The events in Ferguson sent me into parental mode. As a father of two teenage boys that are roughly the same age as Michael Brown, I have had many conversations with them about conflicts in their lives. I have always tried to get my boys to review the chain of events from the true start of any conflict until the moment of the last, worst mistake made by anyone involved. The reason I do this is because children always start their stories with “Billy threw a rock at me” or “Sally called me a name.” Children start their stories about their conflicts with the report of the last, worst mistake as if that is the beginning of the problem. It never is.
It takes a little research to find out how and where these tragic exchanges actually started. To an adult, Billy and Sally seem far more reasonable after the chronology of events is made clear. Usually, it becomes clear to the child as well. This exercise always puts into perspective everyone’s honest role in the conflict. The last, worst mistake is actually the first part of the resolution.
My all time favorite quote by President Obama was made in his speech after the Sandy Hook tragedy regarding parenting our children:
“We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.”
Is that what we, as a people, are doing right now in response to the trouble in Ferguson? Or are we just expressing our anger and fear in countless ways over the last, worst mistake that occurred? The problem with not getting passed any one person’s definition of the worst thing that has happened is that it prevents important conversations about the seemingly smaller mistakes that create the opportunity for the awfulness. In the interest of time, I am going to pick two of those mistakes for this week’s rant, keeping in mind that the list of mistakes is much longer.
1. A Reflective Government
I was lucky enough to be in a room with Congressman Andre Carson this week, and while talking about something unrelated to this, he said: “It’s important that we have a congress that reflects the interests of our people.” If you take that sentence and replace the word “congress” with “government,” you will have a sentence that captures the most important charge of every unit of government in America. Every post office, every license branch, and every town council should reflect the people it serves. I don’t mean that in specific demographic statistics as that would be nearly impossible in any place of any significant size. But the white mayor and the white police force in Ferguson might as well be from Mars.
That police department evolved into what they are over time. The department they have become is not capable of reflecting the people it is supposed to protect and serve. Their racial makeup is almost perfectly opposite of its citizenry, and it’s operation did nothing to address this irreconcilable problem. It’s as if they knew they were ill equipped to serve, and had quit trying–long before two weeks ago.
The dreadfully stupid responses from the mayor there make some of the events of the last two weeks more of a predictable inevitability than should be allowed in modern time. Did no one in the area know what was brewing there before Michael Brown was killed? This lack of reflectiveness better be the learning moment that it needs to be across the country.
Point number one today is that the dreadful incident that set off this firestorm is more of a result of the worst problems there than the cause.
2. Controlling our own destiny
Kareem Abdul Jabbar gave a great commentary in Time magazine this week on how people of like interests can make themselves matter. In his comments that were published August 17, he reports that the U.S. Census reports that there are 50 million Americans living in poverty and how that group could become powerful if it became a voting block. Imagine that: politicians having to treat the poor as if their political lives depended on them. Abdul Jabbar doesn’t use the terms “poor” and “black” synonymously, and ultimately does make clear the the “poor” aspect of the demographic in America is of more concern to him than race.
In reality, national voter turnout in the black community in recent elections has seen an up tick. For me that is irrelevant though, since overall turnout is nowhere what it should be and a slight up tick isn’t good enough. Voting is a contest the black community and the poor community can win for free if they so choose. I want to see all of the people in communities that feel under represented in their government FLOOD the polls and vote like there is no tomorrow. I want voting to be the ice bucket challenge of the next decade. I want to see a gubernatorial candidate in Indiana, or Missouri, talk strategy and say: “I can’t win without the black vote.” Or, “I can’t win without the support of those in need.” Not because I am in either of those groups, but because those groups should make an overt decision to do what they really can to own their own government. Riots and civil unrest fill Twitter and CNN tickers, but in and of themselves don’t create governmental influence. If the people that live in Ferguson don’t have 90% voter turnout two and a half months from now, I won’t have much sympathy for their struggles afterward.
The government in Ferguson failed its people by not fulfilling its obligation to be reflective of the people it serves. Come November, it will be fascinating to see if the people of Ferguson fail themselves by not showing up to vote in droves. I hope they do show up and serve as a national example of how to take control the way Abdul Jabbar envisions.
But getting back to parenting…I wish the parents there could talk to their children about all of the little and seemingly harmless mistakes that were made along the way in this journey. All of the opportunities to let each one of those little wrongs, and regretful choices be that last, worst mistake are gone now. Or are they?
It took a long time and a lot of things to go wrong for us to end up here. Having all of this happen without learning and growing from it would be the worst mistake of all.