On Struggling to Understand: A Discussion on Michael Brown and Eric Garner

struggling with race

A couple weeks ago, when a Ferguson police officer was not charged in the death of a black teen who he had shot to death, I said nothing.  It was hard to take a stance with so much conflicting evidence, opposing witness accounts, and inconclusive ballistic evidence from Michael Brown’s autopsy.  I had no idea how to take a stance because frankly, I hardly knew what my opinion was.  Last week though, when I opened my email from The Skimm telling me that another black man had been killed by a cop – this time on camera, and with absolutely no reason at all, and that the cop in this case had not been charged either, I nearly cried.

I’ve spent days trying to wrap my head around the situation.  Trying to understand what made an officer – a man who is supposed to be serving and protecting us – choke a man who had done absolutely nothing wrong (except maybe sell some cigarettes tax-free – which I’m fairly certain that even that didn’t happen) to death, despite his cries that he couldn’t breathe.  What made his partner stand by and let it happen, and a Grand Jury find him innocent of all charges.  I’ve tried every way I can think of to imagine what made a Grand Jury find that man innocent for a crime which has been ruled a homicide, and for which they had video recorded proof, but I’m still coming up blank.

And that breaks my heart, that somehow I love in a country where officers can kill for absolutely no reason, with no provocation at all, and not be charged with any sort of a crime.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of opinions on these two situations, and a lot of people saying that this isn’t a race issue.  It’s a human issue.  And they’re right – it is a human issue, a condition of our existence which somehow we can’t seem to overcome.  But at it’s heart, this is also a race issue – both in the actual crime itself, and in the discussions which we have about them.   The issue of race is hidden in the hundreds of members of Facebook saying “well he did rob a convenience store” and in the officer who saw absolutely nothing wrong with watching while his partner held an innocent man in a chokehold.  It is in the people saying that justice needs to be served, regardless of how petty the crime – up until that crime is murder, and then it’s somehow okay.

The race issue here is so ingrained, so a part of our society and our thinking, that we can hardly see it when it’s right in front of us. It’s in two white cops killing two black men, and being found innocent by a mostly white Grand Jury.  It’s in our discussions which somehow focus on the bad things a black 15-year-old did, and not on the even worse things that a grown white man did.  In the discussions that popped up about Brown’s robbing a convenience store, but those same people being silent when an innocent man is choked to death.

I still don’t know how to talk about this, because I still can’t wrap my head around it.  My closest comparison is in dystopian novels, in Thought Police and legally-required curfews, so I’m struggling to relate this to the real world, to the country I thought I lived in.  I don’t know what to say about a man being killed in cold blood, and the man who did it being found innocent, because I didn’t think that could happen in America. I don’t know what to say to the people saying “there must be something we don’t know” with regards to a video-recorded murder that otherwise, they would see as absolute binding proof of a crime committed. I don’t know what to say about a justice system that allows this to happen and does nothing about it, or the people in my news feed convinced that this isn’t about race.

I don’t know what to say about what’s been done, and how it’s been handled. But I do know that this is not our entire society.  This is not the world we live in, just a piece of it, just like the protests are part of it, and the people standing up to say that this is wrong. It is a sign of something needing to be fixed, but there is something beautiful in the people standing up the make that change.

  • http://nomad-notebook.blogspot.co.uk/ Lizzy

    Loved this post and it pretty much summed up my thoughts and feelings over everything recently. I really can’t understand how people can’t equate this to a race issue. Even through my high school module on the black civil rights movement I know damn well there are massive issues in the States, and in many other countries at this ‘post-racist’ time. You only have to take a look at the demographics of the American prison population and the amount of ghettos to know there’s something seriously wrong with current American society.

    I also find it difficult to know what to do, but I try (like you have here) to let people know my disagreements with the way things are. I had a discussion about Brown and Garner last night with my partner who usually steers away from such discussions, but I wanted to know what he thought about it. It shocked me that he doubted it was anything to do with race and that we don’t know the full story and circumstances of the situation, but that still doesn’t take away the brutal fact that there are massive racial issues that just simply are accepted as norm within society. Starting conversations and discussions is always a good beginning point of change.

    Lizzy from Nomad Notebook

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      Thanks, Lizzy! And thank you for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

      I think that’s a big part of it – Americans don’t seem to realize how racist how society is. It’s a lot harder to see something when you’re at the center of it (and not being directly impacted by it). Just in the last few weeks, I’ve seen so so many people claiming this isn’t a race issue (even a teacher from high-school who I always really loved – it was so disappointing the way he spoke about this issue, and I don’t think I’ll ever look at him the same way realizing his opinions on the matter. But the first thing he said was that this isn’t a race issue.) I think it would take a hell of a lot for a lot of people in this country to view something as a race issue. I mean, the fact that a man was just murdered for literally no reason at all, and the white officers who did it were found innocent by the mostly-white Grand Jury….that’s CLEARLY about race, but nobody seems to see that.

  • http://theladyerrant.com/ Elle

    Love that you wrote this. I hate when people try to justify police actions in those cases by saying Brown/Garner committed crimes. People who commit (and there’s so much doubt that they WERE actually guilty of even that) petty crimes just do not deserve to be killed like that. I’ve been hesitant to write or post on FB about it because I can’t even fathom it. . .but also because of this: I can deal with random Internet trolling. What I don’t like is finding out how many of my friends and family don’t understand that this is a race and social injustice issue. Don’t even know how to address that, when a lot of my family is kind of conservative. And you’re right, there’s something really beautiful in how many people across the country are protesting; there have been several in my city and that makes me proud.

    Did you see this story? Blew my mind. http://www.buzzfeed.com/mikehayes/the-life-and-death-of-john-crawford

    And speaking of the unjust stuff police do, I just watched this recently: John Oliver talking about civil forfeiture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kEpZWGgJks

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      That was my biggest difficulty on social media after Eric Garner, was seeing how many people I know that a) don’t see this as a race issue and b) believe victim blaming is a legitimate way of explaining away murder. A teacher from my high-school (who I really loved having as a teacher) wrote a post on FB about how “well they wouldn’t have been in this situation if they weren’t criminals” Eric Garner was literally just STANDING there. And even if he did commit the crime (which frankly, there’s literally no proof at all that he did) it was selling black-market cigarettes. Have we really reached a point where we’re murdering for that? It was just so so disappointing seeing people’s reactions to this.

      I had never seen that video before – thank you for sharing it. I honestly cannot imagine the things that members of our justice system are able to get away with…

  • Shybiker

    Good post. It’s important to explore these issues because the underlying themes permeate our society. A comment is too short to offer my thoughts, but I admire your initiative in raising the subject.

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      Thank you! I agree – so many people in our society shy away from difficult topics, but all that means is that nothing ever gets resolved.

  • http://www.awashwithwonder.com/ Shannon

    I think it can be difficult to admit that something is about race because doing so means that we also have to consider that a black American has a radically different experience in America than a white American…and then we have to start thinking about how we have unconsciously benefited from the same systems that oppress them. It’s easier to pretend it’s not happening or that it’s happening because of something else because then we can absolve ourselves of any role we might play. It doesn’t help to feign colorblindness though, because although this is an issue that ALL humans should care about, the reality is that it’s an issue that’s life or death for black americans. Pretending that it isn’t erases their experiences.

    I was upset about the lack of an indictment in the Darren Wilson case because I first found out about his shooting on twitter, from writers who cover race in America. To then see the mainstream media coverage of it was jarring because it was SO different, and the months after the shooting leading up to the grand jury decision was a period where I was reading and learning so much about the criminal justice system in America and the way black americans are disportionately arrested, charged and killed by police officers. I wasn’t ever aware of it before because it was an issue that literally did not affect me, I didn’t NEED to know, and I think that’s the issue for a lot of people in America. And then if you only get the mainstream news version, where every black person is “thug” who is deserving of his death because of a minor crime or no crime at all, then you’re going to have a radically different opinion on these cases.

    Even though the decision in the Eric Garner case is terrible, the nationwide protests are a hopeful sign. At least people aren’t staying silent anymore, and it’s going to take American citizens speaking up in order to even begin the radical change that the justice system needs to undergo.

    I’ve felt really useless on the other side of the world, unable to even attend a protest. I think one of the best things to do is to speak out about it, because there’s a lot of people who simply do not know, and to amplify the voices of black writers, protestors and activists.

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      Like you – I was so completely unaware of situations like this up until now. I wrote in this post that I was completely shocked and confused by this situation, that I’d only ever imagined things like this in dystopian novels. And I nearly cried when I read about the lack of an indictment in the Eric Garner case.

      But as a couple of other commenters on here have pointed out, and as I’ve realized while reading more about these situations, it was privilege that made it so that I never needed to know about these things. I grew up in a vastly different environment than a black woman (or, for that matter, a lower-class black woman), so situations like this never made it to me.

      And you’re right – the media coverage of this is absolutely heartbreaking, and so vastly different from coverage on blogs and independent news sites. It’s as though the only way people know to deal with this is to explain it away. To say this isn’t a race issue, they were criminals! When all Eric Garner was even ACCUSED of doing was selling black-market cigarettes.

  • http://thesubtlehipster.blogspot.com TheSubtleHipster

    This has been on my mind a lot that we’re in 2014 and yet we are still witnessing a broken system in which race is still a subject. It upsets me to know that we live in a country where authority protective figures are walking away for crimes. In the early 90s, police were videotaped beating an african-american man and were acquitted – you would think that what happened then would have shaped a better and equal future. At this point, it needs to be about justice.

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      I think a huge reason why it’s still such a problem is because so many people refuse to admit that it’s a problem. In recent weeks, I’ve dealt with SO many people claiming that this has nothing to do with race, and that’s the problem. You can’t fix something you won’t admit is broken.

      I didn’t know about that video from the early 90’s….that makes this even more upsetting, that it’s not just an isolated incident (although I’m beginning to realize more and more that it definitely wasn’t anyway) and officers are still getting away with this type of thing. It’s definitely a racial issue, but I think it’s also an authority issue.

  • http://simplicityrelished.com/ Daisy @ Simplicity Relished

    Thank you for writing about this. I felt the same confusion as you did especially at the beginning. One of the things I realized was that while our legal system is (theoretically) race-blind, our society and our structures are not. It’s impossible to make a legal case based on racial injustice when the evidence does not line up, but that does not mean that the case can’t indicate the severity of racial injustice or call us to action. It can!

    I think another thing that has been baffling to people is that policing methods, tensions and corruption has been rampant in the country for a long time. We like to point fingers at corrupt law enforcement abroad, but we have a problematic institution here as well. And it’s complex because there really are good women and men who put their lives on the line everyday to keep us safe; and then again, there are those who make us feel anything but safe.

    Like you, I hope that change can happen… and it has to come not just from protestors in the street but from the seats of power in this country. I’m hoping that Obama’s initiatives for body cameras will go further!! (article here http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2014/12/02/obama-toughen-standards-police-use-military-gear-provide-cameras-for-officers/meAQroN36Sjzfmiramzh6L/story.html)

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      You’re absolutely right – it’s impossible to present the racial evidence in this case, because there isn’t anything spelled out in the law about it. We live in a country that refuses to acknowledge racism unless it’s wearing a white hood. It still shocks me how many people don’t realize that this was about race, and for that matter institutionalized racism. As my brother put it, the officers who murdered Eric Garner could have said “I’m going to kill this man. I am killing this man. I have just killed this man.” and still been found innocent because race is so so built into our society and our laws.

      And I agree – it’s so difficult to point out the injustices and wrongs going on within our justice system because there are so so many good men and women fighting for us every day. A newspaper relatively local to me recently published a political cartoon wherein children were asking Santa for protection from the police. People were outraged. And while I understand the anger coming from a police force who risks their lives every day to protect us, it also needs to be said that not every single officer is good – and situations like this are proof of that.

      I did feel strongly that Obama’s initiative would help….but after Eric Garner I’ve lost faith in that. Garner’s murder was videotaped from start to finish, and still the officer who murdered him, and his partner who stood by and watched, have been found innocent.

  • http://thethingsiamcrazyfor.wordpress.com/ Camila

    Beautifully written. I completely agree that it’s just so hard to understand…everything that is happening, the injustice, the weirdness of the debate. I can’t even form a coherent way of expressing how I feel about it.

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      Thank you, Camila! And I know…it took me so long to write this post, and as you can see since you left this comment almost 2 weeks ago, even longer to respond to people’s comments. I know it’s privilege in itself that I am so shocked by this, because it means it’s something I’ve never had to deal with….but that makes me even sadder about the whole situation, that this is all always going on, and it’s so completely ignored.

  • http://www.littlemisslulu.net/ Lulu

    That is one thing that breaks my heart. After Michael Brown, everyone was rallying for cops to wear body cameras so there would be solid evidence and “something like that wouldn’t happen again” – and then Eric Garner happened. Video proof that he did nothing wrong, but the cop is still innocent.

    You handled this post well, and touched a little bit on something I plan to address on my blog soon – a lot of people have talked about race, which is certainly the main issue, but adjacent to that is the fact that U.S. cops have become practically untouchable.

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      Exactly! I honestly thought that having a camera there taping you would make people act more appropriate. But this is just proof that they don’t feel the need to, because for some reason, authority figures in America get away with a lot that they shouldn’t.

  • JLynn Justad

    Have you heard the name Lennon Lacy? You should look that
    case up. It happened right here in my state. I’m sure what happened wasn’t at
    the hands of the police but it’s clear there is little to no work being put in
    by them to figure out what really happened. You see, you’re in part right. This
    is about race. But the bigger picture is that this is about class. Social class
    doesn’t really know race because you can be poor and be white, but it just so
    happens to be that the lower classes are predominately minority. Yes all these
    things that have been happening send a message about the value of black lives
    in this county. I can’t lie and say I haven’t started worrying about my teenage
    brother and his friends more lately (especially after Trayvon was murdered) and
    we’re only ½ black. It’s true we are much farther along than where we were, but
    we still have a ways to go. Things like this have been happening. I’m just glad
    they’re finally getting attention. So the race issue is indeed relevant but this speaks more of what our justice system thinks of our lower class. Now we just have to start talking about the
    social stigma of it all and leave that on the forefront of the discussion because
    I think the government would much rather have us arguing about something as
    petty as black vs. white rather than citizens vs. it’s government.

    I’m a fairly new reader so I have to be honest and say that
    I’m not sure what kind of background you come from but the fact that you say
    you didn’t think things like this could happen tell me that you grew up in a
    place where things like this don’t happen, so you wouldn’t understand. But
    that’s absolutely ok. What truly matters is that you want to. These people in
    power now will eventually be phased out and we will be the ones making the
    calls. Thank you for handling this delicate subject matter with such class.

    http://news.yahoo.com/video/teen-death-brings-painful-past-063607464.html

    That’s a link to an interview done with the family of Lennon
    Lacy. It’s about 10 minutes long but they did a really great job of covering
    the story. At about 9:10 Lennon’s brother makes a beautiful statement about
    black vs. white and social class and what that means with the justice system.
    You should check it out. Thanks for this post. x

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      First, thank you so much for taking the time to read and to write such a thoughtful comment. I’ll start by saying that you’re right – this is nowhere near anything I’ve ever had to deal with. It’s not that my family was affluent – we weren’t by any stretch. But I grew up middle-class, always knew I’d be going to college. My grade school had literally two students of color, and neither were black (one Vietnamese girl, one Iranian boy – both in my brother’s class). Switching to a public high-school was a big culture shock and even there, it was still a predominantly white school. So you’re right – issues of class and race were never things I had to deal with, which I’m sure is a huge part of why I’m so shocked by this.

      At the time that I wrote this post, I didn’t realize how common an issue this was. Since then, I’ve read comments like yours and posts on the subject, and I’m starting to realize that this isn’t an isolated incident, or even a rarity. It’s just not something I deal with regularly.

      Finally, I hadn’t looked at this as an issue of class until reading your comment, but you’re absolutely right. This would never have happened to a middle- or upper-class black man, but Michael Brown and Eric Garner were not affluent, making them more disposable in the eyes of the law. The way our country talks about the homeless and about those people in poverty is absolutely disgusting….as though it’s entirely something they’ve done to themselves and not an issue of what you’ve been born into. My mother grew up in a single-parent home, with very little money. Frankly, she grew up in poverty, and it surprises me to this day that not only she, but both of her siblings made it out of that situation. That isn’t common, because our country makes it near-impossible to lift yourself out of a bad situation, and it shames you when you can’t.

      I had never heard of Lennon Lacy… I’ll be heading over to watch that interview as soon as I finish this comment, so thank you for sharing it.

  • http://whatwecandotoday.wordpress.com Lina

    It is nice that at least the subject is being discussed now. Because it is important to stay aware of the racial and social inequalities. That is the main point. And if you don´t have the information to pick a side or form a final opinion then don´t do it. I think it is about the effort, being interested in the subject and sensitive to it in your own environment. It is not always necessary to have a final opinion on each individual case, as long as you know your values in the long run.

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      I agree, Lina! It’s so important to discuss topics like this, to get them out there because, as I said in this post, this shocks me. But some of the comments here are making me realize that my ignorance was privilege in itself. It’s not like this is a first or even a rarity, it’s just that as a middle-class white American it’s not something I typically have to know about.

  • http://www.verilymerrilymary.com/ Mary | Verily Merrily Mary

    After many of the conversations I have had about these deaths, racism, and police brutality, I’ve realized that the reason why many white people find it to be surprising and horrific that racism and implicit bias exist to this extent is because they look at history as past events that are mutually exclusive from the present. It’s also because they do not realize that our accomplishments in the Civil Rights Movement have made great strides in us coexisting (i.e. desegregation in buses and schools, etc.) but living life alongside people of various races is still not the norm. We still use terms like a “white neighborhood” or a “black church” which are not necessarily bad things. But we are seeing the struggle to understand comes from the segregation that we experience on a fairly basis that we never really point out. We fear people and places we do not know. Our biases, intentional or otherwise, are born out of experience, and what we are taught, explicitly or implicitly. As soon as all of us across all racial barriers admit this, and put in place ways we can do better, we can move forward together.

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve said in a couple other responses so far…I think it’s privilege in itself that I’m so shocked and upset by this. It’s not a first or even a rarity…but because of my background and my skin color, it’s not something I’ve ever had to worry about.

      And you’re right – just because we’ve gotten rid of more obvious institutionalized racism, doesn’t mean we’ve fixed the problem. It’s clearly still everywhere, but it’s not written into the laws in an obvious way, so nobody knows about it, and it’s difficult to fight because so many Americans refuse to see racism unless it slaps them in the face. (Even know, so so many people are swearing this isn’t a race issue….I don’t see how it could be any more of a race issue.)

      You’re right that we still self-segregate. I know, even without personal experience, that my life experiences are so so different than those of a black woman. And that’s so sad that we’re this far in time in our society, but we still haven’t gotten past that.