It has been almost a month since Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. His still and bloodied body lay in the street for four hours as a silent reminder to residents and the nation that this is what it means to be black in the US. The violent police response to the protests and the media coverage of those events further highlight the disparities between indignant white people and outraged people of color. Taken together, and in conjunction with the recent murder of Eric Garner, the murder of Trayvon Martin, and a long history of police and vigilante violence against black bodies, these events are simply the flash in the pan that suggests a much more subtle, and long-standing systemic violence against people of color and otherwise marginalized groups. In that sense, all people of color in the US are victims* of Ferguson.
I want to make a claim, though, and I realize it is a controversial one, but I think it is important to make nonetheless. Bear with me as I tread lightly and try to explain what I mean.
My claim is this: Darren Wilson is also a victim of Ferguson. Now let me be clear, I say this not to justify his actions or to ask for sympathy towards him, and I, of course, am not suggesting that he has been falsely or wrongly accused of the crime that he has committed. I say it to, hopefully, make us all reflect on what Ferguson means for us all – people of all colors, socio-economic statuses, levels of privilege, genders, etc.
It is easy for people from my ideological perspective to see Darren Wilson simply as a villain who deserves to be punished for his crime. I certainly believe he does deserve punishment, however, I also see a person with a family and a life, trying to get by. That doesn’t justify his actions. It doesn’t mean we have to sympathize with him after what he did. It certainly doesn’t mean he should get off or get a light sentence. Michael Brown also had a family, also had a life, and was trying to get by – he doesn’t have that chance anymore, thanks to the actions of Darren Wilson. Michael Brown should not have been killed that day. He should not have been left in the street for hours. The protests and the police violence should not have happened. In a just world, none of it would have happened. Michael Brown would still be alive and off to his first semester at college, and Darren Wilson – who knows where he would be, but probably not sitting around in an undisclosed location waiting to find out if he was going to jail.
What brought us to this? Choices, certainly. Darren Wilson could have chosen not to kill Michael Brown on that day, and that is why he deserves whatever punishment is coming for him. But there is more to it. There are factors underlying those choices that – in those fateful moments – were beyond the control of either of the two men. To the extent that Ferguson is indicative of an underlying systemic inequality and violence – a social system in which black lives don’t matter – Darren Wilson is also a victim of Ferguson, and it is as such that he chose to kill Michael Brown that day.
Once again, I say this not to ask for sympathy for the man, and I certainly don’t want to trivialize the pain and suffering that has been inflicted on these black men and their families, nor the everyday challenges that are faced by people of color throughout the US. I say it to encourage us all to reflect on the way that Ferguson and the injustice and inequality that made it possible affect us. As long as we live in a system in which certain people are marginalized, kept down, and made killable, we are all victims. Even if we might benefit from such a system – and many of us do – we are still victims because our lives are impoverished by it. In that sense, we are all victims of Ferguson, and it is for this reason that – no matter our skin color, beliefs, gender, socio-economic status, position, or whatever – we all should join the struggle for justice, peace, and sustainability.
* I think it is important to note too, that people of color are more than just victims. They are, in fact, strong, proud, and good people who face this violent system with courage. Just because they are victims in the sense of being victimized doesn’t mean that they are victims in the sense of being passively abused.