I am a writer, nothing more, nothing less.
In the face of injustice, I only have words and words can only do so much.
Last night, the St. Louis County prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, stood before television cameras and offered a lengthy statement, that from the outset made it clear the grand jury was not going to indict officer Darren Wilson for the murder of 18-year-old Mike Brown, who was, at the time of his murder, unarmed.
Before McCulloch delivered the most devastating but expected information, he indicted the twenty-four hour news cycle and social media, as if these two sources of information were in any way responsible for this travesty and tragedy. Throughout the proceedings, McCulloch acted more like a defense attorney than a prosecutor whose job it is to prosecute crime. In fact, he was a defense attorney. He defended an unchecked police culture. He defended the fear of blackness. He defended the continued desecration of black lives.
Since their son was murdered in August, Mike Brown’s parents have used words. They have released statements conveying their grief and their desire for peace, for calm, for change. After learning that there would be no justice for their son, they said, “We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions. While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.”
There is so much grief and hope in that statement. I don’t understand how they can be so full of grace. I don’t understand how they can believe that this system that is so utterly corrupt, can be fixed. But if they can believe in change, surely I must at least try.
Time and again, Mike Brown’s parents have been lauded, and rightly so, for their dignity, compassion, and composure. It is frustrating, though, that as has always been the case throughout history, the subjugated have had to be nobler. It is a hell of a thing to expect nobility in the face of such staggering disgrace.
If we were talking about the murder of my child, I would not be dignified. I would be naked and hideous with my grief. I would rage. If I were murdered in such a manner, I would want people to rage on my behalf. I would want to be remembered loudly, with fire. Such visible outrage could be its own kind of grace.
Don’t misunderstand those words. Violence is not the answer but neither is peace.
President Obama also had words. He appeared on national television and urged protestors to remain peaceful, while on a split screen, Ferguson was awash in blue and red and smoke and a militarized police department displaying their force. Obama told us we need to peacefully accept this grand jury decision. We accept so much already. I suppose he thought it wouldn’t cost us much to accept this one thing more.
The president looked exhausted, defeated. He didn’t even sound like the man we have come to know. Perhaps he couldn’t muster the energy to pretend that this system can be fixed. He would know better than most.
Another young black man was murdered. It is hard to make sense of how many times I have had to type these words, mourning young black life. I am tired of having to type these words. I will have to type them again, far sooner than I would like.
This past Saturday, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio. He was holding a BB gun.
A mountain of evidence presented to the Darren Wilson grand jury is now being released. How could anyone make a just decision when given thousands and thousands of pages of information? This is how broken the system is.
One of the documents is a “Demographic Face Sheet.” It is two pages long. It details statistical information about Michael Brown. He was 18 (born in 1996) and never married. It identifies Brown’s next of kin and to whom his body was released. Manner of death: Homicide.
There are documents for Darren Wilson including medical records and his toxicology report. At the time of his examination, after he murdered Michael Brown, Wilson’s pulse was “strong and regular,” and the physician noted “normal bowel sounds.” Wilson received an x-ray after complaining of being punched in the head. The x-rays revealed no injury. Photos released show Wilson, who is 6’4” and weighs 210 pounds, with a light red mark on the side of his face. Wilson was in the hospital for less than two hours.
In the private autopsy report, the medical examiner writes, ‘There are seven bullet tracks in the body and an additional track in the right upper chest that is most consistent with being a re-entrance bullet wound continuation of the facial wound.” I hardly know what that means but I do know Mike Brown, 18-years-old, is dead.
A journal entry from a witness reads, in part, “Well, I’m gonna take my random drive to Florissant. Need to understand the Black race better so I can stop calling Blacks niggers and start calling them People.” A journal is where we are most honest with ourselves and these words may best encapsulate the current racial climate. There are white people out there trying to think of black people as… people.
In his interview Darren Wilson said, with regard to Mike Brown, “When he stopped, he turned, looked at me, made like a grunting noise and had the most intense aggressive face I’ve ever seen on a person.” He characterized Brown as a “demon,” and implied that Brown seemed to get stronger with each bullet his body absorbed.
Darren Wilson did not even try to see Mike Brown as a person.
After Wilson got to the police station, he washed Mike Brown’s blood from his hands. Evidence, finally, of Mike Brown’s humanity.
Having access to all this information encourages us to become amateur legal experts. I am not a legal expert. I am a writer, nothing more, nothing less. But as I began to sift through the thousands of pages of evidence it seemed unethical, at best, that the grand jury was presented with so much information. This was the kind of information that should have been presented at a trial. That’s all we wanted—a trial, an opportunity for justice, an opportunity for Darren Wilson to be tried for the murder of Mike Brown, but that will not happen.
How do we talk about race? How do we see one another as human, as having lives that matter, as people deserving of inalienable rights? These conversations are always so tense, so painful. People are defensive. We want to believe we are good. To face the racisms and prejudices we carry forces us to recognize the ways in which we are imperfect. We have to be willing to accept our imperfections and we have to be willing to accept the imperfections of others. Is that possible on the scale required for change?
How do we move forward? How do we survive this egregious legacy we all inherited? I have words, but today they come mostly in the form of questions. I have no idea what to say. Words are failing me. I am not surprised by the grand jury’s decision but I am stunned and heartbroken. I am worried because there will be a next time and a next time, and words will still be inadequate.
The alternative is silence and silence is unacceptable. Last night I felt hopeless and this morning, I still feel hopeless but it is such a luxury to feel hopeless, to sit in my nice apartment, on my overpriced laptop, writing through my feelings while Mike Brown’s parents mourn, while black parents across the country try to explain to their children that they are deeply loved but that out in the world, they are not seen as human.
I have to believe we are going to be better and do better by one another even if I cannot yet see how. If I don’t believe that, I, we, have nothing.
On Twitter last night, Ashley Ford shared that she donated to the Ferguson Public Library, which inspired me and many others to do the same. I hope you can donate, too. We have words and we can make sure the people of Ferguson have them too.
Roxane Gay is the editor of The Butter.