For weeks, the controversial killing of Michael Brown and subsequent refusal of a grand jury to bring the white police officer who killed him to trial was at the forefront of American consciousness. Folks in Ferguson reacted passionately and loudly, the figurative and literal flames of civil unrest burning for days; similar but more restrained demonstrations fanned out across the country.
Those far removed from the urban centers where the protested injustices take place took to social media to passionately change their Facebook avatars and adamantly share text-based images about freedom or equality or something else tangentially related to the details of what took place in Ferguson that night.
It was at the forefront, anyway, until another white officer was responsible for the death of another black man, Eric Garner. That incident was on video, absent the vagaries of the Ferguson incident, a presumptive visceral indictment of an officer who wasn’t. Mr. Garner’s death supplanted Mr. Brown’s as the cause around which the world of progressive social media rallied. Protests spread to include “die-ins” in major cities around America, and amateur and professional athletes sported t-shirts supporting the protests. They didn’t sit out a game and miss a check, mind you, but they did wear the shirts.
Then, Sony Pictures pulled “The Interview” from theaters ahead of its planned release on Christmas Day, and now we’re no longer talking about either case.
So, apparently, that’s it.
We’ve found a new injustice to fight with all the meme generators and hashtags in our arsenal. We’re still mad about the death of these men, but, c’mon man, freedom of speech and fuck North Korea.
In the window that sat gaping open for over a month, where the attention of a large cross-section of America was rapt, where these two incidents led the news broadcasts each day, we didn’t have a discussion about the nuances of subconscious racial bias. We didn’t assess its potential for coloring the judgment of Darren Wilson, imploring him to pull the trigger twelve times instead of twice. Perhaps Michael Brown exhibited the poor judgment of assaulting an officer, but would be alive today if he were a white man that assaulted an officer – but that wouldn’t fit in a meme.
We didn’t examine the grim realities of socioeconomic oppression that pushed Eric Garner to a lifetime record of dozens of arrests for petty crimes, potentially increasing the animus with which the arresting officers approached him to carry out their job – but that’s too long for a hashtag.
We certainly didn’t take the time to question to what extent race even affected both outcomes – it’s a far simpler narrative to rally behind when it’s entirely about race, after all. So, we simplified the discussion down to white-cop-is-racist-and-killed-guy-because-he-was-black, and went guns blazing into the Twittersphere to show our progressive disgust for all things surrounding the police in Ferguson and Staten Island, if not everywhere. Allusions to, or direct accusations of, endemic racism in myriad police forces dwarfed discussion about legislating mandatory body cameras and independent prosecutors being mandatory for any death at the hands of an officer.
Ironically, police forces in major cities were being vilified while the Republican lawmakers whose policies were quite possibly responsible for the oppressed centers where these incidents occurred waltzed to landslide victories. Meaningful discussion to find a common understanding between an oppressed community and their perceived oppressors quickly went from difficult to impossible. No bridges were built, no education offered in either direction, just collective rage so fervent in its unassailable righteousness that reasoned dialogue was neither welcome nor feasible. If one even dared to present an alternate viewpoint, well, they were clearly racist and part of the problem and how dare you and you just don’t get it.
In virtually any point of contention, “getting it” will demand more than a cursory look at the details and assuming a clean, easily defined position. People are flawed, nuanced, and complicated; the situations they put themselves in, by default, are even more so. To truly find understanding – to prevent history from repeating itself time and time again – we must take the time to admit fault of varying degrees by all parties involved and craft a mutually-agreed path forward. That is how we advance; that is how we assure the death of these men was not in vain – we need to talk and think and be open-minded.
That depth of understanding can’t come from a shared Facebook photo illustration. It sure as hell doesn’t fit in under 140 characters. If we want to get above this ugliness, we need to work a little harder than whipping around Fun Sized bits of animosity. If someone offers a view that doesn’t resonate with you immediately, don’t demonize them – ask them questions. Yes, some people you can never educate, and you’ll eventually need to let them go off and live their lives in ignorance. Without making the effort to go a few layers deeper into your anger, though, you risk dismissing fair-minded potential allies along with them.