I did not want to come Ferguson. I avoided it for two weeks, from the moment I heard the news of Michael Brown's horrific death. I had been down this road many times before. Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Yusuf Hawkins, Michael Griffith and other Black males killed either by a police department or White male or mob. Names and years stretching from when I was a teenager during Reagan's America to the utterly divided nation we have today in the age of Obama.
When you've lived through these gruesome racial killings and, in my case, also been both activist and writing, protesting and documenting one dead Black male after another, a weariness begins to jab and counterpunch your soul, to the point where you are gasping for breath, overcome by a numbness and emptiness generally reserved for someone who has given up on the possibilities of life. Or has been in a vicious and violent war.
But this is what happens when you start to feel the worthlessness of life if you are a Black male. It began for me when I was but 15 years, far below 100 pounds, and had a routine boyhood fight on a bus in my hometown of Jersey City. My opponent was a fair-complexioned Puerto Rican named Richie Rodriguez. The bus driver panicked and two police officers came aboard and took Richie and me off. The difference was that Richie was gingerly escorted from the bus; meanwhile, a tall, burly White officer with a mop of red hair and a bushy red mustache handled me roughly, cursed at me and handcuffed me.
In the back of the police car this cop, Officer Quinn, yelled once more, and when I yelled and cursed back, he balled his fist and smashed my face so hard I bled profusely from my nose.
It would be many years later before I would understand some form of negative treatment by police officers, mostly White ones but other races too, was a rite of passage for an endless army. Did not matter if we had a PhD or not even a G.E.D. What we had in common was at least one very bad and troubling experience with the police. An experience that forever scars, makes one nervous of any interaction with a cop and, to be blunt, generally leads countless numbers of us to avoid our local police at any cost. If we are able to dodge being busted in the face as I was, or blown away, as Michael Brown was.
But when I landed in St. Louis this weekend I decided I had to go straight to Ferguson, right to the very spot where Mike Brown laid, in a reddish pool of his own blood, for four and half hours. As my friend Ira Jones and I inched our car along the strip where this tragedy occurred, I was struck by how narrow the street was, how easily those half dozen bullets could have struck others beyond Big Mike, as he was called.
There were protesters everywhere, signs and makeshift tables filled with food, petitions, voter registration cards, photos of others slain by police guns across America and at least two small rallies. I joined one rally and spoke about the importance of being organized, of not allowing Mike Brown's death to be in vain. Then I faded to the back and listened as preachers prayed to Jesus on one side of the block while young hip hop heads played on a nonstop loop a rap song spitting fury at police officers à la N.W.A's "F*** da police" in the late 1980s. A mixed message, no doubt, but just as mixed as the message local authorities sent when they finally released Officer Darrin Wilson's name as the cop who shot Big Mike while also distributing a video of the 18-year-old in a convenience store confrontation with the owner. We are a nation of deadly mixed messages. That is our dilemma, this is our challenge.
So the question begs itself, a question Dr. King pondered nearly 50 years ago: Where do we go from here? On back end of that question MLK put the words chaos or community? I want community as I love people, all people. I did not always feel this way, am still as angry about injustice as I have ever been in my life. Yet time and healing and experiences that most in our nation will never have, like visiting pretty much all 50 states and speaking with and listening to a wide range of Americans, means I truly have had the good fortune to see the humanity in each and every one of us. Every human being is my sister or brother. But I am also clear my journey is very unique, that far too many of us live our lives in bubbles, in boxes, that we never leave our cities or towns, or our states, or our regions or even America.
The world we know is solely what is in front of us, and if we've been fed fear, ignorance and hatred of those different than us, that becomes a recipe for not seeing anyone except yourself as a human being. If I did not view Mike Brown as a human being, then there is little wonder I would allow his cold, dead body to lie on that stained asphalt for over four hours. Like it was no big deal. Like he had no mother, no father. I would reduce him, in my very small mind, to a thug, to an animal, to a menace to society.
This is why Ferguson exploded. These people are as human as you and have feelings as you do. Their lives matter just like your lives matter. And they simply are not going to take the cycle of abuse and neglect any longer. It is not enough to tell them to be calm. It is far more important to say I hear you, and that they know you, we, are actually listening, because of the fire this time.
I do not know what is going to happen in Ferguson, in Missouri, in America. I do know that that crisp night Barack Obama won the presidency and announced in Chicago "change has come to America" now seems like a century ago. Dare I say it but the United States seems more divided than ever, more violent than ever, filled with more hate and ignorance and fear than ever. Barack Obama is now a lame-duck president who seems unsure of what to do with Ferguson, and not even clear if he should set foot here.
But I am clear that nothing is going to change if we the people do not work, together, to make that change happen. I understand the anger, the pushback against the militarized police aggression, and even why so many younger people think the members of the older leadership are a bunch of sell-outs. Because some of them are. But we've got understand the difference between proactive anger that builds and creates something, like a movement, and the reactionary anger that simply wants to lash out and destroy. We've got to decide do we want freedom, justice and power with a clear vision on how to get to those places, or if we only want to vent and spit, until the next Michael Brown is killed.
And to those doing nothing at all, laying in that cowardly space they call neutral I say this: you are as much a part of the problem as those who spread the fires of hatred, ignorance and fear. If you cannot see why folks are upset, why they've responded as they have, because they are so badly wounded and traumatized, then that says something about your humanity, or lack thereof. On a basic level, if you are an adult old enough to have an 18-year-old child, imagine, if you can, how you would feel, if that were your boy or girl, face down and dead in his or her own blood for over four hours, the child you brought into this world who only two days later was about to start college.
Watch a livestream of "#Ferguson. Missouri. America. WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?," hosted by BK Nation's Kevin Powell, below. The Missouri town-hall meeting and strategy session is for everyone concerned about the future of our communities and the future of young people in aftermath of the Michael Brown tragedy. Tune in at 6pm, CST, tonight (August 25, 2014).