A Year After Ferguson, Here’s What No One Can Deny About America
A year ago, many of us learned of a place called Ferguson, Missouri, for the first time.
As with so many distant datelines that suddenly come into focus, it was fresh violence that drew us in. A teenager was killed in the St. Louis suburb on August 9, 2014. Michael Brown was a black 18-year-old. He was gunned down in the middle of the street by a white police officer. Officer Darren Wilson didn’t face murder charges, though the teen was unarmed. Protesters demanding justice laid waste to buildings and posted a flood of content to social media. They didn’t get any satisfaction, any justice when it came to that policeman.
America rode the coattails of a media that raced toward a bloody headline—a trip no news reporter relishes and few can avoid. We saw the faces: the deceased, the cop. We heard family members saying the strongest words they could muster in the face of a loss that could only grow quieter and lonelier in the days to come. We heard from leaders pledging to keep the peace. The heart-wrenching reactions were shared on Twitter and other social media—hashtags developed and movements formed in that ephemeral way that they do in the medium, popping up again and again to remind us #BlackLivesMatter. We mourned.
But there always comes the moment when there is nothing new to hear. With nothing fresh to feel from the wounding news, the scab turns to scar. We promised to remember and never lacked for reminders. A fresh wound emerged, again and again. It always does.
Brown was not the first to die as he did, and he was not the last. A year later, that’s the point.
Change the names of the victim and perpetrator, change the city, and it’s a ride we’ve taken many times since, each incident traveling a similar trajectory to now-familiar Ferguson. All we can boast in the wake of Brown’s death is that there is a fresh vigilance, that the news of these deaths now has an audience. The past year has brought more attention, more focus. Racial discord in America is older than the United States is as a country. We know to pay attention from the first scraps of the story now—no matter how spare, because at first we always know very little: The officer was white, something went wrong, and a black person is dead. We allow for the fact that the officer may be faultless, knowing there are real violent criminals out there of every color. We wait for details. We may see a video—and if so, we’ll see it many times on a cable news loop. We won’t want to, but we will watch, searching for meaning or reason. The questions hardly have time to emerge from the mind’s ether before it’s too late to ask. We will watch them die. Again and again, we watch them die.
We all mourn for the likes of the next Michael Brown. Be it Tamir Rice or Ezell Ford. In the streets of New York City, they chanted Eric Garner’s last words: “I can’t breathe.” We held our breaths for justice, a reckoning that would make any of it seem fair, an adequate response. Instead we saw a disturbingly long slate of souls, a list that won’t stop growing, people whose names we once didn’t know who perished in the hands of our protectors with little explanation.
Yet so many were already all too familiar with this problem in the heart of America. Blacks knew. Last month, in polling that plumbed this country’s racial divide, nearly three-quarters of blacks characterized violence against civilians by police officers as an “extremely serious” or “very serious” problem. Less than 20 percent of whites agreed. The polling only supports decades of that sentiment bubbling up in the public sphere. In 1988, it was a frustration that blared from speakers, from Compton, California, to the posh suburbs of Connecticut, when N.W.A. got the words “f--k the police” to come out of the mouths of suburban poseurs all over the country. In the past year, Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a book to his son, giving the child a warning that so many black parents feel they must: that he should beware of the police.
For years, despite progress on many fronts, blacks in America have known a life whites couldn’t imagine—a life of casual racism from their neighbors and a real fear of law enforcement. What the past year has given us, in the wake of Brown’s death, is example after example of police violence that left black men and women dead. A year after Michael Brown, there is little left to deny.