I don’t remember any three weeks in history infiltrating my psychotherapy office the way August 9 through August 29, 2014 have. Each client who came in to talk about the internal angst and the external circumstances of his or her own life, talked also about the shooting of Michael Brown, the unrest in Ferguson, the speculation, the witnesses, the national media’s fixation and national civil rights leaders opportunism. They also talked about the suicide of Robin Williams, and while these two events would seemingly have little do with one another, they presented macro and micro examples of a world void of positive choices in the face of insurmountable despair.
It would be easy to categorize this as a “what’s it all about?” moment in time, but there is nothing easy here. It’s not even much of a teachable moment. It is a sad and angry moment and to attempt to expand it into something larger is to lose sight of the extraordinary grief we feel.
Early on when the looting and destruction had taken place, someone asked me, “Why people would do that to their own community?” The person who asked me happened to be an individual with a history of self-harm and suicidal ideations. I considered my answer carefully for the sake of the individual, but also answered from a global, social justice perspective. This type of question has arisen during many conferences, workshops, trainings and classes at which I have presented. In those venues the comments are barely more subtle: I don’t understand why someone on food stamps would spend $200.00 on tennis shoes. That music is so loud and the lyrics are filthy. No wonder there are no grocery stores. No one takes care of their yards up there. What do you do when someone calls you a racist? Why should I apologize? I’m not a racist.
Why would people do that to their own community? Risky, but I answered. “You know how you feel when everything seems overwhelming and you try to ask for help but no one hears you or takes you seriously? They don’t see things the way you do? Many days the only thing you know to do is to hurt yourself because hurting anyone else is not an option? Some days, you even feel like destroying yourself because you feel like no one cares. I see a community of people who feel similar to how you feel.”
Then Robin Williams died. I am (sadly) seldom surprised by much. I have lived a life which has been full of love, sorrow, dramatic interludes, and passive abandonments. I am a social introvert who was never too shy to take a risk. I learned my profession by the seat of my pants and I honed my art while drawing fire. I did not see Robin Williams’ suicide coming and because of that, I was both relieved to find I was not entirely jaded and grief stricken at the loss of someone – not that I grew up with – but grew older with. Robin was the best and worst of my generation. Too much too fast, watching peer after peer disintegrate or implode, turning away from substances in search of something substantial. He fought the good fight on behalf of those less fortunate. We may never know the reason he took his life, but we may speculate that he was tired and sad and angry. Maybe Parkinson’s disease, with its slow neurological decline felt like one fight too many for the sharp-witted and physically frenzied comic. Perhaps he was scared of something that felt big, dark, and unknown to him.
It would be easy to label the white police officer who shot Michael Brown as a racist cop who did not value the life of a young man who dared to walk in the middle of the street, the perfect metaphor for living between worlds in America as many African Americans must do. However, I don’t know that the label truly explains the complicated issues of white privilege and repressed fear of the Other.
I speculate that Darren Wilson did not expect Michael Brown to do anything but comply with his order to get out of the street. When his authority was challenged – maybe by nothing more than a look – I speculate that he panicked. Michael was a large, dark skinned young man. Darren Wilson was not. Deep within, a primal fear may have taken over. This primal fear of the unknown runs amuck within us all and it fuels our hatred, blame, and behavior. Shooting Michael Brown multiple times may not have seemed like excessive force to Darren Wilson. He may have felt his life was in jeopardy. Foolish, thoughtless, man. Did he learn nothing from the aggregate dismissal of the Jennings police force?
I recently wrote about the killing of Trayvon Martin and theorized that narcissistic altruism played a part in George Zimmerman’s actions as well as his acquittal. Similarly, Darren Wilson may have thought he was doing his duty as a police officer when he stopped and subsequently halted the ramble of Michael Brown. What neither man considered was whether either teen had the right to be where he was at the time. George and Darren decided Trayvon and Michael did not belong on the street of his own neighborhood.
Ferguson has become the latest nomenclature for the racial divide in America. The nation has claimed it, hoping perhaps for another chance to get it right because we certainly didn’t get it right for Trayvon. Racism and social injustice is a progressive, degenerative disease that claims lives daily because we have yet to find a cure. There are remedies and treatments to make us feel better about ourselves, but until we unearth the complicated cause and acknowledge our base fears of extinction, we risk destruction by our own hands.