Respect – My Lai in Black and White

 

respectThe worst moment for me, in a string of horrible moments, was the sight of Lesley McSpadden standing out on the street on in front of the Municipal Court in Ferguson.  Like most of America, she was waiting to hear the result of the Grand Jury investigation.

But Lesley McSpadden wasn’t most of America. Lesley McSpadden was the mother of an unarmed young black man shot to death by the white policeman who was the subject of the Grand Jury investigation.

How is it that no one in authority in Ferguson had the decency to invite her into the Municipal Court where it was warm, to provide her with a place where she could sit down when she heard the news?

This is not so preposterous a thought.  Had Wilson’s guilt or innocence been determined through a public trial, McSpadden would have had a seat in the courtroom. She would have had been able to observe the faces of Wilson, McCullough and the jury when the verdict was delivered. Wilson, McCullough, and the jury would have had to observe her grief and shock. McSpadden would have been a participant in our (however flawed) democratic and judicial system.

But that Monday night, standing in the street, she was outside the democratic and judicial system.  She was an anonymous woman of no relevance to the stage show being performed by Robert McCullough inside the courthouse.

This small act—or non-act—of disrespect was not the first in the months since Michael Brown’s death. McSpadden was not allowed to approach him as he lay in blazing sunshine in a public street for four hours. Once his body was removed from the street, she was not allowed to see it for two weeks. Based on comments in a recent CBS interview with McSpadden, no one in Ferguson officialdom has yet found the time—or the empathy—to offer “personal condolences” to her or her family.

To all intents and purposes, the mother of Michael Brown—an unarmed teenager killed by a white policeman—was not seen by the authorities in Ferguson as a human being worthy of respect or empathy.

And that most un-human response–small gestures that would have be so easy for a compassionate person to do—reinforces my fear that Ferguson’s officialdom, in the secret dark recesses of their minds and souls, think that Officer Wilson did exactly what he was trained to do. The fact that Michael Brown was an unarmed teenager who appeared to be wounded is an incidental. What counted was that he had been behaving aggressively towards a white policeman.

The scene in Ferguson brings to mind My Lai, the 1968 tragedy in which the members of Charlie Company, an American infantry group, murdered hundreds of women and children in a small Vietnamese hamlet named Son My. While there are many differences between Son My and Ferguson, the soldiers—like Wilson—were trained to respond to potential threats. Told that the village was under control of the Vietcong, the Charlie Company responded to the threat by killing everyone in the village.

Years later, when the Son My investigation was completed, we learned that no one in the village ever fired a shot at anyone in Charlie Company.

Decades later, we know that Michael Brown did not fire a shot at Darren Wilson.

Who is guilty here?  Is it Darren Wilson? Or is it a system that trains a white police officer in a black community, when confronted by what appears to be an angry or aggressive black man, to shoot first and ask questions later?

Or is it those of us who sit by comfortably, with our evening glass of wine and our holiday reunions, as the Ferguson authorities sanction “official” violence based on old tropes about race … as those same authorities are allowed to be rude and disrespectful to a grieving mother because of the color of her skin?

What we should do?  What would you do?