12 Years a Slave and Ferguson, Missouri

I watched the movie amid the tragedy and turmoil in Ferguson, MO, and I couldn't help but draw a connection. While time may have passed since that disgraceful era, the legacy remains. I tried to recall all the news reports of unarmed, white men being shot and killed by police, and I couldn't think of any.
08/26/2014 11:35 am ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

I watched 12 Years a Slave over the weekend, and I've been depressed ever since. I can't blame it all on the movie I suppose, but the movie gave me that extra push into despair I needed. I knew it wasn't a good idea to watch the movie. I'd been avoiding it ever since it arrived in the mail from Netflix. While I wanted to watch it, I didn't want to watch it. I was scared. But Sunday night after putting off my husband's request for days and I finally accepted the reality that I had to see it some time if I was ever going to get another movie from Netflix again, I agreed.

For the next two and a half hours I watched with a sickening sensation hardening in my stomach. It was like when I saw Saving Private Ryan and cried for two days afterward. But worse. While I knew it was going to be tough to take in, my fear did not match the the relentless brutality. I'm not sure anything could.

It wasn't even the brutality -- and it was horrific -- that was the most disturbing to me. It was the planned, systematic and casually executed savagery humans are capable of and freely dispense. That it even was a system -- conceived, planned and executed by a whole segment of society. It wasn't the idea of a few, evil deviants.

Even animals don't behave in such a way. Animals kill to survive. We do it for baser reasons.

Killing might have been charitable given the routine torture of the slaves in addition to their typical daily toil and suffering. But even more than the physical torment, the constant psychological terror was the truly depraved part of the system. The slaves' lives even after being captured and sold was a random, unpredictable, entirely impossible existence. Even when they'd done what was instructed, their well-being and treatment was based solely on the capricious whims and nature of another who could change the rules at will. No action taken by the slaves would safeguard against brutality, every moment was lived in a constant state of fear and uncertainty.

It saddened me to think that this is a real part of human history and troubled me that it's not limited to history. I watched the movie amid the tragedy and turmoil in Ferguson, MO, and I couldn't help but draw a connection. While time may have passed since that disgraceful era, the legacy remains. I tried to recall all the news reports of unarmed, white men being shot and killed by police, and I couldn't think of any. Not that it hasn't happened, but it's not common, while innocent black men are still being killed at the hands of others in positions of authority with alarming frequency and rarely a repercussion. They are still being incarcerated at a higher rate than whites; they still receive harsher sentences than whites; and they are still sentenced to death in the criminal justice system far more than whites. And I wonder, what can explain this disparity? Just by sheer chance, other ethnicities seemingly would have met with similar fates.

None of this suggests I don't appreciate the complexity, danger or reflexive decision-making involved in law enforcement, but several of these high-profile cases don't seem to be shrouded in too much mystery. It's hard to understand the need to shoot an unarmed teenager several times, once in the back of the head. It's also hard to understand how someone suspected of selling loose (i.e. untaxed) cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk in the middle of the day winds up dead at the hands of police (Eric Garner).

Or how a 17-year-old boy walking home from the 7-11 with a bag of Skittles and a fruit drink can be gunned down by a civilian -- not even a cop this time -- and it is declared legal, okay, acceptable (Trayvon Martin).

Or how an unarmed, 22-year-old black man could be shot 41 times, FORTY-ONE times, on the doorstep of his apartment building by four NYC police officers believing his wallet to be a gun (Amadou Diallo). Or how an unarmed Queens man could be shot to death on the morning of his wedding, this time in a hail of 50 bullets fired by police (Sean Bell). Or, in a less publicized case, how an unarmed teen was shot and killed in the bathroom of his grandmother's apartment when police illegally broke down the door (Ramarley Graham). In all cases, every one, the defendants were acquitted. Actually, that's not true. Charges weren't even brought in the last case. They weren't brought in the case of Kimani Grey either, the 16-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police when he was on his way to a birthday party. This case is particularly galling because here not only were the officers, who have been the subject of three federal investigations for alleged civil rights violations, not charged but also one, Mourad Mourad, was celebrated. In the year following the death of Grey, Mourad was actually nominated for "Cop of the Year."

How on earth is this possible?

Time and time again.

But I'm white. I don't have to worry about my son heading out the door to a birthday party or making a run to the 7-11 for candy and soda. I'm lucky. By sheer chance I was born with white skin and so those innocent hallmarks of childhood never have to be a cause for concern for me. I don't have to wonder every time my son steps out the door whether he will return. I don't have to pray he makes it to adulthood. My kids will not find themselves as targets of police suspicion for merely walking down the street, or riding a bike or driving a car. But those things shouldn't depend on luck. Not in this country. And, not at the hands of those charged with serving and protecting.

As upsetting and disheartening as these string of cases may be, I heard an even more disturbing news report delineating the differences in opinions among whites and blacks regarding race relations, the situation in Ferguson, trust in the investigation and overall trust in the legal system. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised to learn on every issue whites and blacks hold vastly different views. But I was. Whites don't see much of a problem with race relations and possess a strong amount of trust in the investigation and the system. Blacks, however, tended to see things differently. They found a significant problem with race relations in America and had little faith in the investigation and the legal system. It was quite clear the problem can't be reduced to a couple of bad apples or corrupt police culture. Not even now, not even in the wake of Michael Brown.

I guess when it doesn't affect you, there is no problem.

Still, I don't understand how people can't see cruelty and injustice no matter who it's happening to. And that makes me despair for the whole human race.