Imagine you’re driving down the highway and a horrible clanging noise starts coming from beneath the hood of your car. You quickly pull over at the nearest repair shop and ask the mechanic to fix the problem. After poking around for a little while, the mechanic disappears inside the shop and emerges with a huge wad of foam padding, which he stuffs around the engine before closing the hood. “That should sound better,” he says.
Would that make you feel safer? If you're like me, the answer is no. Sure, the guy’s fixed the sound—the symptom of the problem—but the cause, the thing that’s making the noise in the first place—that’s left unaddressed. For all you know, your engine could still explode in a deadly fireball at any moment.
This is precisely the issue at the center of much of the controversy surrounding Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri. So much of the debate we see online and on TV concerns the immediate details of the case: Did Brown try to grab the policeman’s gun? Did he have his hands up in surrender? Was he running away from him or charging toward him? Did he, minutes before, steal some cigarillos from a local store?
None of this matters, and anyone debating these details is missing the point.
From a larger perspective, the critical points are already beyond dispute. An unarmed black man was killed by a police officer. That alone is enough to make this situation unacceptable.
Policemen have an extremely difficult job. They inarguably risk their own lives in their normal line of work, and are often asked to make incredibly quick decisions concerning the safety and wellbeing both of citizens and themselves. I myself have pretty bad reflexes and get nervous telling people what to do, so I would probably end up killing someone accidentally within my first six months on the job.
But this is not the point. Whether the policeman in question, Darren Wilson, should get indicted or not depends on the details of the case and should be left to a grand jury. Whatever the outcome of that case, though, nothing changes the fact that we live in a country where black men are routinely killed, on purpose or by accident, by other white or black men.
Forget the rest: that’s the part that’s fucked up. That’s the part that people in Ferguson have been rioting about. That’s the part that is going to take more than a criminal conviction, or a speech, or a new policy implementation, to fix.
Michael Brown’s death, though tragic, is a symptom, not a cause, of the defining issue in American domestic politics. Other phenomena that we observe around us are, similarly, symptoms, not causes. The process of gentrification, for example, where all too often well-established black families get pushed from their homes and are forced to move to more distant, decrepit neighborhoods—that’s another symptom. Gentrification isn’t what’s messing up the system; it’s what a messed up system looks like.
We need to stop wasting our time and attention trying to Band-Aid the byproducts of an ailing system and start combating its origins. At the root of the problem lies a fundamental inability to engage in productive dialogue on issues of race and class. Because of this fact, emotional energy that could be invested in positive and constructive projects gets stifled and repressed, only to be released in the form of violence and destruction like that seen in Ferguson in recent days.
You wouldn’t treat the flu by sticking cotton balls up your nose. Nor should we attempt to redress our deepest structural grievances by calling for people’s head. By taking the time to reflect genuinely, openly, and honestly, about each of our own complicit responsibility in the conditions that ultimately lead to tragic deaths such as those of Michael Brown, we can begin to identify and then slowly mend the problems that lie under the hood.