Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Tale of Two Men

It's been utterly bizarre to see the riots ripping across Ferguson, the massive protests, and general mayhem all around. I grew up in the St. Louis area. These are the sorts of things that happen elsewhere. St. Louis has its problems, but it's always seemed like a rational place, a safe place. Perhaps that was naivete on the part of a sheltered youth.

Nevertheless, the firestorm all began because of the actions and death of a man, Michael Brown. At this time, here's what we can say with certainty: On August 9th, Brown stole cigars from a convenience store, using his imposing figure to intimidate the proprietor, even shoving him around. A few minutes later, he was stopped by a police officer, Darren Wilson, leading to a confrontation that prompted Wilson to fatally shoot Brown. We learn more about that confrontation as the days go on; a lot of people have already reached conclusions as to whether the shooting was justified or not. My point actually has little to do with that.
(See the rest below the fold.)

Two days before all of this, August 7th, a gas station clerk was shot in Hanover, MD. Rajinder Kumar was working the overnight shift at an Exxon Mobile station when a hooded man entered the store. The man shot Kumar, stole an unspecified amount of money from behind the counter, then fled on foot. By the time police arrived, Kumar had died from his injuries. People are raising money to send his body back to his family in India.

The parallels in these stories haunt me.

Two men are dead: One a convenience store robber, the other a convenience store clerk and the victim of robbery.

Protests over Brown's death have lasted for nearly a week, drawing hundreds of people to Ferguson from various parts of the world. Yesterday, 40 people gathered to remember the man shot in Hanover.

The uproar over the shooting of Michael Brown has lead to national conversations about the legacy of racism, the militarization of police, the relationship between black communities and the police, and the role of the media in reporting during volatile situations, among many others. There's been no national conversation about the danger of late-night customer service jobs, the risks faced by immigrants in such jobs, or the casual brutality that leads to such robberies.

People have stood in the streets and cried out for the blood of Michael Brown's killer. So far, no one has produced information about the killer in Hanover, despite a proffered reward of $27,000.

In the span of a week, Michael Brown's name has become internationally recognized, and will likely remain so for many weeks to come. Before all of that dies down, almost everyone will have forgotten the name of Rajinder Kumar.

I don't intend to minimize the legitimate concerns raised by events in Ferguson, nor suggest that Brown's robbery warranted his death. Brown's actions are troubling, but at 18 years old, that life could have been turned around.

I'm left wondering why this situation set off the spark that it did. Michael Brown was certainly not the first person to die at the hands of a cop. Initially, we were told that Brown was shot in the back as he fled from the police. It's understandable that would stoke anger. We learned later that was a lie, that all of Brown's wounds were in the front, yet the anger persists.

There is a deep, abiding brokenness within our culture, a sickness made all too evident by the deaths of these two men. This has grown beyond the mere facts of Michael Brown or Darren Wilson. People have poured all of their anger, their frustrations, their hopes, and their fears into the outcome of this. It happens frequently with major events; think about the people who are either jubilant or inconsolable after an election. In this case, however, that outcome is based on revenge. Wilson has been tried in the court of public opinion; many of those protesting won't be satisfied until he is in prison, or dead.

For all of your hope to be wrapped up in revenge? I can't think of a more hopeless situation. That wound deep within the soul will never be healed that way.

The dichotomy in the response to these events does not sit well with me. Whatever happened in Ferguson, whatever the truth of that encounter may be, I fear the manifestations of this fallen society are only going to get worse as events unfold.

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