I grew up in Manchester, Missouri—a suburb of Saint Louis that hasn’t been in international news this week. Saint Louis is one of the most racially segregated cities in the country; for the most part, Anglos live in the counties, and African-Americans live in the city. It’s not an absolute rule, obviously; it’s not as if anyone is barred specifically from living anywhere in the Gateway City. Ferguson happens to be one community in North Saint Louis County that is predominantly black, and it happens to be on the north side of town, where white flight to West County has changed the demographics but not necessarily the police force.
On Saturday, 18 year old Mike Brown was shot dead by police in broad daylight. His dead body was left, uncovered, in the street for hours. Mike was unarmed when he was shot numerous times by a police officer whose name and race have yet (at time of writing) to be revealed by the Ferguson Police Department. (The officer in question has been put on paid administrative leave.) There are speculations as to what happened—a shot was fired inside the police car when Mike was in proximity to it; Mike was surrendering with hands up and beginning to kneel when he was shot numerous times. Slow response and intentional vigils eventually bred rioting and looting overnight. And all of this has led to heartbreak.
I grew up in Manchester, Missouri—a suburb of Saint Louis that hasn’t been in international news this week. It’s pretty Anglo. I was a good kid who did not always make the best decisions, and I never feared the police. And I can’t help but think that if I was shot at seventeen, about to go to college, the group of people who marched on City Hall would have been called a vigil or protest, not a mob (like Mike’s supporters were called); they would not have questioned why I was near the policeman or if I did anything to provoke the shooting. They certainly would have chosen a picture that showed me as a “good kid,” whatever that may mean.
But what did they do to Mike Brown? To Trayvon Martin? To countless other young black men who have been murdered by the institution and its biases? They show a picture meant to intimidate and frighten white folks. Mike Brown was known as a “gentle giant,” but the picture of him used by the news was taken from below eye level, and his hands—gasp!—are making a sideways peace sign. He is not smiling; he looks rather intense. Obviously, our visual cues would tell us, he might have had it coming.
He did not have it coming.
On twitter, black men have begun tweeting with under #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, showing two pictures of themselves, pondering which the media would use. If they’d use the one of the guy holding a massive joint, or looking at his mortarboard after graduating high school? (Fair warning, twitter users: some of the images are really, really graphic.) And the question I ask is why on earth is it okay to speculate on which picture would be used when you’re shot? What kind of society do we have, what kind of systems and oppressions do we endorse by not dismantling them, when the conversation becomes about portrayal of the next police brutality victim as black men being killed by police has become so normative?
There is so much justice work to be done, there is so much to be said, there is so much left on our plates as those who are peacemakers, agents of justice and peace, and citizens of the Reign of God. Join me in praying for peace, compassion and hope, even in the wake of all this pain. I look forward to seeing you Sunday.