Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the ‘Other America’

I fear for the future of this country.

Jason DeCrow/AP

Growth and progress could be this nation's reward for facing the challenge of our times with courage and a demand for equal justice. The American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the civil-rights movement of the 1960s were moments when the United States could have been torn from its very foundation, but a creative response to this turmoil helped move the nation forward.

At its best, non-violent protest is a strategically engineered crisis designed to wake up a sleeping nation, to educate and sensitize those who become awakened, and to ignite a sense of righteous indignation in people of goodwill to press for transformation. That's what the protests galvanized by the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and others are trying to accomplish.

Many Americans find themselves at a loss to understand the depth of the anger and frustration of the protestors. It might be worthwhile for them to read a speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on April 14, 1967, at Stanford University. A colleague of mine in Congress reminded me of his words, and I find they ring as true today as they did almost 50 years ago.

In the speech, King describes what he calls the "other America," one of two starkly different American experiences that exist side-by-side. One people "experience the opportunity of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all its dimensions," and the other a "daily ugliness" that spoils the purest hopes of the young and old, leaving only "the fatigue of despair." The Brown and Garner cases themselves are not the only focus of the protestors' grievances, but they represent a glimpse of a different America most Americans have found it inconvenient to confront.

One group of people in this country can expect the institutions of government to bend in their favor, no matter that they are supposedly regulated by impartial law. In the other, children, fathers, mothers, uncles, grandfathers, whole families, and many generations are swept up like rubbish by the hard, unforgiving hand of the law.

They are offered no lenience, even for petty offenses, in a system that seems hell-bent on warehousing them by the millions of people, while others escape the consequences of pervasive malfeasance scot-free. Some people rationalize that it was unfortunate, but not altogether disturbing, that Michael Brown was put to death without due process because, after all, he allegedly took some cigarillos from a corner store. But who went to jail for the mortgage fraud that robbed his community and other black communities around the country of 50 percent of their wealth?

Should people accused of stealing be held accountable? Definitely. But the justice system entangles the most vulnerable so effectively that even the innocent often find it easier to just plead guilty. Meanwhile the capable, and sometimes the stealthiest and most damaging, are slapped on the wrist and given a pass.

If Americans are to be honest with themselves, they must admit we may never know what actually happened to Michael Brown because of the unusual way the grand-jury process was conducted by a local prosecutor whose independence was in doubt. They must admit that publishing a selective collection of details online corrupts the integrity of grand-jury deliberations and proceedings meant to be held in confidence. It subverts a judicial process designed to air the arguments of both sides—the victim and the perpetrator—exposing them both to challenge and cross-examination.

Denying any victim of homicide the right to a public trial is a painful outcome, but to distort the process and use it to achieve that goal compounds the tragedy of homicide with robbery. It's no wonder then that even videotaped evidence showing Eric Garner pleading to breathe 11 times would lead to no indictment. It proves the protestors' point—in some courts even the worst offenders can go free as long as they wear a badge.

Don't get me wrong—I work with police everyday. Whenever I see them, I let them know I appreciate their service. The job is difficult, and there are many responsible officers, but does that mean they should avoid scrutiny when they take a human life, especially under questionable circumstances? Isn't that the law they are supposed to defend?

Thousands of people—young and old, black, white, and brown—are speaking to the nation.  They are "dying in" to shake it out of denial. They are saying that American society is blind to hundreds, even thousands of murders perpetrated in its name by agents of governments. They are saying that blood is on the hands of the nation and its people. (Black-on-black crime, or white-on-white crime for that matter, is an important but different discussion, and it does not justify what is done by agents with the presumed consent of society.)

Today's protestors demand that Americans confront several questions as a national community:

Is it all right with them that police kill hundreds of unarmed teens and young men every year without having to account for their actions? Do they mind that a retired veteran who accidentally pressed his medical-alert button is now dead at the hands of police? Or that a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun in a park near his home, a 22-year-old man talking on a cell phone in a Walmart, a 17-year-old walking home from the corner store, an unarmed 23-year-old man attending his own bachelor party shot 50 times, or a 7-year-old girl at home asleep in her bed were all killed by their representatives? One recent study reports that one black man is killed by police or vigilantes in our country every 28 hours, almost one a day.

Doesn't that bother you?

Ever since black men first came to these shores we have been targets of wanton aggression. We have been maimed, drugged, lynched, burned, jailed, enslaved, chained, disfigured, dismembered, drowned, shot, and killed. As a black man, I have to ask why. What is it that drives this carnage? Is it fear? Fear of what? Why is this nation still so willing to suspend the compassion it gives freely to others when the victims are men who are black or brown?

Soon the nation will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day unarmed, nonviolent protestors were brutalized by deputized citizens and Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As a leader of that march, I wonder, if the same attack took place in Ferguson today, would Americans be shocked enough to do anything about it? What has happened to the soul of America that makes citizens more interested in justifying these murders than stopping them?

Dr. King declared in his 1967 speech, "Racism is evil because its ultimate logic leads to genocide .... It is an affirmation," he said, "that the very being of a people is inferior," and therefore unworthy of the same regard as other human life. Do Americans accept the deaths of hundreds and thousands of young men and boys simply because they are black? Ignorance of their day-to-day lives is no excuse for what is done in society’s name.

In the presence of injustice, no one has the right to be silent. Members of government and the business, faith, and even law-enforcement communities must stand up and say enough is enough. Let the young lives of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, John Crawford, and Trayvon Martin serve a higher purpose to shine the light of truth on our democracy and challenge us to meet the demand for equal justice in America.

There is a growing discontent in this country. And if the fires of frustration and discontent continue to grow without redress, I fear for the future of this country. There will not be peace in America. I do not condone violence under any circumstance. It does not lead to lasting change. I do not condone either public rioting or state-sponsored terrorism. "True peace," King would tell us, "is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice."