A Note to People Who Say, Of Ferguson, “That’s What They Get”


This photo comes from the Twitter account of Liz Peinado, a teacher in Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed black teenager named Mike Brown was gunned down by police this past Saturday. Police claim that Brown attacked the officer. Other things that the police have claimed during my lifetime include roleplaying games lead to satanic ritual murder and If you flash your brights at them, they’ll shoot you. Police say a lot of things.

Eyewitnesses tell a different story:

About 20 minutes before the shooting, Johnson said he saw Brown walking down the street and decided to catch up with him. The two walked and talked. That’s when Johnson says they saw the police car rolling up to them.

The officer demanded that the two “get the f—k on the sidewalk,” Johnson says. “His exact words were get the f—k on the sidewalk.”

After telling the officer that they were almost at their destination, Johnson’s house, the two continued walking. But as they did, Johnson says the officer slammed his brakes and threw his truck in reverse, nearly hitting them.

Now, in line with the officer’s driver’s side door, they could see the officer’s face. They heard him say something to the effect of, “what’d you say?” At the same time, Johnson says the officer attempted to thrust his door open but the door slammed into Brown and bounced closed. Johnson says the officer, with his left hand, grabbed Brown by the neck….“They’re not wrestling so much as his arm went from his throat to now clenched on his shirt,” Johnson explained of the scene between Brown and the officer. “It’s like tug of war. He’s trying to pull him in. He’s pulling away, that’s when I heard, ‘I’m gonna shoot you.’”

At that moment, Johnson says he fixed his gaze on the officer to see if he was pulling a stun gun or a real gun. That’s when he saw the muzzle of the officer’s gun….“The whole time [the officer] was holding my friend until the gun went off,” Johnson noted.

Whereupon the officer shot Mike Brown in the back. At least once from the car. This is a functional definition of cowardice.

I have read that they left the body uncovered in the street for something in the neighborhood of four hours.

The next day, there was a vigil, and afterward, some looting. Now, I hate looting. I feel shitty for the person whose Kwik-Stop got smashed to pieces. But that person is alive. Mike Brown is not. If evenhandedness in moral judgments (as between powerful and less powerful, one’s enemies and one’s allies, etc.) is important, so is a sense of proportion.

The following day, Fergusonians gathered again. This time, the police took full advantage of the expensive militarization process that Radley Balko and others have written about. They fired rubber bullets and tear gas. They pointed cocked, loaded weapons at unarmed people merely standing around. They told people to return to their homes, and then blocked the way. They fired tear gas into peoples’ yards.

The last few weeks, as I read about Israel’s incursions into Gaza neighborhoods—how people were ordered to leave their homes or be bombed, followed by the blocking or shelling of every possible escape route—I often thought of Marilynne Robinson’s comment on the violent inconsistencies of English poor laws: “People who can neither stay where they are nor go elsewhere are in trouble.” I thought of it again Monday night.


I would say I am at least averagely racist. I grew up in this country, and I have all the stereotypes lying around in my brain, waiting for some emotionally charged incident to activate them. I grew up fairly isolated (by self and circumstance), so I learned some of the stereotypes a bit later in life than most people seem to—I didn’t learn that I’m supposed to feel sexually outcompeted by black men until I heard about the meme from historians critical of it. (“People thought that?” Then, five seconds later: “Oh, shit, what if it’s true?”) But by now the ideas are all more or less in there somewhere.

This is not an apology, and it is certainly not a veiled request for someone to assuage my guilt. Please do not reassure me; I have no guilt. Because I have no control. The thoughts are just there. If and when they come, I reject them, I argue with them, I mock them, and I try to teach others to do so. That is the part I have control over. That is how all the traditional Christian virtues are supposed to work, by the way: you consciously cultivate habits that make certain forms of behavior, over time, more possible for yourself, and others less so. These habits aren’t operating in a vacuum; they’re operating in a context of greed, lust, sloth, egomania, and the other deadlies. So half your work is correcting against those. And you work at correcting against racism too.

All that racism exists in black people as well. By this I don’t mean that black people have racist thoughts about white people, though this seems true. I have seen “white” used as a synonym for bland, boring, oblivious, effete, overly cerebral, patronizing, smooth, and unctuous enough times to be suspicious, and I am so sick of the stereotype of the Spocklike, soulless white man who thinks too much that I could scream. (Think of Amiri Baraka’s famous comment on the “Hamlet burden, which was white bullshit, to be always weighing and measuring and analyzing”: this is not only an insult to all white people, it’s an insult to black people who enjoy math or metaphysics. Or, closer to our own time, think of the assumptions people make about hipsters, that they are incapable of emotion or genuine enthusiasm, that if you cut them they bleed ironic PBR. This is not to deny the real, empirical problems with hipsters and gentrification.)

But whatever anti-white racism black people harbor, I have worked with enough brilliant black students who absolutely can’t believe anyone thinks they’re smart that I’ve noticed a much larger, sadder problem: They believe our stereotypes about them. They have to remind themselves, some of the time, that they’re human. Once you know to look for this, you see it everywhere. It is heartbreaking, and it’s not something white people have to do qua white people, though we often have to do it for other reasons (we’re nerds, we’re disabled, we’re GLBTQ, we’re working class, we were epileptic in the ’50s, we have Southern accents, we suffer mental illness, we attended a single day of middle school, etc.).

As for that fear of black criminality that so many of us tote around: Guess what? I have it too. Several years ago my then-girlfriend, now-wife and I were robbed at gunpoint in Milwaukee by teenagers of color. One of them snatched her purse, and I ran after him, because my degree is not in common sense. His buddy pointed a gun at me and said, “Bitch, give me your wallet.”

A little bit of me is a Christian, and prays for that kid. Most of me is pagan and wants to kick his ass. Only a little, because he was just a kid. But enough for him to say, “Oh, right, that was a person I did that to.”

In the weeks and months after my mugging, for the first time in my life, I felt that little urge that I had previously noticed in other white people, and found laughable: to cross the street whenever you see a group of young men of color headed your way. It was suddenly there, like an evil Jiminy Crickett. I argued with it till it went away.

I say all this to say, I understand, on a bone-deep level, the thing inside us white people that makes us want to turn away from Ferguson. I understand the thing inside that says Don’t worry about what the police are doing. Don’t worry that they’ve imposed a no-fly zone. It’s just a bunch of thugs

So now look again at that photo. Look at the guy on the right. Look at his eyes. (Remember that, moments later, he was teargassed.)

This is not “just a” anything. This is the face of a person who knows all too well that the police officers ordering him to drop the phone are fully capable of shooting him, for nothing. This is a human who is facing possible death, for no other reason than that he is black and standing somewhere. He’s known it all his life, and he just got reminded of it on Saturday.

White fear of black criminality is created and fed by media, by redlining, by social structure, but it builds on a basic human fear we all have: that someone will reduce us to meat and that we’ll stay that way and that they’ll laugh about it and then we’ll be forgotten, and that was it. When that mugger pointed the gun at me, I heard utter contempt in his voice; he was enjoying his power to make smelly garbage out of all the love my parents have ever invested in me, out of every good thing I’ve ever done or intended. You can hear these things.

I heard them again in the cell phone videos shot last night of white cops calling Ferguson residents “Fucking animals.”

The kid on the right in that photo is afraid someone will make him meat when meat is not what he is. He is a person. And we’ve bent all our technological ingenuity on empowering the people who want to make him meat.

That is the truth of what our society is. It isn’t the truth of what we are, or what we have to be. But it’s what we’re choosing to be right now.

And he knew that truth, I’m willing to bet, when he left the house that night.

And yet, he still left the house that night.

Look at his face again: he is not a person who has yet learned to use the precious male resources of emotional detachment and bravado and “honor” to carry him over the fear of death. He feels every iota of his fear.

And yet, he still left the house that night.

This is a functional definition of courage. This is nobility of soul. This is who should be getting parades.

It takes only seconds to find many examples of white people dismissing what’s happening in Ferguson as an acceptable response to “rioting” or “thuggery.” Any logical content in these reactions can be dismissed in five words: the day after the big game. If you think that, the day after a giant sports loss (or worse, win) gives rise to vandalism and looting by predominantly white crowds, it’s OK to use tear gas and rubber bullets to chase all the white people in Ann Arbor or Columbus back to their homes, just because, well, then you get to make this argument, I guess. You’re welcome to it. You need all the comfort you can have in your lonely, scared universe.

Otherwise, you don’t get to.

But it’s the emotional response that I’m interested in. Because, as I say, I don’t share it, but I get it. I’m afraid of being turned to meat, and I live in a society that has taught me to feel, in defiance of statistics, that black people are especially likely to do so. So here is a suggestion for that part of you, the part that thinks, Well, isn’t that sort of what they get?: think of a time when someone you love was subject to violent street crime by a person of color. (Violent street crime is statistically rarer than most other crimes, e.g., white women are far likelier to be murdered by their white husbands than by a Scaarrrry Black Man: but nevermind that. Most of us still have had some brush with it.) Then think of the next well-intentioned liberal who said to you, of street crime, that it’s an Inevitability, a Cry for Help, a Sign of Agency in Desperate People, etc. You got mad, didn’t you? Whatever the person meant, what you heard was an extension of what that mugger’s tone was saying to me: “You could be meat, and it wouldn’t bother me.” “You could be meat, and it’s probably your fault.” “You could be meat, and you probably should be.”

Now imagine someone hearing that all the time. Not from muggers, but from the police, from pop culture, from senators, from the folks white people actively turn to when this is done to them.

Ask yourself: Do you really want them to hear it from you?

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