When I heard the Ferguson decision, I took on weight. My stomach grew heavy and bloated. My shoulders began to tingle. I went outside to move my car and noticed that I was walking with my back hunched over. I looked at my street and remembered that Michael Brown was shot and killed in his own neighborhood. I rubbed the skin on my arms. It is called brown in some places, black in others. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed an orange light and for a split-second I thought it was a fire. For that same split-second, I wanted to run toward it. Not to put it out or call 911 or do something heroic. Images of riots came to mind. The light was a streetlamp.
When I returned home, gravity tugged hard on my feet. My wife asked me if I was okay. I said I was fine. She asked again and I told her that the Ferguson news had made something feel wrong in my body. She hugged me and suggested that later on we say a few prayers. I hugged her back, grateful for warmth. Regaining myself, I started packing for a Thanksgiving trip.
I checked Facebook and Twitter every few minutes. Articles, paragraphs-long posts, and debates flooded my newsfeed. My friends were using phrases both common and apt: the miscarriage of justice. Institutionalized racism. A broken system.
My fortitude returned as I placed the Ferguson events in their well-established intellectual context. Familiar, even welcome, outrage sturdied my gut. Then, I saw a post accompanied by no links or extensive conversation. It said, “Black Lives Matter… Black Lives Matter… Black Lives Matter…” The back of my eyes swelled with tears.
I crumbled onto my couch with the computer on my lap. I flipped between social media and news outlets. I curled over the screen. President Obama had just spoken. I read the transcript of his statement and my limbs went weak. It was not a good moment for toeing the political line. The death of Tamir Rice was heavy on mind. The well-deserved fall of Bill Cosby had shocked and deeply saddened me. News about blacks in America offered one tragic narrative after another. I was desperate for an act of courage from the halls of power.
Hope, Barack Obama once told us. Respect the grand jury’s decision, he now said.
I texted a friend who I consider a brother. Weeks earlier we concluded the grand jury would not indict. The prosecutor’s behavior, and particularly his leaking of evidence, made his sympathies and the case’s direction clear. He was prepping the public for disappointment. Yet, on some subconscious level, I still believed there would be an indictment.
How could there not be?
The specific arguments for or against Officer Darren Wilson seemed oddly beside the point. The issue was justice — or rather the grand jury’s willingness to let justice be pursued. To me, justice is not merely a set of laws by which we abide. It is a process we undertake when we recognize something more than mere flesh in one another. A spiritual endeavour that begins when we declare that a human body signifies the existence of a human being. A being complete with thought and intention and emotion just as real as our own. And as such, the things done by and done to that body — that person — can be weighed in terms of right or wrong, fair or unfair, against the law or within it. If giving a verdict fulfills the promise of justice, it also upholds the basic humanity of those pursuing its course. It states that they deserve fair treatment. That they are fully human. Denying them the pursuit of justice denies that very humanity.
In that light, the grand jury’s decision was far less about Wilson than Michael Brown. Grand juries don’t give verdicts — they opine on whether a verdict will be given at all. The Ferguson decision cut short the pursuit of justice being carried out on Michael Brown’s behalf. It said that he didn’t deserve that pursuit. That, really, he wasn’t quite human.
My brother texted me back with one word: HEATED. He was protesting in New York City and I asked him to please stay safe.
Another friend texted me two words: It’s disgusting. He was right. What we saw in Ferguson wasn’t just a judicial misstep or an isolated bad decision. It was the wholesale denial of personhood to an eighteen-year-old boy.
My stomach twisted.
My brother texted again: Wilson said ‘Brown looked like a demon.’ A demon. Wow.
My skin came alive.
I looked at pictures and videos of protesters from across the country. I saw them march and shout and sing in a night more starved for light than most. I saw them pour onto streets, indignation on their faces. Here, I thought, is our nation’s moral nervous system, shaking with rage and beset by shock. Here it is, awakened and set alight, determined to proclaim that Michael Brown was a human being. That so was Tamir Rice. That their lungs drew breath far too few times. That those bodies had beating hearts inside of them. That black men have souls that soar and stumble and search. That black flesh is as miraculous and flawed as any color tissue on the face of the earth. That black pain is real. That black is human. That black lives matter.
Black lives matter.
Black lives matter.
Black lives matter.
Editors note: This piece is a departure from our usual policy for Opeds. We thank the author for sharing his feelings with us and our reader base in such an honest way. We believe that this lays the foundation for inclusive, honest and thoughtful dialogue.