“The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free.”
— Henry David Thoreau
I remember the hilarity of popping birthday balloons when I was a kid – that tiny, anxious hiatus between pressing some sharp object against the balloon’s skin and the sudden, irreversible explosion. Then racing around and retrieving the balloon scraps, stretching them out tightly in front of our eyes, and seeing the world and each other as pink, blue, yellow, green. It was all so funny and compelling. Each tinted lens offered a new explanation of the world. Another way to see.
The explosion in Ferguson has left us a lot of scraps of American culture through which to view what happened and what it means. It’s hard to see all the pieces at once, to make them fit into one narrative. One lens sees racism – individual, historical, structural. Another sees police brutality and the militarization of the police. Another focuses on our gun culture and how, for a large segment of this country, to condemn any gun violence – no matter how outrageous – is to somehow restrict our freedoms. Another turns the killing inside out and treats Darren Wilson as the victim. Another sees power disparities, class disparities and economic disparities. Another sees media delight in all the titillating violence breeding more violence that stimulates product sales. Another promotes fear – a different fear depending what race you are, but fear of the other, nevertheless. And another simply sees the grief of Michael Brown’s parents.
Race, power, violence, profit, fear, grief. What a flammable brew to fuel America’s fearsome engine! And if it keeps the motor humming, why substitute alternative energies?
However, the lens I want to look through is Accountability. President Obama has counselled us to let the legal system work. We are a nation of laws, he says. The intended implication is that whether you are (were) Michael Brown or Darren Wilson; the President; the CEO of CitiGroup; the head of the NSA, the CIA, or Exxon-Mobil, or you’re in any position that either has or protects wealth and power, the law is the same for you as it is for everyone else. Sadly, no more disingenuous remark could be made about this country. Could we find an adult in this country who believes we are a nation of equal laws? And yet, that notion of equal laws is one of the pillars that supports any pipe dream of democracy. Even while they work tirelessly to undermine it, people in power have to keep pretending equal accountability exists. Otherwise, they couldn’t pretend democracy exists.
We will probably never know what really happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. Neither of the two would tell the same story, and, with one dead, it’s certainly not in the other’s interest to tell anything except what excuses his action. It’s the oldest technique in the world to demonize the victim to justify the violence that destroys him. It’s the oldest because it plays on fear and prejudice and creates just enough doubt that maybe the victim had it coming. However, I also remember as a kid, when I wasn’t popping balloons, watching the cowboy movies where the good cowboy defeated the bad guy by shooting the gun out of his hand, or shooting him in the shoulder, the leg, the foot. There was no need to kill him. The good cowboy was an expert at protecting people, even his opponent. When did the role of cop change from protector to killer?
But more importantly, if I were Darren Wilson and thinking about a nation of laws, I would be asking by what right should anyone hold me accountable? If a president can lie his country into war and be honored for it, if top CIA officers can lie about torture and be given raises, if Wall Street tycoons can defraud the nation, nearly destroy the economy, erase the savings of millions of people and be handed million dollar bonuses, if top executives at Exxon can lie about Global Warming, if it’s legal for political candidates to lie to voters in television ads, if the head of the NSA can lie to Congress, why should I, Darren Wilson, suffer for shooting a Black teenager? That would be hypocritical, wouldn’t it? Think of the massive violence inherent in those other lies! And, I, Darren, just did what lots of cops have done and paid no price.
When a country embraces a culture of unequal laws, to prosecute any person in a position of power is hypocritical. When people have fewer and fewer rights, rights belong to power. And power’s most exalted right is hypocrisy with impunity. So, whether Darren Wilson is guilty or not, his association with power will protect him. Justice is not an abstract, ideal concept; it’s what’s defined by those who own it.
And, of course, Darren Wilson can say he has a clean conscience! If Dick Cheney can say that, why can’t he?
Marian Wright Edelman, one of this country’s tireless advocates for poor, marginalized and neglected children, asks rhetorically, “What’s wrong with our children? Adults telling children to be honest while lying and cheating. Adults telling children to not be violent while marketing and glorifying violence… I believe that adult hypocrisy is the biggest problem children face in America.” It’s not only the biggest problem children face in America, it’s the biggest problem America faces. Hidden behind that mask of righteous hypocrisy is a refusal to see who we are, what we have become, and where we are going.
A balloon has popped in Ferguson. Until they are cleaned up and hidden away, the scraps are everywhere. Each one provides a lens to help understand what happened there and why. Pick one up, stretch it tight, take a look.
When power chooses to hold no one accountable, it’s up to the people. As Thoreau said, only we can make the law free.