11/25/2014 04:27 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

Search for Common Ground in Ferguson


Ferguson, Missouri, as feared, erupted with violence, rage and frustration yesterday when the grand jury, which began hearing testimony on August 20, decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, the black unarmed teenager. On the same day, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to three young Civil Rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan 50 years ago.

The parents of Michael Brown, in a public statement, urged the public to "channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change." President Obama also urged protesters "to do so peacefully." And it should be noted that many demonstrators in Ferguson and in cities across the country did indeed protest peacefully.

The President also placed the situation in Ferguson in an historical context when he noted that it "speaks to broader challenges that we still need to face as a nation... the legacy of racial discrimination in this country."

Our nation's long history of racial discrimination, which too many of us try and pretend away in our post-Civil Rights Act world becomes an open wound which challenges our sensitivities when we read stories about young men like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown who have had their lives cut short. Like a mighty left hook to our collective bellies, the truth of where we are today as a nation, where racism and economic inequality lives large, demands to be acknowledged and hungers for solutions.

And yet, in looking at major social movements that have led to change around social equality issues, it is the peaceful movements that were led by the Gandhi's and Martin Luther King's of this world, that have resulted in meaningful changes of perspectives. In Martin Luther King's words, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." As Ferguson heals, we hope they find a way to let good come out of a terrible event.

"If you want peace, work for justice," is the oft-quoted statement by Pope Paul VI from his January 1, 1972, message for the Celebration of the Day of Peace. Five years later, as part of his 1977 address on the World Day of Peace, the Pope expanded on his own words: "If you want peace, defend life."

At the same time, our nation's law enforcement officers are tasked with the essential mission to protect public safety. The merits of Darren Wilson's actions will forever be disputed, and yet the Ferguson police must respond to the riots to help maintain public safety and protect the small business owners whose investment into downtown Ferguson has been their life's work. What is the proper way a law enforcement officer should respond in the midst of a riot, when the public safety of it's citizens is in jeopardy?

As a nation, we all must assume responsibility for the violence and frustration being expressed in Ferguson. We need to acknowledge the racism that lives in our communities, our institutions and in us. We need to begin to actively transform that racism into justice and peace for all. Denial is no longer acceptable.

There are so many perspectives to this story, so many different angles to consider. As the Dali Lama has said, "the best way to solve any problem in the human world is for all sides to sit down and talk." Here at NICD, we work to bring all perspectives to the table, and create a safe place to exchange perspectives and put the human back in to the viewpoint.

The National Institute for Civil Discourse has launched a social media outlet to take on the critical issues of our time. Text, Talk, Act works to engage people of all ages in expressing their thoughts, sharing their concerns and then ACTING on them for positive change.

Just three weeks ago, fewer than 40 percent of our citizens chose to show up at the polls. In a world where nonstop chatter and opinions-not-based-on-fact coat the wallpaper of our media-saturated lives, it is the verbs that we need to motivate us. Work for Justice. Defend Life. Channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. Act.

Ferguson presents an opportunity for us all to face up to the ways, both subtle and overt, that racism lives in our institutions and in our lives. If we, as a nation, truthfully examine the many ways the legacy of slavery in our nation still exerts its influence, we can begin to act collectively, and civilly, for justice for all. Only then, will peace, not violence, become our legacy.