Monday, August 11, 2014

These Books Don't Close

My heart hurts.

My head, eyes, and back also hurt. The latter are from staying up most of the night watching footage of the riots in Ferguson, MO unfold as I listened to sirens blaze past my windows heading toward the damage. At one point, I had a trifecta of data: a medical scanner application open and playing on my phone, an array of Twitter feeds spread across my computer screen, and the local news stations flickering across my television.

Mostly, though, my heart hurts.

My heart has hurt every time I've heard of an unarmed black man killed by authorities, and surges of that pain resurfaced as I clicked through each story in this article from the Root collecting many of them. I read the names: Ervin Jefferson, Timothy Stansbury, Sean Bell. The list goes on, and now we add to them Michael Brown.

I think about how any sons I have will face that level of scrutiny and that history of pain, and I shudder.

I also think about my friends who are police officers, called to stand shoulder to shoulder in riot gear on what became an increasingly violent and terrifying night. I think about their families, worrying if they will make it home safely. I think about the quick decisions they will have to make, the stress they must be under.

I think about my city, some of it literally in flames.

I think about all of the people, miles and borders away saying, "That's St. Louis for you." Dismissing the pain, the anger, and the fear with a shrug and a quiet nod at making the right choice to live somewhere else.

I think about my neighbors barricaded in their houses out of fear, wondering if it will be safe to send their children to school in the morning--wondering what they'll tell them when they ask what's going on.

I think about the family of Michael Brown and how difficult it must be to even process what's going on around them through their grief.

Mostly, though, I think about the one thing that I've been trained to think about: the story.

That's all I know to do. Read. I've been doing it all my life, a task formalized by degrees but at heart just a part of human nature. I want to read the story. I want to find the characters, the setting, the themes, and I want to read through the ups and downs until there is a conclusion.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch published a great piece about the history of St. Louis, context that is crucial to understanding what you're seeing in the news if you're not from here.

It talks about people like my dad, who was a teenager when his family fled the city for rural Missouri in the 1970's in the midst of other violent, racially-charged upheavals, making them just one of the many participants in "white flight" that left the region economically and philosophically shaken.

It talks about a racial distribution of power that gives some background for reports like the one that surfaced in the aftermath to show the racial profiling data of Ferguson.

Mostly, though, it reminds us that the story is not simple:
It's a false dichotomy, a lazy narrative, to see this region as divided among racists whites and angry blacks. That's not reality in many neighborhoods and families here. But it's the loudest, most visible part of the discourse. Like much of America, St. Louis has an undeniable problem talking about or dealing with issues involving race.
A lazy narrative. That, out of all of this pain and hurt and anger, is something I can understand.

It's also something that I have seen over and over and over again this weekend. The number of false dichotomies keeps piling up:
  • Protester vs. Looter
  • Urban vs. Ruler
  • Cop Hater vs. Racist Apologist
  • Peace vs. War
  • Black vs. White
  • Urban vs. Rural
But nothing is that simple. We aren't reading a book where the themes have been neatly laid out before us as we prance to the moral at the end.

There can be both protesters and looters; the latter presence of destruction does not negate the initial presence of peace.

You can love, trust, and support individual officers while still recognizing systemic issues in a troubled justice system.

You can want peace but find yourself fighting a war.

It's easy to sit back and fill our minds with the story. We have plenty of content. I was doing it when I sat in my bedroom perched over Twitter feeds with the TV and medical scanner playing. I was reading voraciously, eager to find some meaning, place the characters, and get to a conclusion.

But this is not a story. This is an ongoing struggle that reaches far beyond any one character perspective, far beyond any one incident on any one day.

We want to be readers and find the simple spots on the ground to stake our claims. There is comfort in that, and that comfort looks all the more appealing in the face of the pain and the fear. But this isn't a book. We can't close it, and nothing is simple.

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