Ferguson: The Sequel
I love movies. I have always been a fan of them because I love a good story. When a new movie comes out, we are excited as fans. We meet new characters, a new plot, new villains, and new problems to be solved…a brand new story to be told. Everything is fresh and exciting. The movie ends and, if it was good, we walk away saying to friends or to ourselves, “That was great!” Think about the first time you saw The Matrix, Indiana Jones, The Terminator or Superman…the list goes on. Eventually, however, great movies are ruined by sequels. It never fails. For every great movie, there is more often than not a mediocre sequel with bad acting, terrible plot holes, and we often leave the theatre asking those same friends or ourselves, “Did the director actually see the first one? What was that? I had such high hopes this would be as good as or better than the first. This was terrible.” Sequels can destroy a good movie.
And so here we are, again. November, 2014. Only, it’s not a movie. It’s real life. In the United States of America. And it is a sequel. Ferguson and Michael Brown are some two years after Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman gripped the nation and reminded the country we have not come as far as we think we have in racial reconciliation. Once again, this generation has seen lethal force used on an unarmed African-American pedestrian. Once again, many in the African-American community have screamed out in pain, anger, and disbelief. Once again, many within the dominant culture have had varying responses of equal outrage, confusion at our tears, defense of Officer Wilson, indictment on the African-American community for the violence within, and in some places a call from pastors to be “colorblind” and move forward together.
Once again, arguments ensue on social media, in the news, and across the racial divide that has existed since Abraham Lincoln told my ancestors they could leave the plantation…well, almost a year and a half after he said it because Texas didn’t get memo in January, 1863 but rather in June, 1865.
But here we are again. We have seen the story before. We have met the characters before. We have seen the outcome before. But this time it is worse. It feels worse. Perhaps because there have been ten unarmed African-American teens/young adults killed between Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Maybe it is worse because the rioting is so bad (never mind reports that people have driven to Ferguson to riot or what civil rights leaders have said for years, “rioting is the only response for people who do not have a voice”). Maybe it is worse because we have watched elected officials ask for more police to govern the low-income, poor communities rather than start brainstorming how to create economic opportunities for the poor and thus eliminate some of the injustice that perpetuates higher crime rates and hopelessness in urban areas around the country. Maybe it is worse because in these two years, we as a nation have invested more money our prisons and the militarization of the police than we have in our schools—essentially giving up on many black kids before they leave elementary.
Maybe it’s worse because we haven’t healed from Trayvon.
Maybe it is worse because we didn’t realize Ferguson wasn’t about Ferguson but rather what creates Fergusons across our country in the 21st century.
I arrived home in Houston for Thanksgiving to see my mom who will turn 70 on December 5th. She smiled when I walked in, was very calm, and peaceful—which I have not seen on or in any African-American I have been around since the lack of indictment announcement.
I asked, “Mom, have you kept up with Ferguson?”
She replied, “Yes. I watched a little.”
“Did you hear about the indictment?”
“Yes, that there wasn’t one.”
“Mom, you seem very calm about all this. Am I missing something?”
“Sean, I am about to be 70,” she said. “I knew he wouldn’t be indicted. You’re young. This is still new for you. I have been through this before. I have forgotten the names of the unarmed Black kids, men, and women who have been killed and no one is charged or indicted. There have been few arrests and far more pain. You’re 32. I am 70. I know what life in the United States is like for African-American people.”
You can draw a straight line from the racial tensions in this country from the year my mom was born (1944 if you’re not a numbers person), the year I was born (1982), the year my grandmother was born (1928), and so on to the racially charged events in Ferguson and around the country. Like I am witnessing now, they all saw and had their Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown moments—one was named Emmett Till. They have felt the pain I now feel in my chest every time I take a breath, every time I walk past the black hoodie in my closet I no longer feel safe to wear in public, every time the police pull behind me (I was stopped last month for a delayed turn signal), every time I am stared at when I meet with supervisor on the affluent side of Austin and I am the only African-American person in the building.
It doesn’t bother my mother anymore because as Dr. King said years ago, “We asked a generation to place their faith in a system that has proven to be unfaithful.”
If you’re wondering what that “good movie” was, so am I. There were good moments in history. Reconstruction, but the sequel was Jim Crow. Then there was the Civil Rights Movement, but the sequel or sequels, was the assassination of every leader in the Black community and every non-black leader that championed equality and justice. I don’t know if we ever got that “good movie,” but I know we have had some terrible sequels.
The saddest part for me is that in a few weeks, life will return to normal for most communities except the African-American community. People will forget names, details, events. Selfies will resume on social media. Pastors will start promoting their books, none of which addressing systemic issues, racial reconciliation, poverty, or justice. Diverse communities and campuses will start to lose some Black people and won’t understand why.
But African-American people, Christian or otherwise, will walk slower, with a little more fear, a little more sadness, and a little less hope.
You see, there is another sequel coming. It’s only a matter of time. When it does happen, the next racially charged incident involving lethal force, I will remember my mother’s smile and peaceful hopeless acceptance that our lives as African-American people in this country are less valuable. Our concerns, dismissed as nonsense.
Some sequels we leave sad, because we had such high hopes this time would be different. But it didn’t happen. We got an unarmed dead teen left in the street bleeding for four and a half hours, his vilified character portrayal in the media, an official doing his civic duty, dismissal of systemic issues and widespread coverage of the riots. We hoped it would be different but it wasn’t.
We just got a bad sequel.
If you’re looking for practical steps to respond:
Read The New Jim Crow by: Michelle Alexander
- Go. Immerse yourself in Black culture. Seek to listen and understand without critique.
- Pray. Pray for the healing of racial tension in the country. This isn’t a “move forward from here” time. We are moving backwards. We must heal first before we move forward.
– Sean M. Watkins