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?


  1. Oh. My. God. This post is truly horrifying. I am without words to respond. Thank you Mary for so eloquently shining light on this travesty of humanity.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sharon … Thanks for stopping to comment … there are so many instances, these days, of our inhumanity, one could write volumes. This one just leapt out at me as I waited, with America, for the decision Monday night (although we all “knew” what it would be.)

  2. Thank you Mary for asking big questions. Unless we all begin to wake up to the fact that we are all one and take responsibility for what we do, we will continue to kill the very reason for our existence … sharing and taking care of each other with love and respect.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Joan … I often think that many of America’s problems today stem from eliminating the draft … it was the time in a young man’s life when he was forced to be part of something larger than himself … and to be there with people very different from himself. Today, too many of us ignore the humanity of people who are different from ourselves. It is a great loss for our country.

  3. Until this essay, I had no idea Michael lay in blazing sunshine in a public street for four hours, his mother was not allowed to see the body for two weeks or that no Ferguson official has offered “personal condolences” to Lesley McSpadden or her family. Excruciating details, truly horrifying events that defy the words “Peace on earth / good-will toward men, a mantra I live by.

    Black, white, Asian – I am color-blind.
    And I agree with Joan: responsibility, respect, and remembrance must be part of the answer.

    • Burns is right: Man’s inhumanity to man / Makes countless thousands mourn!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Marian … your words heighten the irony or absurdity … that McSpadden was “left out in the cold” as we approach the Christmas season in which “good will towards men” is the primary motif — but one increasingly observed in the breach.

  4. This is a conversation that is long overdue. Thank you for being part of it, Mary. Shirley Showalter began, a few weeks back, with a blog about whites learning to talk about race. I planned to raise “conversing about race” as a topic when I met with my old (literally, these days) high school friend, an African American woman. But we hadn’t seen each other in nearly 50 years and, frankly, in the excitment of the moment, I forgot. We talked about our lives, personal, intimate. Not head stuff, but heart. Race was just not important.
    I’m mentioning Ferguson, MO in my blog today, with more to follow next week. But I’m not sure how to proceed. I’m not sure what I need to say other than, “let’s talk.” Know what I mean?

    If pressed, I’d say fear plays a factor, our universal human need to feel secure, and the fact that we often fear what we don’t know; we demonize our enemy to feel morally superior so we can justify defending ourselves.

    I’m struck again (and this is a theme I’ve returned to so many times I’ve lost count) by how often we just don’t know what we don’t know. We sip our glass of wine (to return to your apt metaphor) and feel blessed that all is right with the world. And, depending upon which battle we choose to enter, all may well be right with the world. Our world. At least our own little corner of it. So, then I get to “how big is my world?” How big do I want it to be. Really.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Janet … you’ve touched a chord with your comment about demonizing the enemy … In a world in which the “old order” seems to be disappearing as manufacturing jobs fall prey to computerization and/or lower cost economies and whites are facing the prospect of being in the minority (already true in parts of Iowa), many people feel very insecure about the future. The urge to find a scapegoat can be hard to resist.

  5. Mary, you have found an apt metaphor. And one that is both horrific and hopeful. My Lai devastated a whole village and ended or scarred thousands of lives. It also produced a great story of forgiveness — Kim Phuc, the “girl in the picture” who went on to reconcile with some American soldiers and who now heads a foundation to alleviate the pain of children around the world.
    Because of this essay, and the story you told about Lesley McSpadden, I am going to write her a letter. It’s a little thing, but I want her to feel how this story touched me. Thank you for writing.

  6. Mary Gottschalk says

    Shirley … you’ve inspired me … perhaps I will write to McSpadden as well … or at least send her a copy of my blog.

    I just left a note on your lovely October 1st blog about seeing past race and the color of one’s skin to our shared humanity.

  7. Mary, sharing these details sheds new light on an already horrific scenario. And the way it was handled leaves more questions than answers, especially about the system and how flawed it seems. Leaving race out, the bottom line is that a young man lost his life at the hands of another human being. I can’t wrap my head around the justifiable cause attributed to Wilson’s acquittal. It’s a symptom of a bigger problem that affects all of us. Thank you for your provocative and insightful essays which prompt us to view humanity and our role in it.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks Kathy … I share your view of the decision about Wilson — although note that he was not “acquitted” … he just wasn’t indicted, so we will never know if he would be acquitted in a public trial. I am not prepared to say that he was “guilty” of premeditated murder, but given all the conflicting information, it seems reasonable to me to ask whether he operated beyond his authority or accepted protocols. It is this latter question that seems to have been answered by McCullough.

      • Yes, Mary. I take note and realize I misspoke -Grand Jury decision vs trial-based verdict. It proves how facts can get distorted in the midst of all the emotions surrounding this case.One can only hope something good will come out of all this pain. Great discussion.

  8. I could not believe the grand jury decision. Cases with far less evidence are often brought to trial, and whether the jury then finds enough to convict is another matter. The officials in Ferguson treated Ms. McSpadden with contempt. I don’t know if Officer Wilson is an evil, racist, or trigger-happy guy, or someone who rightly or wrongly feared for his life, and since there will not be a trial, we’ll probably never know. I’ve never been in a combat or situation where I’ve feared that someone would attack me–I don’t know how I’d react. I think there has to be some sort of training so that police officers can react quickly without automatically assuming that the person they see is “the other” who is intent on attack.

    I understand your point about My Lai in that both police and combat soldiers are trained to react and attack “the enemy.” However, I read a bit about My Lai when working on my Encyclopedia of Rape. In that situation, the soldiers of Charlie Company was told that this would be their opportunity the repay the enemy for past attacks. Also, this particular company included several soldiers who raped Vietnamese women at every opportunity. One might argue that both situations involve a culture of “attack the other first,” but I think in My Lai there was a very strong mob culture with leaders who condoned brutal rape and murder–and who did not discipline soldiers who had engaged in previous acts of rape and acts of violence. In Ferguson, it might have just been a scared man who may or may not have been following protocols.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Merill … I was just thinking about you yesterday … that we never did get to that phone conversation.

      Thanks so much for the added insight on My Lai. I certainly was not aware of the explicit “opportunity” offered to Charlie Company. Whatever was going through Wilson’s mind, I don’t believe he saw this as an opportunity for payback to the black community.

      In an perverse way, though, it reinforces my despair — that behavior that we find heinous continues to be sanctioned or cordoned by those in authority. In My Lai, only Calley received a sentence, and a mild one at that. As far as I know there were no consequences for those in authority who provided the “opportunity” and kept it secret for a year. I don’t know that Wilson should go to jail, but at least he should have gone to trial.