How We Talk About Ferguson

Everything that has happened in Ferguson, from the shooting of Mike Brown, to the protests, to the looting, to the response of the authorities, is a cultural Rorschach test. Everyone can see EXACTLY what they want to see. And they have absolutely no idea how anyone could possibly see anything differently. That’s what makes this so hard to talk about.

My heart is broken. By the death of a young man. By the panic and destruction. By the oppression. By the cycle of violence in a community. By the prejudice. By the tears. By the pain. By the fear. But mostly by the hard-hearted and hateful division of my friends, family and our society in general. How can we talk about this? How can we ever begin to learn something? How can we heal? I don’t have the answer, but I know we have to do it together.

Something incredibly frustrating is that the two most clearly defined sides (I’m not naive enough to think this is that simple, but go with me) are saying exactly the same thing: “Don’t judge an entire group of people on the actions of an individual”. Yet despite a shared feeling there are two deep trenches dug on opposing sides battling each day to be right in the court of…. Justice? Truth? Reality? Moral superiority? Public opinion? I don’t think anybody knows.

Supporters of the police are saying “just because there a few bad police officers, we aren’t all threats.” Supporters of Mike Brown are saying “just because some black people commit crimes, we’re aren’t all threats.” Exactly! Nobody wants to be “those people”. Nobody wants to be “they”. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to be valuable. Everyone wants to matter. Nobody wants to be judged before they are truly known.

And I’m no different. When this all started, I picked a side too. I’ve been a large black man since I was 13. My experiences with police, authorities and society in general strongly informed my reaction. I remember a few stops for seemingly no other reason than driving while black (DWB), a high school girlfriend being asked if she was being held against her will, purses clutched in elevators, being followed around stores, getting escorted into the back of a cop car for “curfew violations”, and rape whistles nearly being blown while I tried to walk my dog. I could sympathize with Mike Brown, the young man lying dead in the street. I could see myself there under the wrong circumstances. And I felt the anger build. I felt all the pain. I totally understood why people were protesting. Even though it was senseless and harmful, I could even understand why people were looting. I immediately identified with that perspective because I have felt like them, even though my circumstances weren’t nearly as extreme.

Then I read a comment on Facebook that changed my perspective. (Perhaps the first time in history that has ever happened). A police officer that I know weighed in on a mutual friend’s status. It wasn’t his words that swayed me. It was what I felt. I heard a man hurt and angry after being stereotyped as the bad guy. I heard someone doing for another officer what he would hope his colleagues would do for him. This is a man that risks his own life every single day to serve and protect me. He sacrifices his safety and his family’s well-being so that my family can be safe. And now, he and his fellow officers were being publicly attacked. I know what it feels like to be defensive as a group you identify with is prejudged. It feels personal. At that moment I saw things from his perspective. And it changed things for me.

Suddenly my desire to be heard, for my feelings (and therefore me) to be understood, transformed into a desire to hear others. Anger and hurt morphed into compassion and empathy. Now I could see it from both sides. I could understand the fear of the protestors with signs and the police officers with shields. I could see why both looters and the riot squad were angry. And I saw the helplessness everyone seemed to feel. “How can we come together when we’re so far apart?” The irony is, in many ways, nobody understands what the police are going through more than the black community on the other side of the tear gas. And vice versa. They’re actually both under attack and trying desperately to be heard and known. The two “opponents” have a lot of common ground.

Painting with a broad brush (stereotyping, prejudging) is the work of an unskilled artist. It’s why my wife let me paint part of our dining with room with a big roller. I’m a terrible painter. I have minimal experience and it makes me nervous. That’s why I used a “broad brush”. But the skilled artist has more precise tools. That’s how Michelangelo created the Sistine Chapel, an absolute masterpiece. And when it comes to these conversations, we have to become more skilled. What does skill mean? Having the humility to forgo our desire to be right and listen to those with whom we disagree. And really hear them. We may be surprised when we realize we have a lot in common.

Originally published at