This month’s column wasn’t intended to be about Ferguson. Until a couple of days ago, its title was set to be “The End of the Album as We Know It.” However, sometimes life – with its infinite array of stories to report – narrows the field in a way that cannot be ignored, leaving only one story that feels worth telling. So titles are abandoned, plotlines rerouted, and characters changed – in this case from frontmen to lawmen, producers to prosecutors, and fans to the fallen. If you can’t already tell, it’s been a really lousy week.
First of all, I’m not writing to vilify or exonerate former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, make a lesson or martyr of Michael Brown, or deliver blanket statements declaring our country’s law enforcement and legal systems to be well-oiled and upstanding or broken and corrupt. And I won’t even begin to try to reconcile the polar-opposite views that have surfaced since last week’s announcement that Wilson would not be indicted for Brown’s killing. For some, the Michael Brown shooting is an object lesson about respecting law enforcement. For others, it’s a painful reminder that Justice is indeed not blind. For me, as a white “urban” educator, it’s something I still need to sort through.
I began patching together this column after receiving an email from a colleague who alluded to similarities between Ferguson and the moral found in Bob Dylan’s song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”. In the song, which Dylan wrote in the mid-’60s based on an incident he read about in the papers, Hattie Carroll, a black maid, suffers a deathblow (“lay slain by a cane”) at the indifferent, remorseless hands of a young, wealthy, and connected white man, William Zanzinger. Throughout the song, as we learn about Carroll, Zanzinger, her murder, and his subsequent trial, Dylan implores us to hold back our tears until Justice has had Its final say. It isn’t until Zanzinger receives a slap-on-the-wrist six-month sentence that Dylan nudges us and nods: “Bury the rag deep in your face/ For now is the time for your tears.”
Yes, the courts ignobly fail poor Hattie Carroll, similar to the claim that justice has been denied to Michael Brown and family. However, as I listened to Dylan’s song no fewer than a dozen times while watching footage of the Ferguson aftermath, the famous refrain (“You who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears/ Bury the rag deep in your face/ For now is the time for your tears”) began to sink in and break down a bit differently in my mind. I found myself focusing on the idea of fears being subject to public scrutiny (even invalidation) and the very powerful feeling that Dylan is singing in broader terms than a single victim (be it a middle-aged black maid or an 18-year-old black man neatly packaged and spoon fed to us as either a college-bound “gentle giant” or a convenience store-robbing thug).
Watching news coverage, listening to interviews, and reading online and social media this week, I couldn’t help but feel that those ideas were true points of contention – partly why we couldn’t all agree that now is the time for our tears. Those who supported the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson generally seemed quick to dismiss the fears voiced by the opposition (“Respect law enforcement, and you won’t have a problem.”) and more apt to view the shooting as an isolated incident. However, those heartbroken by the ruling, the nation’s black community in particular, not only displayed anger but expressed what appeared to be a genuine, deep-seated fear and a sense that Wilson walking was merely the latest in a long series of brutal, systemic gut punches.
No artist has articulated that fear of the authorities more perspicuously and movingly than Michael Render, better known as Killer Mike, one half of hip-hop duo Run the Jewels. Render, who has spoken out on the Brown shooting since it occurred in early August, happened to be performing in St. Louis the night of the Ferguson verdict. Before beginning the show, he addressed the audience — incidentally, many of whom were white — about the toll the decision had taken on him. “Tonight I got kicked on my ass when I listened to that prosecutor,” he began, his voice already quivering. “I gotta tell them. You motherfuckas kicked me on my ass today because I have a 20-year-old son and a 12-year-old son, and I am so afraid for them.”
Like a perfectly dropped verse, Render’s words smacked all those listening (or later viewing the viral video) upside their heads with the crux of his community’s fear: the feeling of being helpless to protect one’s own children. That’s the shot that pierced his armor — that seemingly impenetrable Killer Mike hoodie. No parent should ever be cruelly robbed of the belief that they can protect their children, preserve them, and deliver them into adulthood and beyond. It’s that brush with helplessness that left Render, a mountain of a man, “crying like a baby” in his wife’s arms when he heard the grand jury’s verdict, and I don’t doubt that same frustration led to the disturbing, irresponsible act of Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, screaming, “Burn this bitch down!” prior to a night of protesting, arson, and looting in the streets of Ferguson.
I don’t have two black sons like Render does; however, I do have 25 black and Hispanic students this semester at Harold Washington College in downtown Chicago. They look nothing like me, and we come from different worlds — a fact punctuated after each class when we take the subway home in opposite directions — but I can’t help but look upon them with the pride and hope of a parent as they trudge down their individual paths towards a variety of ambitions and dreams. When the subject of the Tamir Rice shooting (a 12-year-old black boy in Cleveland was killed by police while carrying a realistic toy gun in a park just two days prior to the Ferguson verdict) arose during class last week, I got a reminder of just how different our worlds are.
“He [Rice] should have known better than to act that way with police,” explained one black student. It’s the way she said these words that struck me — a cadence I’ve heard before from both college and high school-age youth in Chicago. Her response didn’t factor in emotion, justice, or right and wrong; she was purely talking in terms of survival. And at that moment, as several classmates echoed her thoughts, I’m sure I felt something like Render did when making his speech — helpless and fearful for my kids. To think that many of their parents or guardians had to sit them down for a talk about surviving interactions with police the way that mine had to speak to me about the birds and the bees should pierce all of us in our deepest integrity as Americans, educators, parents, and human beings.
“I don’t want to speak for everyone,” a young Hispanic student began, “but I don’t think that most of us trust the police. We’re more afraid than anything.” Nobody in a talkative class of 25 spoke up to oppose that sentiment.
Over the course of the last week, I’ve heard more commentary about the shortcomings of parenting in black communities than I have since Bill Cosby infamously admonished black parents a decade ago for failing to properly raise their children. I’ve read numerous bumper sticker-worthy comments that simply read “Parent Better!” And I can’t help but think of a time when I saw a teacher hovering over a struggling math student. The teacher’s advice? “Think harder!” I still don’t know what that means, but the point remains that that student could’ve thought until his brains oozed out of his ears, and he still wouldn’t have solved that particular problem because he didn’t understand the larger concept. So, here we are, as helpful as that teacher, telling black parents to parent better while ignoring a larger, all-encompassing problem as it pertains to interacting with law enforcement: they are sending their kids out into a toxic environment built upon a centuries-old foundation of fear and distrust. How can we honestly expect the outcome to be positive when “parenting” is necessarily reduced to teaching survival tactics?
So, yes, it’s been a lousy week, and I’m tired of thinking about Ferguson. But as I bounce between this column and grading my students’ final papers, I don’t need Bob Dylan’s cue to know that now’s the time for tears. I know to cry because I can already see Michael Brown (gentle giant or thug) joining Trayvon Martin as yesterday’s news (destined for Internet meme-hood rather than becoming a catalyst for change), as we quickly turn to stories of chokeholds in New York and toy guns in Cleveland. Really, I cry for the same reason Killer Mike does. As a first-year teacher in Chicago, I’ve already taught more than 200 children of color, and I am so afraid for them.