Ferguson on My Mind

Outside my house, two young African-American boys, maybe 9 or 10, scoot by on skateboards. One is carrying something on a leaf and stops to show me a giant slug. We chat about it a bit; I tell him that I looked up what kind of slug that was recently but now don’t remember.

He tells me the other boy had tried to run over it but he saved it. I give him a smile and thumbs up, not because I have any strong feelings about saving slugs’ lives, but because of the compassionate impulse behind it. He zooms off. A few minutes later the other boy comes back, looking concerned and says “You wanted me?”

“No,” I said, confused.

“You said you wanted me?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Well, my cousin says you said if I run over any more bugs you’ll call the cops on me.”

This happened a week or so into the martial law in Ferguson, Mo., and so I found it particularly hard not to grab him and just hug him tight, though I didn’t know him from Adam.

But instead, I just said, “Oh my god, sweetie, I would never call the cops on you,” and he took off.

In a better world that exact exchange would still have happened—kids make stuff up like that. It’s their way of figuring out the world, what’s reality, how they can interact with it. But it wouldn’t have hurt to hear in the same way, because pictures of murdered and imprisoned children wouldn’t have immediately flashed in front of my eyes. Because I would have also been able to say things like, “No one will call the cops on you unless you commit a crime,” and “Don’t worry, the cops are here to protect us from real danger, not enforce a random white lady’s idea of how people should behave.”

But this is the country we are living in: one where I couldn’t really say those things. A country in which a recent study found that white female college students tend to over-estimate the age of black boys over the age of 9 by an average of 4.5 years (but accurately identify white boys’ ages), and consider them more culpable when accused of the same infractions.

My exchange with the young cousins was also only a few days after my partner had lost her wallet. 

Whoever found it had taken the debit cards to the grocery and spent a few hundred dollars before the fraud folks were on to them and we canceled the cards.

At that point she held a lengthy social media conversation among friends about whether or not to file an official police report. On the one hand, it’s required to defend yourself against possible later identity theft—a big deal. On the other hand, the chances that someone who would take a found debit card into the local grocery store is someone whom the current legal system would not treat well—to put it mildly—if they got their hands on them is, shall we say, high. We know too much about what involvement in the current punitive and discriminatory system does to someone’s future chances to be sanguine about sending someone into it, especially for petty theft.

It was startling to me how surprising this thought was to so many people, who were at great pains to emphasize the wrongness of the theft. But that was never in dispute. We weren’t trying to naively imagine this person into a Robin Hood.

What we were weighing was whether the likely response if the perpetrator were to be caught would be proportional, fair, or at all useful in preventing it from happening again, or whether it would be an opening for far greater wrongs than we suffered. The answer seemed likely to be the latter. I think it was a moral imperative for us to at least weigh the likely outcomes with the whole context in mind.

The conversation reminded me a little of the flip side of so many people’s need to emphasize the fact that Michael Brown was college-bound in discussing the awfulness of his murder. Let me say this: if the person who had taken my partner’s wallet had been killed by police while unarmed and fleeing or surrendering it would have been just as bad. People don’t just deserve to have their lives considered valuable only when they are squeaky clean, college bound, and meek and unfailingly polite in the face of hostility and antagonism.

All lives matter. Black lives matter. Moving past learned fear to act like all lives matter, matters.

(I first published the above as a column in my local paper. I wanted to share it here too, because I think it's relevant to many Shelterforce readers, and the contexts in which you work.)

(Photo by Blue Skyz Studios, CC BY-NC-ND.)

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


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