Early Sunday morning, before church, I sat in a coffee shop and read a story in the Washington Post detailing the conflicting accounts of the last minutes of Michael Brown’s life.
There is much to learn from what has happened in Ferguson. Even those who witnessed the confrontation from the exact same location, with the same degree of attentiveness, even coming from very similar backgrounds, describe events radically differently. Any of us who ever have claimed to be certain of what we saw should read that testimony and think again.
But something else stayed with me, something that has been growing in me since another young man was shot dead in another murky confrontation in which the survivor claims he feared for his life, while the alleged threat is the one who died.
Please, I’m not saying the fear wasn’t justified. Just saying that there is plenty of tragic irony in these stories.
What is staying with me isn’t about guns or self-defense defenses. It isn’t about racism per se, nor police brutality, nor about drugs, nor troubled youth.
In each of these stories, there are conflicting accounts not only of what happened, but about the one with the gun, and about the young man who now lies below a stone marker.
And those conflicting stories, quite likely, all have truth in them.
Michael Brown probably did steal a $15 box of cigarillos from a convenience store. He probably also threatened the store clerk to pull it off.
Trayvon Martin probably did get in trouble in school.
And George Zimmerman and Officer Darren Wilson both thought to use deadly force as a response to some sort of confrontation with these two young men. They probably were afraid at the time. They also were angry. They probably allowed themselves both emotions without questioning their appropriateness or their effect on the decisions they were making.
Choices, in both instances, led to violent confrontations. Choices driven, at least in part, by emotion more than reason and perhaps by the quest for power more than respect.
Ask any public school teacher whether reason and respect are things their students have learned at home and they’ll tell you that, in too many homes, the answer is no.
That’s true of too many white homes, and too many black homes and too many Latino homes. Not all, to be sure. But too many.
Somewhere along the way, it became socially acceptable to insist that our kids couldn’t be guilty of whatever they were accused of. They couldn’t be skipping school, or failing to turn in their homework, or disrupting class. They couldn’t be bullying others, or stealing, or doing drugs, or sleeping around. Even when we, the parents, knew they were.
We might try to convince ourselves that they weren’t, or minimize how serious the problem was. Or we might give them h_ll at home about it. Either way, no teacher was going to call our kid out on anything.
From which our children learn that the defining value is power. Not truth. Not respect.
The parent overpowers the child (up to some age or size, anyway). The parent, who can’t be fired for being a bad parent, overpowers the teacher, who can be fired (or at least sent to a different school) because parents insist she or he is a bad teacher.
Not only do our children learn to prioritize power; they also learn that power is itself a way of classifying people. Some are more powerful than we are (play the appropriately submissive supplicant with them). Some are not (do what you will with them).
They/we grow up calculating everything in power terms, whether on the playground, or on the highway or in the office. Whether we are dressed in a jogging suit or a business suit or a uniform.
Even with all this practice, miscalculation about who is, and who is not, really powerful, is inevitable. According to Officer Darren Wilson, Michael Brown yelled at him that he was “too much of a pussy” to shoot him down. And Trayvon Martin, according to George Zimmerman, clearly thought he had the power advantage, not realizing, perhaps, that Zimmerman carried a gun.
Sadly, they were both wrong.
And Officer Wilson and Mr. Zimmerman discovered that power, even lethal power, really isn’t everything.
It’s too easy (and too comforting) to find some set of classifications that allows us to dismiss the humanity of others. They’re weak. They’re black. They’re cops. They’re teachers. They’re punks. They’re bad parents.
But “they” (and we) don’t fit neatly into such classifications.
We are all ambiguous, complex creatures, neither heroes nor devils, getting it amazingly, inspiringly right at times, and terribly, horribly wrong at others.
We can’t dismiss anyone as any one thing. Least of all, we can’t classify anyone as “’them,” alien to ourselves, unworthy of our concern.
There is no them . . . There’s only us.