clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Further Thoughts on Ferguson

Thoughts on the lessons of Ferguson, Missouri for all of us.

Joe Raedle

This is a Portland Trail Blazers website. For those looking for the usual Blazers coverage, there's a new post on Portland's General Managers throughout the years right here, plus hundreds of articles surrounding it all over the site. If that's all you're in the mood to talk about today, if you came here to get away for a while, please feel free. No judgment here. The Blazers will remain the mission here, now and always.

I'm going to be honest with you. I'm having a hard time writing about the Blazers right now. It's not because I'm consumed with, or overdosing on, the news from Ferguson. To the contrary, I'm only checking in for updates a couple times a day. The rest of my life is pretty normal. There's no false emotion or martyr complex here that I'm aware of.

That said, a couple thoughts keep resounding in my head. I keep thinking that this is a turning point in our society. If we don't turn in a decent direction, God help us. Second, we seem to have trouble discerning any kind of decent direction at all. We're not able to process, let alone proceed. We're stumbling back and forth, reacting to each other and events that seem beyond us. I'm pretty sure that describes most folks who are protesting, most police lines, and most people who are watching and reporting as well.

In the midst of this, two obvious-seeming truths ring out.

1. We're all too far away from each other.

The Ferguson protests were sparked by the death of Michael Brown, who will not be forgotten. That tragedy touched a broader reality: a group of our fellow human beings remains unseen, less heard, regarded unequally, set off from the rest and treated accordingly, in inferior and disposable fashion, like caricatures instead of people.

We are too far away from each other.

We don't see people, we see objects. Race, gender, and economic status delve the grandest fault lines between us, but the phenomenon doesn't stop there. We don't see people in Ferguson, we see protesters and cops and reporters. We don't see people in our daily lives, we see the guy who pumps our gas or our child's teacher or that damn politician. We don't see people online, we see our old high school flame who we "friended" on Facebook, that lady who leaves annoying comments on Twitter, the ugly guy I left-swiped on Tinder. In all these venues we define each other less as human and more as a set of functions. We judge them by whether they support our beliefs, desires, and goals...definitions given broad sweep and granular precision by our modern, busy, instant-information lifestyle.

We...are too far...away from each other.

Though the world is supposedly "getting smaller" the gulf between us remains vast. In Ferguson the physical distance between protesters and police is tiny--vanishing when bridged by intervening cameras--but the gap still feels immeasurable. It's so far that any words or gestures cast across fall flat. Only gas canisters and accusations reach the other side.

Why was Captain Ron Johnson celebrated for a day? Why is he trusted even now? He stepped in the middle and met people there, erasing the distance and making them feel like people again. It was that simple.

We are too far away from each other. No matter what else gets piled on top, that's the root of the issue, not just for Ferguson but for all of us.

2. We don't have the tools or language to interpret the situation correctly, let alone to address it.

Actually I think we do have them somewhere. But they're packed away, antiques in the attic. Processing in public--interpersonal or socio-political--has been reshaped by Reality TV, News Network "debates", and Radio Talk Shows. Drama, noise, separating into camps, vituperation in the name of defending the self and one's worldview...these provide the modus operandi for discourse, our instinctive response when confronted with things beyond our control. Demean, dismiss, reduce, lock away. If you think those imperatives apply only to police in Missouri, you haven't been paying attention.

You can see it in the coverage of the events in Ferguson and in our response to it. First of all, it's not "Ferguson, Missouri", full of people and complexity and soul-deep struggle. It's "#Ferguson". That's it. And whatever you put behind "#Ferguson" seems just as acceptable and just as weighty as the next thing. Personal opinion, cry for justice, an ill-informed and maybe racist utterance, serious journalism, casual story about a day-after Egg McMuffin, attempt to defend a belief system, bald's all the same. Journalists on the ground--our only eyes and ears--mix several of these freely, as do the folks who comment after them. It all fits, not just because of the medium but because this isn't about the people and events, really, it's about the drama. It's about reducing and compartmentalizing, picking a camp and finding something to fight for or someone to fight against, pinning blame on someone so we can move on. That's our reaction...noble and silly and perhaps understandable, but ill-considered and unproductive just the same.

Instead of bringing us closer to people--closing that distance between us--Ferguson coverage is becoming like a roller coaster ride through a strange land. We go up, down, all around, but we keep arms and hands inside the car at all times and we never end up anywhere but where we started, ready to ride the ride again tomorrow and the next day until the carnival closes down. This isn't about experiencing the environment or the people in it, it's about me and my ideas of justice or sanctity or the threat to my way of life.

Here's an unpleasant truth: somehow, I want it this way. As a white person I want to see this story through my own eyes and/or the eyes of the (mostly white and mostly alien to the environment) press corps, not the eyes of the Ferguson residents. As an American I want Ferguson to seem like an odd place, a temporary destination and not my hometown. As a social media user I want to absorb as much information as instantly as possible, getting engrossed in "the story" no matter what it reflects. As a human being I want to pretend I'm as far away from violence and helplessness as possible. I want to pretend this is about fixing other, unreasonable people, not reasonable old me.  I get rewarded every time I fixate on ANYTHING besides the actual people there, every time I distance myself from them even as I continue to watch with an un-resolvable mix of empathy, shock, and horror.

In short, I'm only comfortable when Ferguson and its people (police, protesters, residents) remain "the other" and my experience becomes the story. Then I remember what caused this in the first place: people defining everything by their own eyes, condemning others to an enduring sense of "otherness".

Whoever your "their" is, it wasn't just their worldview and actions precipitating these events, it was ours too. That's true to this day. They're not "them", they're us.

THIS is the struggle I see in the shouts of every protest line, in every cohort of cops who just want people to go home. I see it even more in the reporters who are stuck in a story they can't get out of (many for the first time in their lives, I believe). I see it in their physical panic to get away from gas canisters or drive out of a neighborhood or exit a restaurant. I see it in the way they flail to get above the story, to remove to their usual perch, only to get dragged under again. I see it in the way they cast around for the right words to describe, the right aspect to report on, then get lost again and again, haunted by voices--begging and commanding--that they can't dismiss. These are the most literate folk among us. Communication is their business. They don't have the language.

The reporters can't get out of the trap and neither can we. The only clear way to leave all this behind is to re-offend: to objectify, dehumanize, and dismiss. The only clear way to get comfortable with this mess is to re-offend in a different way: to consume and ride the dramatic wave, living vicariously through our excitement and outrage while real people suffer on all sides in our stead.

If we're not willing to do either of those things, we have to stay with this. But we cannot stay passively. If we're going to stay, we need to discover another language, another way of being human with each other. We can't remain this far apart any longer or we're going to do Ferguson forever.

We need to change how we process reports from the scene. We need to be careful how we interpret the words and actions of the people there as well. We need to examine how we repeat and retweet these things, what we add or take away that says more about us--living the experience by proxy, objectifying others in the process--than it does about the actual events.  We need to demand clarity from those who share and we need to speak clearly about what's at stake for all of us. We have to stop seeing through the eyes of drama and cardboard-cutout camps. We need to search more diligently for truth--found neither in sterile facts nor ideologies of wild abandon--and then be willing to embrace the sacrifice and vulnerability that such a search demands.

Finally, ultimately, we need to admit that this is more than just a Ferguson, Missouri issue. That reporters don't have words, that protesters don't have recourse, that police don't have restraint and a clear plan, that politicians don't have a way forward, and that we haven't seen this coming before now or have been too busy to care...these things should bother us greatly. How did we let ourselves get so far apart that we don't even have a clue how far that distance is? Why are gas and bullets and shouts our recourse when things go wrong? Why is dramatic debate such a ready retreat? Why will the space between us fill with dehumanizing accusations, ideological imprecation, fingers of blame, and shaking of heads (our "solution") when the unrest in Ferguson is finally stilled? When did safety, quiet, and the freedom to ignore the vast distances between us replace compassion as our corporate goal?

You don't have to travel to Ferguson or even check the news to see that we haven't answered those questions. Look around. Look at family, friends, and internet companions. Look at people of all genders and orientations and races. Look at bus drivers, stockbrokers, checkout clerks, liberals and conservatives, faith folks and atheists, even strangers on the street. Judge the distance between you and them. Weigh the amount of time you spend acknowledging them as people versus the time you spend regarding them as functions or objects in your life.

As you do so you will discover that distance is the price you pay every day to feel safe. Perhaps as you do so you'll find some empathy for the folks on all sides of Ferguson's battle lines...folks for whom distance didn't work...folks who are paying and paying right now and still can't get back to a safe place.

That's where we all end up if we continue down this path. Distancing ourselves from each other is just another way of dehumanizing each other (and ultimately ourselves). It feels prudent but inevitably leaves us lined up on one side or the other of that street, else milling around in the middle unable to summon any words that make a difference.

We need better eyes, better impulses, another way. We are too damn far apart from each other. We have neither cultural instinct nor public mechanisms to reach across that distance right now. But we always have the option to change ourselves look at the people we'll meet today and interact with them differently.

How many people in your life aren't really people? How long can we cling on to "them" before we figure out that the only real safety lies in more "us"? As I watch righteously angry people, power-wielding people, and a whole bunch of stumbling around and lost people in Ferguson, Missouri today, I'm thinking we better start addressing these matters pretty soon.

--Dave / @DaveDeckard