by Pete Mazzaccaro
If there is one thing the United States of America represents it is this: that out of many different people, there is one nation.
As many of us celebrated the most American of holidays this past long weekend, the news reminded us that as far as we’ve come to achieving that idea, there are many things that continue to divide us.
The frustrating thing about the events that have followed the shooting death of Michael Brown and the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed him, is yet another cycle in which Americans shout at each other.
We debate the facts, often acting like we’re experts in both the law and psychology. We blame victims. Demonize institutions. We spin black and white narratives where there is so much gray. And we continue to miss the big picture – finding those things about which most can agree and working to effect actual changes that will improve things, making sure that our country truly lives up to its promise to everyone.
Regardless of how you view the events in Ferguson, there should be some things on which a plurality can agree.
First, there is clearly a trust problem between the African American community and the police. Regardless of what you think about deep-seated prejudice – some remarkably insist racism no longer exists – the protests and riots in Ferguson are not recreational activities. They stem from a profound history of African Americans feeling they have not had justice and that they are powerless against police who can shoot young black men without consequence.
What can be done to solve this problem? Police cameras are one thing, but they seem aimed more at evaluating police actions than building trust. Perhaps a focus on community policing and recruiting officers from communities to work those communities – to tie the police more directly to those neighborhoods they serve.
Second, when unarmed young people and children are shot and killed in our communities, there is a problem. Police have a very tough job. They have an enormous amount of responsibility and face threats to which many of us just can’t relate.
I am not an expert when it comes to police training, but I have a hard time being dissuaded from believing there has to be a better way to train officers that keeps them safe and prevents tragedies like that of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland child who was shot by police while playing with a pellet gun in a city park.
Having seen the security film footage of Rice playing with the pellet gun, he looks just like the elementary school boys on my street who play with their plastic guns on the corner, playing soldier and cops and robbers. To think one of them could suddenly be shot and killed by an officer is a frightening thought. It should be unimaginable.
Finally, we need to accept the fact that racism is real and the brunt of it in this country is experienced by black men. Wishing it away or pointing to our first African American president will not make it any less real. This does not require guilt. It does not require anyone to accept blame. All that is required is to accept the fact that people – all people – are capable of prejudice, even those of us with the best intentions. When we set forth looking for solutions, we need to start from a place that acknowledges this. We don’t live in a perfect, neutral world. We need to address the imperfect one we have.
If we can use Ferguson as a reminder of these things. If we can look at how we can do better jobs of addressing the realities that too often find us dealing with yet another case of an unarmed child shot on our streets and turn away from trying to explain it away by blaming the victims and demonizing the police, maybe we’ll actually have a shot of making sure Ferguson isn’t as likely to happen again a year from now.
And we can get one step closer to making sure that our one nation really is made of many.