Two Conversations about Ferguson, Missouri

Since I wrote this post last week, I’ve had two conversations about Ferguson, Missouri and the death of Michael Brown that keep repeating over and over in my head. When that happens, it’s a sign to me that I should write about them.

Conversation #1 – My son, full of pride that he has mastered our cable’s On Demand system, turned on our television the other day, eager to click over to the kids shows. Instead, he and his little sister caught a news report about Michael Brown’s death, specifically how many times and where he was shot. R changed the channel quickly, but it was enough for them both to know that someone died. Thankfully, my kids don’t shy away from asking questions.

“Mommy, there was a man who was shot. He was shot in the head,” said R. He was pointing at the television, a concerned look on his face.

“Why was he shot, Mommy?” G inquired. She sat on our couch, holding a pink stuffed bear.

I sat down. This was a sitting down conversation.

“Yes, there was a man who was shot,” I confirmed.

“Is he ok?” asked G.

“No, honey. He died.”

“Was he a bad man?” asked G.

“No, he was not a bad man.”

“Good,” said G. “I’m glad he wasn’t a bad man.”

“But why was he shot?” R asked. “The television said a police officer shot him.”

“We don’t know why exactly the police officer shot him. People are very upset that he died. They are concerned that the police officer shot him because his skin was a different color. The police officer was white. The man was black.”

I could practically see the wheels spinning round and round inside their heads as they tried to understand what I was saying.

“Maybe the police officer forgot the rule!” G called out, sticking her hand up in the air, as if she had the answer.

“What rule?” I asked.

“The rule that says you’re not supposed to shoot someone just because their skin is a different color. Maybe he forgot it,” she explained.

“It’s wrong to do that,” R agreed. “You shouldn’t hurt people.”

You shouldn’t hurt people. My kids got it. What happens to the rest of us that we forget this guiding principle?

Conversation #2 – One of my family members works in law enforcement, a tough job every day and one that is even harder in the wake of the Ferguson. He reached out after he read my post, wanting to respond to my description of Michael Brown’s death as a murder.

He said that murder and homicide – which is what the medical examiner has ruled Michael Brown’s death – are not the same thing. His points were well reasoned, so I did a bit of research.  The following explanation from gets at it directly:

“The terms murder and homicide are frequently interchanged; however, there is a difference between the two.  Homicide is the killing of one person by another.  Murder is a form of criminal homicide, where the perpetrator intended to kill the other person, sometimes with premeditation (a plan to kill).  Manslaughter is another type of criminal homicide.”

Since the facts in Michael Brown’s death are so unclear, my use of the word murder may be incorrect. Shooting or killing may have been more accurate. The emotional response to his death, however, is akin to what I imagine is felt in the case of a murder. The pain and loss are the same no matter how you define the circumstances of his death.

Speaking with my family member reminded me how quick people are to judge a situation. What does it feel like to be in law enforcement at this time in the United States? Does Michael Brown’s death make a police officer uncertain how to react in a crisis? Will an officer be less inclined engage if s/he is worried about being arrested or doing the wrong thing? For every officer who choses to brutalize a suspect, there are thousands of others who would never do so. How do we make sure those people continue to have the support they need to keep us safe?

I’m left with more questions than ever before, and from what I read online and from other conversations I’ve had, other people feel the same way. More questions, more frustration, more fear that we, as a country, are further apart than ever before. How do we solve this divide? How do we respond to the legacy of racism? How do spread respect, not hate?

My kids’ word – You shouldn’t hurt people – is one place.

Reading other writings about Ferguson is another way. Here are three to check out:

My prayers and thoughts are with the people of Ferguson and the family of Michael Brown.

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails,
and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy
to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.
-Frederick Douglass

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