I really am trying to figure out how to say what I have to say about the Michael Brown case in the most Jewish way possible, without resorting to malicious speech against people I know, without doing anything else with my words that might harm. I realize that past articles of mine have tiptoed way too close to that fine line, but I opted to submit them on the grounds that what I said needed saying for the sake of educating people about things that were way too serious to be ignored, because according to my understanding of the teachings surrounding lashon hara, I was okay and actually doing something good and important with my words.
However, as I look at social media, particularly Facebook, I see people on my friends list saying things that have me so outraged that I need to speak. Still, I’m left wondering if what I have to say may expose their identities and cross the line if they or a mutual friend reads this. I want for this article to be on time for our publication and for our readers and don’t have the time to consult all of Chofetz Chaim. If I do wrong, I hope that I’m forgiven. But, I’m going to try to speak on what’s said and avoid revealing identities of the speakers.
All that said…
I’m seeing people comment that the jury composition and their actions and the overall process were “fair”. I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a professor or student of law. However, I have studied some law, and I obtained my B.A. in sociology and anthropology with an urban studies focus and, later, a Masters degree in clinical social work, which have led me to work in very impoverished communities in Philadelphia and also in Harlem and the Bronx. I do also know enough to be able to say that a jury composed of nine Caucasians and only three African-Americans, while representative of the state of Missouri (according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s demographic statistics for Missouri from 2013), is not, by a long shot, representative for the city of Ferguson. Missouri is also an extremely segregated, racism-laden state. I’ve been there, and even as a white woman, I found my experience there chilling. So, what that jury’s composition also represented in its composition was the institutionalized racism that extremely few other parts of the country come close to surpassing. Justice was doomed from the start.
I went to St. Louis, Missouri (a mere 12 miles away from Ferguson, where the shooting of Michael Brown occurred) for a school community service project in 1992 while attending college in Indiana. Some classmates and I had read the book Savage Inequalities: Children In America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol and learned about the shockingly run down condition of the schools and housing in neighboring East St. Louis, Illinois. We planned to visit East St. Louis to see things for ourselves, meet with community leaders, and learn how we could help. (We ended up realizing that the community was in such a shambles economically that they most needed divine intervention or a historic figure to lead a revolt, not anything that a bunch of college students could do.) There were roughly a dozen of us. Our faculty leader was a white minister associated with the United Church of Christ who arranged for us to stay at the church where he once served, right over the bridge from East St. Louis, in a very impoverished neighborhood of nearly all African-Americans. Aside from our faculty leader, only three of us were white. I’m not sure what the ethnic background of the other white girl was, but I and the white guy both had working class Irish American stock in common. All of us were majoring in Sociology and/or African/African-American Studies.
While we were hanging out on the street outside of the church, some local kids came up to us and asked where we were from and struck up some conversation with us. We explained what we were doing. One of them sadly hung his head. We asked what was wrong. He replied, “I was hoping you were moving here. Nobody ever moves to the ghetto.”
As we drove around East St. Louis, we learned that nobody was hiring at that time, despite Monsanto’s chief operations being in its tax-shelter town right next door, for any local residents except for a new riverboat casino. In neighboring St. Louis, the hiring prospects were no better, at least in the poorer sections of the city and state, where the populations were close to predominantly African-American, but still very heavily segregated. Little of that has changed since my visit.
Consider that people of color according to national statistics still earn way less than white people for the same kind of work in this country (see here). Also consider that in Ferguson, where the majority of the population is people of color, the median household income, according to the 2013 Census, came in at only $36,121, while for the state of Missouri, which is predominantly Caucasian in composition, overall it was $45,321 (see here). Nationally, it was $51,939 (see here). The numbers don’t indicate to me that much has changed in terms of economic improvement between 1992 and now in Missouri, let alone for people of color in that state (keep in mind that Ferguson’s population is 64.9% African-American according to previously cited statistics, and in St. Louis, the figure is closer to half the population, according to the most recent census). A study out of the Manhattan Institute For Policy Research in 2012 states that Kansas City has steadily continued to be one of America’s most segregated cities since 1970 (here). According to that same study, of the most heavily populated cities in the country, St. Louis is the third most segregated city in the country, trailing only behind Detroit and Chicago.
When I visited St. Louis, my friends and I went out for fun to a major shopping mall and to walk around town one night. People deliberately dodged our group left and right as we walked around. It was clear that white people didn’t want to be near us in some restaurants. We wanted to see a movie at the mall. There were no signs saying so, but it was understood that one movie theater was where people of color were welcome and the other was where they were not welcome. (Guess which theater was the one running “Friday”, the movie we all wanted to see that night.) As we all got into the van to ride back to the church for the night, a car full of white kids cut our van off. They twisted their baseball caps around, laughed, and mouthed some stuff that I couldn’t make out (which was probably a good thing). One of the guys in our group unbuckled his seatbelt and got out of the van. A collective “oh, man” echoed out as we all strained to see what would happen next. Our friend calmly walked over to the car, tapped on one of the windows until the suddenly-not-so-brazen passengers rolled it down, and words were exchanged. The window rolled back up, and our friend quietly and calmly returned to his seat. As traffic started to move again, we were allowed to pass through without any further problems. That comes in second to seeing a Monsanto employee raking steaming toxic waste into soil while wearing a moonsuit, across the street from a poor black man gardening with his shirt off, in East St. Louis as the most unforgettable and nauseating incident during my little school trip. The abject poverty and overt racism that I was exposed to on that visit was beyond the pale economically, environmentally, and socially. It ripped at me so much emotionally that I still cry and feel rage when I think about it.
I’ve tried my best here to explain, through numbers and personal observation, why a nine white/three black grand jury with a notoriously pro-police prosecutor could never, ever deliver a just verdict or sentencing in this case. Even though demographically and by-the-book, things should have been “fair”, there was never any hope that a decision could have truly been fair or just for Michael Brown or his family. Our only hope for justice lies now with whatever comes from the federal investigation and/or from actual policy change on the federal level. (I’m not holding my breath for any policy changes at the state level in Missouri; forget about policy changes in Ferguson. Honestly, I’m not expecting for Congress to do anything, either, but if change to prevent this kind of travesty from happening again were to occur, it seems clear to me that it would have to happen due to an order or ruling of some sort from inside the Beltway, not from the Rust Belt.)
I’m hoping that what I’ve said will also make it clear why I’m unfollowing or unfriending anyone on social media who might degrade the residents of Ferguson verbally for protesting or doing anything that would be violent and beyond simple protest. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t condone violence there any more so than Brown’s parents have. Yes, looting and burning cars is a bad thing (duh), but calling the perpetrators “animals” or ranting about them never having a job in their lives (how do you know that, anyway??) is appalling and unacceptable. It IS racist and classist. Nobody ever said those things about the white rioters after the Superbowl in Seattle, including and especially the specific individuals who have prompted me to write this very paragraph; I rest my case. (By the way: the fact that I’m seeing some people in the helping professions speak in such ways really terrifies me. To my colleagues: Watch how you talk online. Consider getting counseling or finding new work if you’re this burned out. Please stop embarrassing the rest of us; it’s bad enough that everyone else thinks we’re just out to take their kids away even if we don’t work for child protective services. I’m leaving it at that. For now…)
I’m going to wrap this up with some Torah, a passage from the parashah Shoftim (16:18-20), just to remind us of our duty as Jews regarding social justice and the legal system. We shouldn’t reflect on the importance of this parashah only when it comes around in the late summer.
“You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you.”
We as Jews have a massive responsibility to follow this and all matters of social justice in our nation closely and to be sure that all people, our people and others included, are treated with equality, dignity, and fairness — not simply by the books, but in a way that overcomes the institutionalized racism that exists in places like Ferguson, Missouri. We should be outraged by this perversion of justice and showing of favoritism and speak out in a peaceful but amplified fashion as Jews. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue. Memorize it, let it penetrate your heart and soul, and live it out in all that you do. All people should be following this command. But we especially have this responsibility as a light unto the nations. Don’t fall asleep at the helm. G-d is watching.
Gavriela hails originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but now resides in Forest Hills, New York. She has a Masters degree in clinical social work from Temple University and is a dedicated volunteer in the animal rescue community. Gavriela is a major science geek and finds that her love of science strengthens her belief in G-d and vice versa, contrary to what others might expect.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.