My heart is filled with sorrow with the news that a grand jury indictment was not ordered for Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson, accused of killing Michael Brown, a young and unarmed black man. Whatever the facts of the case are, we are left with a family, a community, and many people in our nation grieving and angry at this loss of life and lack of justice.
I want to talk about the perception of Michael Brown, perpetuated by some media outlets, and by those who do not see all human beings as being equal in value. The perception is that Michael Brown somehow deserved what happened to him. As a parent of a teenage stepson who I have helped raise, and as a person of faith who values life knowing we are all beloved children of God, I cannot understand nor can I find justification for the idea that Michael Brown deserved to die. Let’s be real: he didn’t even fit the category of those people for whom society generally abhors – the serial killers, rapists, child molesters or domestic abusers. But for some, Brown was enough of an “other” to either imply or say outright that he deserved to be gunned down, that the cop was “just doing his job.”
There are veterans of war who are haunted by the memories of facing down or killing enemy combatants – some of them younger than Michael Brown. While these veterans may say they did what they had to do in order to save their lives or of those in their unit, I think you hear less often that they felt the enemy combatant deserved to die. The ones I’ve heard say they see a piece of themselves in the enemy, and it haunts them.
Darren Wilson, on the other hand, says that killing Michael Brown won’t haunt him. Essentially, what he is saying is that he believes Michael Brown deserved to die. In recent interviews, Wilson has said that he has a “clean conscience.” You can’t have a clean conscience after murdering someone. You can’t have a clean conscience knowing this young man was unarmed, and likely reacted out of fear. It doesn’t matter if at the time of the altercation your perspective was that you were acting within the bounds of your job. You can work out all the details in your head, but in the end, there is a heart that no longer beats because you stopped it. Your perspective should change with the taking of life. Your being haunted by taking another person’s life is what hopefully will save your own humanity.
The underlying issue here is the lack of personal responsibility. Taking full responsibility means owning up to your behaviors, responses and actions – even if at the time it seemed justified. Refusing to take full responsibility – by not saying, I did this and it was wrong, even though at the time it seemed like the right decision – is about self-preservation at all costs. Not taking full responsibility places your own position and well-being above that of others. It precludes the possibility of justice, healing or reconciliation, individually and socially.
I was reminded today of an incident from my childhood. I was about 6 years old, playing in my grandparents’ backyard in Queens, NY. In our neighborhood, the houses frequently backed up to pre-war apartment buildings. Behind the 6′ high wood fence surrounding my grandparents’ yard was the courtyard for the apartment building on the other side of the block. Kids would frequently play stickball or other games down there. I could hear them. They could hear me, but we never played together.
One day, an older boy and his brother who lived in the house across the street came over to the house to play. The older boy was kind of a bully, and somehow a little rivalry between the kids in the courtyard behind the fence and us sprang up. They lobbed small rocks at us and we lobbed some back. I threw one over and suddenly heard a kid yelp in pain. I heard someone say, “His head is bleeding!” After that, nothing. The boys I was playing with ran around the corner, leaving me there alone.
Later, the older boy came up to me and said that the boy who I had hit with the rock had died and the police were going to come for me. I can still feel the terror of that moment. Sick with anxiety, I waited. The police never came. The boy’s family never knocked on our door, demanding my head. I never said anything to my family for fear of punishment. I didn’t know if the boy was really dead or not, but I didn’t want to take responsibility for harming him. It was an accident, I swear. I didn’t mean to hurt him. We were just playing. It’s not like I even knew him.
A week or so later, I saw the older boy again. Fearfully, I asked him if what he said was really true. He laughed in my face and said he was just kidding. Relief flooded me. I was so relieved that I wasn’t even angry at first for the way he had tricked me. I was relieved beyond belief that the other boy was OK. And most of all, I was relieved that I wasn’t going to get into trouble.
When you’re a child, it doesn’t occur to you to seek out the person you harmed – inadvertently or otherwise – to make amends. You’re only concerned about how certain actions or reactions will directly affect you. Children at that stage of development are primarily in survival mode. Some of us never really move beyond that stage.
I never found out who the boy was that I lobbed on the head with a rock. I trust he is OK and probably forgot about the incident. But over the years, I have silently apologized to him. I take responsibility for this incident of nearly 40 years ago because if I don’t, what worse things might I try to justify later?