I'll never forget watching news footage in late 2014 as Robert P. McCulloch, prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, Missouri, announced that the grand jury would not indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown Jr., 18, the previous August in Ferguson. And like many, I suspect, I was conflicted.
By all accounts, Brown was no pillar of the community. He was not above petty theft and civil disobedience—even on the day he died. But he was also unarmed when Officer Wilson fired 12 times at him. Lesley McSpadden buried her son 16 days later. Officer Wilson, thankfully, is still alive.
Unrest soon followed the announcement—though it wasn’t as severe as many had feared. But even now, over two years later, we’re left with no certainties, save two: there is still a race problem in this country, and there’s an ever-growing divide between the police and people of color.
As a white male, I may never experience racial profiling. If I were African American or Hispanic, I would face a different reality. Let’s look at Ferguson as an example.
According to racial profiling data compiled in 2013, 4,632 blacks in that city were profiled, as opposed 686 whites. Of those numbers, 5 percent of whites were arrested, while black arrests were at 10 percent. The US Bureau of Justice reported in 2011 that African Americans in this country were incarcerated at the rate of 4,347 per 100,000 residents. Whites and Hispanics simply take up less space in our nation’s prisons.
But this issue isn’t so clear-cut. The 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles shed light on a problem brewing for decades: too often, it seems, police break the law to enforce it. According to a study by the Bureau of Justice, state and local law enforcement agencies receive around 27,000 complaints of police brutality annually.
It’s absurd to claim that all cops are crooked—even more so to claim that they’re all racists. But none are above the law, and some law enforcement personnel forget that. It’s fair to say that Officer Wilson used excessive force; it’s also fair to say that he had a reason to draw his weapon.
The 2014 choking death of Eric Garner is another example. “I can’t breathe,” an homage to him, became a mantra in the months after his death. It’s clear that many African Americans are fed up with the violations of their civil liberties. And with summer 2017 a stone's throw away, more violence may occur in our cities.
As children, we’re told to treat others with respect—to fight injustice. Too often we forget that lesson as adults. We should follow the example of Saint Francis of Assisi. A young Francis was disgusted by lepers until he saw the face of Jesus in them. During the Crusades, he traveled to Egypt to convert the sultan. Though no conversion took place, a bridge was built from that experience.
But such a noble ideal isn’t ancient history. Yonkers-based activist Hector Santiago, a former gang member, recently instituted a program called “Stop-and-Shake,” which aims to reduce tension between police and persons of color in that city. The program encourages youth to approach police, shake their hands, and engage in dialogue.
“All of a sudden,” Santiago told NPR, “whatever stereotypes people have pent up inside, it kind of goes away. Because now you’re looking at the person.”
We are children of God, after all, and we are never alone. God was there when Wilson drew his weapon. God was there when Brown drew his last breath. And though we may never know exactly what happened that day, one thing we can be sure of is this: God loves them both.