my emerging mild prejudice towards a kid that was very similar to me at his age. Good, white, (semi)rural, Christian. So, of course, I feel a sense of mission to clearly establish our differences at this point. This seemed necessary because he didn’t see we had polar opposite reactions to the story. He innocently presumed we’d both be shaking our heads at those crazy black people in Ferguson. Or nodding in agreement that Darren Wilson was acting proportionally to Michael Brown’s assault by killing him in the street, and that the entire systemic meltdown that followed was the fault of no one but a dead, teenage, Michael Brown. Then this:
“Is that the name of the guy who punched the cop?” Curtis asks me.
In a heartbeat, I think of when I taught in the city and how every former student — every last one — would’ve used a different question to clarify a name they hadn’t caught yet, like:
“Wait…Is that the kid from Ferguson?”
“Is that the kid the cop shot?”
“Is that the kid they left in the street for four hours?”
“Is that the kid the cop killed?”
“IS THAT THE KID?”
The guy who punched the cop. Even though Michael Brown did resist arrest, did struggle with and punch Darren Wilson, I don’t think there’s anyone who should use that descriptor of Michael Brown. He wasn’t faultless. But he was a kid. A black male kid living in a construct where he was at the most severe risk for confrontation with police; the most at risk to incarceration or to being shot in public by a law enforcement officer. Michael Brown was the worst kind of statistic. And now for millions of Americans, Darren Wilson’s bruised or birthmarked face represents a corrupt power that can do whatever the hell it wants.
Curtis continues saying, “The way I see it, the cop was just doing his job.”
Now, I appreciate the courtesy of a disclaimer, but it is also a very damning prelude. “This is the way I see it” is precisely the entire issue here. The “I” becomes a “we” who don’t comprehend the difficulties and challenges with which young black males are fraught. The hard thing to own up to (for White America) is just how unfair a unspoken notion can be when you write it down:
“The way we see it, young black men are a threat to the way we want the world to be and a militarized police force becomes essential for keeping it in check if not contained.”
So when a big kid like Mike Brown furrows his brow and starts swinging, his fists are deadly weapons and his entire demeanor is reduced to being a “thug”. Being a monster. Or as Darren Wilson described Brown’s face, “it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”
As many who are focused upon the bigger picture are discussing, such talk is dehumanizing. It’s an attempt to make the grand jury’s verdict more palatable. But it’s an insult to our intelligence, and a tell of a much bigger problem in our still as of yet unsolved race relations around the fringes of any urban cop’s beat. White cops with kevlar and guns vs. black kids tired of being approached by such officers. Please don’t hear me saying I want police officers taking unnecessary risks with their own lives in the line of duty. It’s no different than supporting our troops abroad but condemning the choices of those in Washington sending those troops into unnecessary battle. Many officers of the law deserve respect and the support of the community to not put undue burden on their keeping of the peace. But law enforcement academy graduates are entering a broken system where the gap between the peace and keeping it is just too broad. Fixing that institution will take at least a generation. That’s unfortunate.
It’s universally understood that the rioting and vandalism isn’t what inspires that sort of cultural shift between institutions or people groups. Likewise, there have been plenty of memes pointing out the hypocrisy of other riotous outbreaks involving pro sports victories, and something with a pumpkin fest not getting the sort of attention from the right wing media as the destruction in Ferguson. We get it. Both sides are amped up. This too, is unfortunate and something I don’t see changing soon.
Especially when other cases go through their preliminary hearings, grand juries, and trials and result in more situations where the institutions are favored over the individuals. Just today, it was Eric Garner, who’s officer wasn’t indicted, even though a bystander recorded the Garner who resisted arrest, and then subdued by a choke-hold, and died on the sidewalk. Though pleading for relief because Eric was an asthma sufferer, and couldn’t breathe, the officers kept the applying lethal pressure. Speaking of Eric’s another former student of mine posted on Facebook as I was editing this essay that he’d been pulled over tonight. He’s black. That’s all. I don’t know what to do about that.
But what’s more unfortunate to me and is something I CAN start to influence is default perspective for so many that an officer or soldier must be doing their job, like what Curtis shared with me this morning. Again, he’s a great student. He’ll likely never be in a confrontation with the law beyond a speeding ticket. And I have plenty of friends who are fantastic officers, able to discern the best way to handle a dangerous situation.
The problem is how this repeated incident is further reinforcing stereotypes that both parties are contributing to upholding in mutual and escalating distrust. It’s just that one of these stereotypes — the white police officer working in a black neighborhood — is an organized and institutionalized force. It escalates to the point the National Guard is deployed, like in Ferguson, with the only operational difference between the two forces being the color of their uniform. Color. How ironic is that? To be clear, that’s a police force and National Guard with their rifles and riot shields pointed inward, not outward.
So people have taken to the streets. They’ve shut down major roads with their protesting, interrupted ball games and Christmas tree lightings. Some get belligerent and take advantage of the situation, no doubt. But a growing number are saying enough is enough and following a path of civil disobedience to get their message across. Why, in 2014 should we make them work so hard to convince the rest of us that things aren’t the way they should be? It’s really confusing because it seems so obvious.
I can tell you this. My boys at the urban charter school were also tough to convince. It’s really hard for them to believe that today that their lives amount to much in the world. Yeah, A few have the innate optimism to keep on going in school and life no matter what, but many would see the grand jury’s verdicts for the officers that confronted Michael Brown and Eric Garner that black lives don’t matter. That Kajieme Powell, Tamir Rice, John Crawford were expendables in the line of duty. Or that such mistakes are the collateral for the world we’ve all created. So, couple that message with the looming forecast from a portion of White America that the cops are always right and just doing their job and where do they turn for help?
So, yes. I’m saying the grand jury decisions to not indict officers who’ve done wrong is making the world a more difficult place in a number of ways. But what I feel is how a teacher’s job gets even harder for those who work with black boys. These incidents kill hopes. They instigate rebellion against the system. Because the suburban public responds by watching the fires and angry protests and aren’t actually listening to the message, the pessimism spreads on both sides. I’m telling you. One side can’t afford to give up any more ground than it already has.
I’m worried for the parents and teachers of today’s black teens. If we can’t get this chasm to start closing up, if we can’t fulfill the agreement we made so many years ago to be a better society committed to civil rights for all, then what are we doing? Too many of my former students won’t think they have a chance when they get older, they’ll think they have a death sentence.