Kevin Dedner, MPH
It’s different this time. That’s what we told ourselves after Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a Hispanic man who considered him suspicious as the teen walked in a gated Florida community. We said it after Jordan Davis was fatally shot at a Florida gas station by a white man who complained about the teen’s loud music.
Here we are again. A people and a nation outraged over another boy’s death. While it certainly shouldn’t matter that he is black, the fact of the matter is it has everything to do with him being black. Michael Brown’s death should cause everyone who loves a black man or child to stop and ask: Why? Even as I write this, I am disturbed to my very core. I am stressed, emotionally, and strained intellectually. I ache in an indescribable way.
As I watch the news reports that focus on the death of Michael Brown, I know that what we need to discuss is a much more complicated problem. Every black man, every black boy is Michael Brown. I know that people look at me when I don’t have on my suit and make judgments about who I am. They make judgments about my values, my lifestyle and my background. Yet, they don’t have a clue who I am really am, and the fear that gets stuck in their throats as they see me pass prevents us from having a real conversation that could put to rest once and for all these misconceptions.
Every young black man comes to the understanding very early in life that he will be misunderstood at the least by a countless number of white people. He realizes that the narrative has been written for him without his voice or his words, without anyone having enough respect for him to stand back and let him to write his own story. So life after birth becomes a constant struggle to defeat the negative narrative and create a positive story.
But, it is not easy. In fact, it’s damn hard. And nothing about it is fair. Everyone is talking about the so-called “agitators” and” looters” in Ferguson. Some are calling them “opportunistic”. The paradox is conspicuous; peaceful protesters and angry frustrated men embedded in the crowd among the peaceful protestors. They have all assembled for the same reason to show their disgust with the shooting of yet another black boy. But, those who act out in violence have a deeper frustration.
Who are they? While I am speculating, I believe we have seen them many times before. They have faced life head on. They’ve tried to live the American dream and accomplish it through hard work and sticktuitiveness. But, they have realized that it is damn hard and unfair. Their support system including family and supportive services is weak. And while they may not be able to put it in words, they know that something is working against them at every point in life. They have nothing to lose. This moment provides an opportunity for them to express their every frustration to the world.
The frustration is caused by systematic problems: the bogus War on Drugs and mass incarceration, which I am sure many have been a casualty to in some way. Their anger is caused by the poor conditions in which they live every day–making happiness in spite of poverty, crime and violence. Their brewing bitterness is caused by the lack of employment opportunities and an inadequate education system. And all of this is undergirded by a pathetic culture of “thug life” that is created in part by slick draconian businessmen who make major profits at their expense. The rioting and looting we see in Ferguson is a form of social protest from the most vulnerable population in America. As Dr. King said when speaking about the riots in Los Angeles in 1965, “The looting in Watts was a form of social protest very common through the ages as a dramatic and destructive gesture of the poor toward symbols of their needs.”
The cry coming out of Ferguson could come from any city in America. There is nothing unique about Ferguson. It just happens to be the home of young black man named Michael Brown, who was coming to terms with the world being damn hard and unfair until six bullets from a police officer’s gun emphasized that truth for all of us.
Kevin Dedner serves as senior consultant and managing director of Forward Solutions, a consulting firm providing strategic and technical guidance to advance sound policy that improves public health outcomes and fosters social change. Follow him on Twitter @kdedner.