When the police in Ferguson, MO, released the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown last week, they also released surveillance camera footage of Brown in a convenience store, purportedly shoplifting. Whether Brown was guilty of the charges suggested by the video, no one believes shoplifting should be punishable by death.
So why release the video? Because shoplifting, it seems, was the more serious offense of which Brown may have been guilty. What he was actually stopped for was jaywalking.
Having lived in urban America now for 14 years, I know that jaywalking is a way of life. Sure I look both ways, but sometimes it’s easier to cross the street before you get to a corner. I’ve never been shot—or even stopped—for jaywalking. The difference between me and Michael Brown, of course, is the color of our skin.
As I’ve read about the protests in Ferguson, it’s clear that white people don’t understand why there is so much anger, even to the point of violence. Part of the reason we have a hard time understanding is because of our privilege as white people. Even if we get “harassed” by the cops, we know this isn’t the way things are “supposed” to work.
My wife (who is white) reminded me of a time shortly after we moved to Philly when she was carrying our one-year old baby on her hip to the produce store. She was approached by an undercover cop and asked to leave the shop for questioning. He suspected she was dealing drugs because she had gone into a neighbor’s house to visit before going to the store to get some food. My wife let him have it, being in complete disbelief that she would be pulled over and questioned for such an offense, especially while carrying our child.
Reflecting back, she realized her anger was not because her dignity was being attacked, but because it should have been clear to the police that she was “not the type” to be selling drugs (which leads to the question, who are the type?). When he stated he was only doing his job, she yelled back at him that he was doing it with the WRONG PERSON! She then walked home angry, as he had no other questions. She got away with talking back to the cop without any consequences… a privilege of being white.
What would have happened if my wife were black? Would she have gotten off so easily? What if a black man were in that same situation? What if my wife had a history of being followed around, harassed, and looked down on as a second-class citizen? What if, in that moment, she hadn’t wanted to comply with the officer because she knew she’d done nothing wrong and felt once again she was being dehumanized.
What if she’d protested and the officer had shot and killed her?
The charge against her would be an RDO—“resisting, delaying, or obstructing an officer.” On the books, it’s a much more serious charge than jaywalking.
I do not believe violence is the answer to injustice, but neither am I shocked that so many turn to it when someone they love is senselessly murdered. If power and dignity are stripped from people again and again, what do we expect?
I learned an important word and concept from those who have struggled for peaceful justice in Africa. “Ubuntu” is commonly used by people in Africa to reflect their strong value for community. Martin Luther King Jr. reflected this concept well when he said, “I cannot be all that I need to be, until you are all that you need to be. And you cannot be all that you need to be, until I am all that I need to be.”
Unless white America embraces this notion of Ubuntu, I’m afraid that we will continue to inch towards a violent revolution. Until we begin to realize that our sons are being harassed and killed on the streets, we will sit by wondering why so many African Americans are so angry. Ubuntu calls us to reject the power dynamics that create “us and them” categories. Ubuntu calls us to respect and learn from all people realizing we are in need of “the other” as they are in need of “us.”
Ubuntu means that we should all look out for folks crossing the street, and everyone of us should be outraged when a young man is shot dead for jaywalking.