A colleague who travels in opinionated and passionate social justice agitation circles asked me this week what I thought of the Michael Brown verdict. He wanted a reaction to the decision by a Grand Jury not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for, well anything. I replied truthfully. It’s hard to know where to begin sorting through the micro tragedies that culminate in this disappointing outcome for justice of every kind.
What’s happening in Ferguson, and rattling the cages of strained municipalities throughout the country, is, of course, about our complicated and corrosive attitudes about race. But it’s also about economic and educational inopportunity and inequality. It’s about a broken justice system that Brown family attorney Benjamin Crump rightfully concludes, “needs to be indicted.” And yes, always and forever when it comes to public safety and the senseless loss of life on American streets, it’s about guns.
No one disputes Officer Wilson’s legal right to arms on August 9, 2014. He is an enforcer of Ferguson’s laws, a servant of the public. However, the chain of events and the necessity of Wilson’s use of lethal force on the unarmed teen remain very much in question. In part what the tragedy points to is a fear-driven, trigger-happy culture promoted and profited from by forces such as the NRA and the gun manufacturers it represents. Whatever happened, as another colleague of mine asked this week, “to shooting in leg?” That’s if we accept just cause for firing in the first place.
What happened is that we have been listening to men like National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre tell us for too long that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” With their smug and swaggering delivery, the old white cowboys have taken over the messaging machine of an organization that was founded with relatively admirable goals: to advance rifle marksmanship and teach firearm competency and safety.
What’s happened is that the old Wild West trope of a lone man protecting home and hearth has been perverted into a “Me first. Take ’em in dead or alive” mindset. More than the gun itself, there’s no greater threat than a mildly powerful individual afraid of losing his or her place in a fragmented, unstable society. And for whatever reason, the white male Officer Wilson was threatened enough outside the proportionately overrepresented confines of the Caucasian-run Ferguson police station, that he opened fire six times on a young black man.
Did that fear stem from the historical tyranny of white male patriarchal ideology and the growing threat of its disappearance in a diversified 21st Century global community? Undoubtedly, it was an influence. Is the tragedy of Brown’s death magnified by the fundamental injustices of our criminal and legal systems, which disproportionately target people of color? Most definitely. And there’s no way we can separate the incident from the settling in of a new Gilded Age that is destroying opportunity for the middle and working classes, as well as the social safety net.
But also. Also. It’s the gun problem. Few will admit it out loud because it’s too unpopular, politically disadvantageous or career threatening. But dissemination does not change reality. We’re all afraid of getting shot – and with good reason. The US firearm homicide rate is over 10 times higher than that of the second ranking high-income nation on a Humanosphere chart (oddly, Portugal). Writer Kate Leach-Kemon summarizes the data: “When it comes to gun violence, the United States stands out.”
A few months ago while visiting Vancouver, it took me a full weekend to pinpoint exactly why I felt safer traversing the streets of the beautiful mountain town. Then I remembered Canadian gun laws. They go like this: “In Canada, civilians are not allowed to possess automatic firearms except those registered before 1978, handguns with a barrel of 105mm or less in length, and specifically modified handguns, rifles or shotguns.”
In the absence of fear for life and safety, the high internal alert that US gun culture forces most of us to adopt in our schools, neighborhoods and homes took a powder. And it was wonderful. For so many reasons, including nationalized health care, education and sensible gun laws, there aren’t Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin catastrophes north of our border.
Cynical individuals and agencies with dubious agendas have spent decades convincing us we can’t have that kind of relative peace here. So we stand by and shake our heads while young man fall. But they’re not telling the truth and we don’t have to tolerate the status quo.