As a St Louis native, Geoff Cochran recounts the Ferguson riots in this personal reflection.
On August 9th, 2014, my wife, kids, and I settled in our minivan on the road from Chicago to my hometown St. Louis. We crossed the three hundred mile stretch of I-55 as we started out on our ten day family vacation. Our plan was to spend time with my parents for a few days and then my wife and I would leave our kids, climb on a plane, and spend another few days with friends in Denver. At the same time we loaded our bags and kids into the van, a life ended. The event that rocked the landscape of the city in which I grew up, the event which fills the columns of newspapers to this day, the event that kicked off a seething conversation that was long overdue, happened.
By the time we reached my parents home, the immediate impact was obvious. The people of that town rallied and protested. The mood of the protest was frenzied. Riots ensued. Police gave chase. It went on for over two weeks. As the plane descended into Lambert Airport on our return trip, the frenetic scene was visible from the sky. The city was flickering with flashing lights of emergency and armored vehicles. Anymore, the entire event and its aftermath are summed up concisely by these two hashtags: #MikeBrown and #Ferguson.
My internal reaction to the events surprised me. As a person who abhors violence and embraces peaceful resolution to conflict, my reaction was out of line with my principles. Despite the destructive nature of conflict on both ends, I found myself encouraged that the people of Ferguson were reacting to the tragedy. They were doing something, anything to show their outrage. With that reaction I took to social media as my most accessible form of expression. My post read:
I’m relieved the people of Ferguson are looting. I’m relieved they are outraged. I’m relieved that when a young man, the future if their community is murdered they are disgusted enough to break and slash and burn. I’m taken aback that people are audacious enough to value businesses over human life.
To those looking in on this, there are people looting and looked on as criminals and vandals. People shake their heads and talk about how very shameful it is that they are destroying their own community. I think we forget sometimes that the same police who are supposed to “serve and protect” regularly brutalize them. What you see as destruction, I see as fighting for their lives. You see them burning their neighborhood, I see them breaking what doesn’t work. You see them raging against authority, I see them screaming for help that rarely comes.
Dr King himself said, “A riot of the language if the unheard.” Here are the unheard. Who is going to start hearing them?
And then the floodgates opened.
My post on Facebook solicited comments from all sides of the spectrum of my virtual friends. Some of them I know very well and some I haven’t seen in person in many years. Some comments were in support of the rioters and looters and some were adamantly against their actions. A high school acquaintance made the succinct comment in response to my post “Well, I hope some one (sic) burns down your house or steals your computer in protest one day. You can come back and have a discussion about your pride. And if you think the looting of rims, hair extensions and shoes (now in South City) has anything truly to do with social justice, well, thats (sic) comical.” He promptly unfriended me. I wasn’t offended. I saw it for what it was. A fearful reaction for which I can’t really say I blame him. It was and still is a very scary thing.
But there is also the hope that balances out the fear. There were activists who dodge the fear and put themselves on the front lines of the protests right in front of the police. That week my sister went to hand out bottles of water to people in the trenches. She is braver than me.
After my one simple post, another high school friend reached out in a private message to tell me how appreciative he was of the post. He left the first comment afterwards. “A. Men.” he said. What was born from that was an honest and open conversation about our own personal narratives. He left an open invitation for me and my family to stay with him and his if ever I am in Kansas City. Where one person spews vitriol, another espouses support. On one side there is contempt and on the other deference.
Being the young white man that I am, I wanted to get another perspective on the situation. I realize no matter how open-minded I like to think I am, in the end I can really one see race in America from my own perspective: as the young, white man that I am. I reached out to a couple of my African-American friends. It sparked one particular conversation that highlighted a couple of very important things for me.
In that conversation my friend frankly stated, “Most white families don’t have conversations with their children about how they need to interact with the police in order to stay alive or out of prison. Not so in the AA (African-American) community.” I’m going to go all the way on this and that there aren’t any white families who have that conversation with their children. Not one. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I do know that it won’t be a conversation I have with my kids. My dad didn’t have it with me. If you’re white and reading this, you won’t have it with yours. It’s not conjecture. It’s a truth. In fact I tell my kids the opposite. I tell them that the police are friendly. If they need help, the police are safe people. We wave at officers when they drive by when we are out for walks. They wave back.
He also made the most obvious, yet easily overlooked comment in any conversation and media coverage to date. He said simply, “At the end of the day…a life is lost.” So there it is. No amount of discussion about racial motivation, no amount of incriminating or exonerating evidence will bring to life a boy that was barely a man.
We go through life, but not necessarily on a predictive path. We do the best we can day to day and then things happen. Global and personal events occur and we act and react. For me and many others, Ferguson was one of those global events that provoked a reaction, with some a visceral one. The implications of these reactions leave profound impressions. My reaction showed me that I am not a quite as peaceable as I like to think myself. I saw others’ reactions that were tinged with racism. Still others rose to help, support, and protect. It was a microcosm of the human condition. A sampling of both who we are at our best and at our worst.
The ongoing conversation since August 9th is one of race in America, but on the whole, #HandsUpDontShoot evolved into something much greater. The boy who was gunned down became the catalyst for a unifying global effort. #Ferguson in now the rallying point for a discord and disharmony that is rampant. The demonstrations that were sparked in a small St. Louis suburb found a home in New York City’s Times Square. It is a touchstone that moved beyond our national borders and resonated on a global scale. In other cities like Moscow and Hong Kong where people struggle for greater political freedoms Ferguson became a mantel to rage against the cultural and societal barriers that hinder them from living the lives they choose.
This is not another #MikeBrown #Ferguson story. This goes beyond that. It goes beyond one dead person or one smoldering city or dysfunction in one country. It is a human issue. Whether we are angry about the cop or the kid or the looting or racism or anything else surrounding what we read and hear in the news, it is because we care deeply in one way or another. But care and concern are not enough.
Aristotle called it the “golden mean.” Buddhists call it the Middle Way. The idea is that somewhere between two extremes is a quieter place, not of indecision but of openness. It is a simple idea that takes a lifetime to practice. One high school friend grabbed onto his fear because that’s what he knew to do. Another opened up to something else, he opened up to understanding. On a more practical level, he opened up to another person through friendship. In small ways every day we have this same decision to make.
We decide to close off or open up to the people around us. Whether it is our spouse, our kids, our coworkers, our friends, we decide who deserves our openness, understanding, and compassion. The challenge then is to give it to everyone we meet. The decision is to be open to everyone freely without condition not simply because it is the right thing to do, but because it is a human need just as much as food, air, and shelter. We all clamor for it every day. When we deny it to others, we deny it to ourselves. We close off a little bit more to the world around us. We limit our lives and our experiences. We lose the precious time we have in life. And then at the end of the day…it is our life that is lost.
Photo: Paul Sableman/Flickr
Also on The Good Men Project:
The New Man Paradigm (by Geoff Cochran)
Fatherhood and Boys in Tights (by Geoff Cochran)