A revolution is happening in the United States in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown, 18, of Ferguson, Missouri on 9 August 2014. There is a meaningful, calm and cross-generational dialogue about race, justice and failed national policies taking place on the streets, in the news and on social media.
This is revolutionary. Public dialogue, engagement and demonstrations are the ‘meat and potatoes’ of US democracy. What is telling is that this significant and sophisticated dialogue about Michael Brown’s death started in America’s heartland and quickly spread across the country.
Like the death of Crispus Attucks in colonial Boston this contemporary revolution started after the death of a young, unarmed black man protesting for his freedom, and ultimately his life. How is the reported ‘confrontation’ between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Brown, an act of civil disobedience? If we were black and grew up in a segregated society with an incarceration rate of 1 in 3 black men versus 1 in 17 white men then we might challenge authority too.
To be clear, I am not justifying any act of violence, and I was not an eyewitness to Brown’s killing or the aftermath. Like millions of others I am relying on legitimate news accounts. Has the ‘revolutionary’ dialogue moved from the streets of Ferguson to America’s water coolers and dinner tables? I suspect it has, and with gusto.
Michael Brown’s death is a loss to his family, friends, community and country. His brutal and unnecessary death is also felt around the world – and in ways some Americans may not be aware. Brown’s killing and the immediate, overly aggressive response by authorities to demonstrators and reporters may have snuffed out any remaining life left in the haughty notion of ‘American Exceptionalism’. Amnesty International reacted to the policing tactics involving Brown’s death and the subsequent demonstrations by sending observers to Ferguson. Also weighing in on the events were Iran, Egypt and China, apparently the world’s newest human rights advocates.
Some may view Amnesty’s observations and concerns as legitimate but dismiss China’s assertions as opportunistic propaganda. Either way, Americans can do what we do best by demonstrating ‘a decent respect to the opinions of mankind’ and trying to realize our republic’s ideals through civic duty and the rule of law, as defined in the US Constitution.
America is still an experiment in democracy. We try our best and sometimes we fail. And when we do fail, we get up and try again.
As a former reporter I see Brown’s death as yet another opportunity to make fundamental social and institutional changes that reflect the best in us, not the worst. If other countries can effectively address their history of inequality, racism, ethnic cleansing and genocide then we should too. Any serious US historian or politician worth their weight recognizes that these issues remain significant obstacles to improving the American republic. These issues existed during Crispus Attucks’ time and they remain daunting features of our national life. They require immediate addressing and appropriate resolution.
As the insightful Charletta Taylor explained in her St. Louis-Dispatch op-ed on 19 August 2014 these issues should not be segregated to the neighborhood in which Brown was gunned down. These issues involve an entire nation, not just the good people of Ferguson, St. Louis or Missouri. Racism remains a national cancer, one of many living legacies and brutal trappings of European colonialism in the ‘New World’.
Let’s get real: history matters and institutionalized racism exists in America, whether in St. Louis’ de facto segregated schools or Politico.com’s newsroom. Racism and our deep disappointment in our political leaders’ unwillingness and/or inability to deal with it effectively are finally getting a proper national airing. We have to deal with this cancer head on with respect, understanding, and cross-generational engagement if we want life, liberty, happiness as well as peace and justice in America.
There is no shortage of local leaders who are making significant, positive differences in peoples’ lives by engaging in this ongoing dialogue about race, justice and the common good – as expressed through politics. But are the national politicians paying any attention to the growing disconnect between them and those on the ground who intuitively ‘get it’?
A Tweet by Paula Beattie (@loudvoiceforALL): ‘With you, there’ is the new ‘‘Can I get an ‘amen’?” It reflects the bridge of understanding about race and justice between generations, much like the large turnout of peaceful protesters in Ferguson. We need to build on that – fast – so that we work toward peaceful, positive and meaningful change. We can connect, engage, and be inspired by young and old alike, including those in Ferguson.
A young female participant in CNN correspondent Don Lemon’s ‘Black and White in America’ Town Hall gathering on 19 August 2014 remarked, “People need to have the courage to talk openly about race.” Perhaps our public servants in Washington, DC will listen to this sound advice, take account of their childish dysfunction, failed national policies, and avoid using another mind numbing ‘War on (fill in the blank)’ slogan.
If our democratically elected leadership chooses not to engage the people then we risk losing the next generation of American revolutionaries: students, teachers, engineers, mathematicians, scientists, inventors, veterans, judges, nurses, doctors, police, firemen and women, CEOs, business owners, custodians, cooks, farmers, artists, musicians… and yes, even citizen bloggers and reporters.
Equally important, we risk losing the republic.
Rachel Cunningham is a Master of Arts candidate at the University of Western Australia in Perth, Australia where she is researching contemporary foreign policy. Rachel graduated from the University of Chicago with a BA in Political Science and is a former journalist. She currently resides in Hanoi, Vietnam. Follow her on Twitter @RCHanoi.