I awoke to the distant grumbling of thunder Tuesday morning, the harbinger of a string of thunderstorms making their way out of the Gulf of Mexico moving southwest to northeast across the peninsula toward the Atlantic. This storm is the vanguard of a wet, cool and stormy El Niño winter. Before it was over we would get more than three inches of badly needed rain.
As the rain poured down in buckets, turning Roberta Avenue into a river, thunder rumbling outside and lightning periodically lighting up the horizon, my thoughts turned to the events in Ferguson, MO last night. I listened all the way through the rambling preamble by the state prosecutor to what I saw as a foregone conclusion, that the officer in the Michael Brown shooting would not be charged with any wrongdoing. And then I turned out the light and went to bed.
I had a terrible, sick feeling in my stomach. I knew what was next. I’d been there before.
Like Déjà vu All Over Again
The response was not long in coming. Unable to sleep, I got up to get a drink of water about midnight. CNN was reporting three fires blazing, shots being fired and protests that had spread to several cities coast to coast. This was hardly unpredictable.
Of course, I have the experience of being in a similar situation, having lived in Berkeley when the Rodney King verdicts were handed down by an all-white jury in the predominately white Los Angeles suburb of Simi Valley. By that afternoon the mood was incredibly tense in Berkeley and the third time I had my race brought to my attention as I walked down the streets, I decided to return to the safe enclave of the seminary atop Holy Hill next to the UC campus.
Safe was a relative term. That night the rage of justice denied exploded all around us. We could hear breaking glass and sirens throughout the night. A number of car windshields along Euclid Avenue were smashed the next morning and several of the seminary’s housing units had rocks thrown through windows. In the depths of the seminary’s fortress-like dormitories, we were protected from the rage on the streets. We had it good, comparatively.
Across the UC campus on Telegraph Avenue, it looked like a war zone the next morning. Smashed windows, looted goods spilled all over the streets. Evidence of fires now extinguished. And everywhere the ubiquitous presence of the National Guard. Berkeley, neighboring Oakland and San Francisco across the Bay would be under martial law for three days.
Of course, our troubles were nothing compared to the destructive rampage that occurred in the southland across the LA basin. The next summer I visited friends in LA and the tell-tale signs of burned out businesses and boarded up stores were still highly evident in many places six months later. Before it was over, 53 human lives would be lost and another 2000 would sustain injuries, some of them life-altering.
Cutting Your Nose Off to Spite Your Face
As I watched the CNN coverage in horror Monday night, I found myself conflicted over what I was seeing. On the one hand, I felt no small amount of frustration over the self-inflicted wounds to the black community in Ferguson. Destroying the businesses in one’s own community means that urban residents, already living in food deserts, must travel even further to find fresh food and fuel for their vehicles. It is, as my saintly mother would say, cutting one’s nose off to spite one’s face.
On the other hand, when one reaches the end of their rope, what other alternatives exist? How is one supposed to respond when they have been smacked in the face one more time? The Ferguson shooting occurs in the context of a wave of black victims of police actions and failures of the legal system to hold their killers accountable. When justice is not attainable through legitimate, sanctioned means, it is hardly surprising that the victims take matters into their own hands. When that happens, revenge rules the day and terror rules the nights.
At some level, this is hardly anything new. Black males have long had a disproportionately greater chance of going to prison than to college. America has a history of slavery, lynching and a criminal justice system that has over time developed a formula for getting away with murder: Be white, kill someone black, have enough money to hire your own attorney. And if you want to be assured of being smack for America’s addiction to state killing, reverse the formula.
But the events of Ferguson expose much deeper problems in America than the devaluation of young black males. They occur in the context of an election with the lowest turnout in 70 years since the eve of World War II, an election in which predominately elderly white voters put into office a host of reactionary politicians unlikely to heed the gathering storm clouds in America.
They also occur in the context of a host of neo-Jim Crow laws recently enacted that have served to isolate black representation in state and federal governments and repress minority voting. And they occur in a context of an increasingly meaningless electoral politics in which corporate moneys now control the outcomes of elections and thus the governing bodies their corporate interests pick.
From the perspective of an American democratic republic, this is a recipe for disaster.
Distant Rumbles of Thunder
The storm has subsided outside for now and, no doubt, the flames of Ferguson will be extinguished by the end of the week. But the string of El Niño storms headed toward Florida is just beginning. I hear the rumble of thunder in the distance of the next train of thundershowers rumbling in off the Gulf.
Similarly, I fear the events of Ferguson are just the beginning of what could be some very dark days in America. As my flawed hero Thomas Jefferson was wont to say, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever."
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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