Speak to the Rock

When Moses was leading the Children of Israel through the wilderness for forty years, toward the end of that time, they came upon a period when there was no water. The people complained bitterly, as people everywhere do, so much so that God told Moses to do something about it. He told him to go to a certain rock and speak to it, telling it to bring forth water. Now, you see, many years before Moses had been through a similar situation with the people and the lack of water. That time he struck the rock with his staff and it brought forth water. This time God had expressly told Moses, however, to speak to the rock. In the midst of the situation, with the people complaining about everything that went on, Moses got mad and struck the rock instead. In turn God became angry with Moses and told him that as punishment he would now not enter the promised land. God wanted Moses to show the people something about faith.

There is something going on right now, August 2014, that I feel needs talking about. Like Moses I feel ahead of time that even bringing up the topic of it is likely to incite the various rafts of complaint and take the discussion away from me. For this reason I am tempted to let the thing run its course without saying anything. If I had a magic stick, and it was my job to fix it, I might be tempted to strike the situation as well rather than speak to it.

The thing that is going on that I feel needs discussion, in a time of many things going on, is the crisis over a young unarmed black man’s death at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson Missouri. Last weekend a young black man, Michael Brown, who had only recently graduated from high school was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson. According to Fox News it happened like this:

“Police have said Brown was shot after an officer encountered him and another man on the street. They say one of the men pushed the officer into his squad car, then physically assaulted him in the vehicle and struggled with the officer over the officer’s weapon. At least one shot was fired inside the car. The struggle then spilled onto the street, where Brown was shot multiple times.

“The officer involved was injured, with one side of his face swollen, Jackson said.

“Dorian Johnson, who says he was with Brown when the shooting happened, has told a much different story. He has told reporters that the officer ordered them out of the street, then grabbed his friend’s neck and tried to pull him into the car before brandishing his weapon and firing. He says Brown started to run and the officer pursued him, firing multiple times.

“Johnson and another witness both say Brown was on the street with his hands raised when the officer fired at him repeatedly.”

I’ve heard on the radio that what happened was that Brown and Johnson were walking in the middle of a street. The officer came upon them and told them they had to go to the sidewalk. I heard a quote, purportedly from Johnson, to the effect that they were only a minute from their destination and, if the officer had just left them alone they would have gotten there very soon and there would have been no problem.

I am forced to ask myself, as somebody who drives for a living in this world, what were they thinking by walking in the middle of the street? The middle of the street is no place for walking. In my personal experience I have to drive through areas of Denver, where I live, that have a problem with people randomly crossing the streets in the darkness. Often enough some arrogant person will simply propel themselves in front of oncoming traffic in a seeming game having to do with forcing respect for them or attempting to gain some kind of dominance. More often people are just going about doing their thing and walk in front of traffic fixated on that, oblivious to how much danger they place themselves in.

My first question, therefore, is what kind of street were they on when this happened? Was it a cul-de-sac? Was it a little used street? If it was little used why did the officer bother to confront them? Were they walking in the middle of a street that was busy enough to warrant their being approached by a police officer? In spite of what you might think, depending upon how far into the rock you are by now, the middle of the street is not a place for pedestrians unless they are crossing it, not going down the length of it, so their being approached by an officer was not unwarranted. It’s what happened next that we have to wonder about.

Did the officer approach the two of them with vehemence? Did he come along and say something to them that riled them?

There is another part of this story, a part that I have heard on the radio a little bit, but which is quickly being forgotten. According to The Nation,

“The racial disparities that define Ferguson are indeed shocking. More than two-thirds of the town’s residents are black, but almost all of the officials and police officers are white: the mayor and the police chief, five of six city council members, all but one of the members of the school board, fifty of fifty-three police officers.”

As I heard it on the radio, Ferguson’s black people simply do not vote. They get the issues alright, but when it comes to election time they seem too busy to pay attention to them. They also don’t care much for electioneering. Guess what, the people who run Ferguson do seem to have those bases covered.

Isn’t this story a whole lot bigger than the death of one teenager? Isn’t it about apathy and the result it brings when it remains sustained over many years?

Here’s the deal, you see, the officer could do whatever he wanted. He could harass black people until the cows came home, politically. The level of apathy I’ve heard talked about leads to the kind of misrepresentation of people that allows such a situation to flourish. Even pushed, which it appears the residents felt they were before this event, the black community of Ferguson was not going to organize itself politically, or, more importantly, vote. Nobody seems to have been actually holding them down in the most important way that counts, at the ballot box. They seem to have let this situation develop slowly and, when it was upon them, continued to allow it even after they could have corrected it.

It looks to me, as an outsider white guy looking in, that, though there is no proof, a racist cop shot and killed a black teenager, whom he managed to anger to the point of first violence by taunting him. Furthermore, this bad cop was a serial harasser. He had no checks on his behavior because he knew he was not beholden to the population of the city at large. All he needed to worry about was to keep soothing the white fright he felt was exemplified in the high white voter turnout at election time.

The irony of the situation is that just because white people turn out to vote does not mean that they are out to protect their interests and their interests only. They may actually care for their fellow citizens. The officer, however, in acting the bully to assuage a perceived fear, didn’t have to appeal to those better angels of the voter’s nature. All he had to do was to appeal to the entities sitting upon their opposite shoulders. It only takes that kind of confusion to point out the futility of relying upon some other group to look out for you when you should be looking after yourself. Being civic minded, it seems, should extend beyond the ballot box, into the realm of paying attention. In the absence of attention to the world around us our perceptions dictate reality in very important ways that have to do with how we influence each other.

In the true spirit of over-reaction to 911 the officer simply had to appeal to white fear. Once he’d done that all he had to do was to stay consistent. This works because, like all people, white people are complex and they contain many contradictory sides of many arguments. Black people do too. This is what the rock is all about. It is man’s propensity to judge.

This judgment doesn’t need a basis for its existence. It doesn’t need to find balance. It isn’t based in reason. It is based in individual selfishness, in a totally individual sense of right and wrong where a threat to our individual existence or aims, even if only a perceived threat, is a call to action. And this selfishness empowers the group. The complaints we all toss back and forth, helping us identify with each other, feed on this food.

Now you can see why Moses would give up and in anger strike the rock rather than speak to it. At each stage where he was successful in countering and proving false the people’s complaints they did not relent and accept what he had to say. Instead, they found new ways to pounce upon him and newly confront him, accusing him day and night before God.

You can also see how it is that the people of Ferguson are not going to let this go, and it isn’t in the name of Michael Brown. Michael certainly deserves justice, if what happened is what the black community of Ferguson thinks. At this point, though, we don’t know that is what happened. We don’t know that Michael simply didn’t snap, being the one who actually had to endure the world placed upon him. We don’t know that he didn’t temporarily act out of character. It seems what he is most likely to get, instead, is a whole lot of honor as a man he probably never was, because the apathy needs that in order to stay apathetic – avoiding the call to change, and a lot of anger leading to action on his behalf by those who paradoxically, through their apathy, are in no small way responsible for his death in the first place.

The angrier any man gets, the less likely he is to see his own culpability in what he is angry about, and still less likely to do anything about it should he even realize that. Ferguson is not the only place this shows up. It shows up in workplace shootings, vandalism, exploitation of women and countless other things with which the US has problems that it refuses to face. This kind of thinking is certainly not just a racial issue. In these situations everybody has got to be able to participate, or it can lead to trouble.

Think about it like this, only the premium jobs, like being an actor or professional athlete come because of anything special about us. Only in those jobs that come from a person’s innate talent can they rise to some level of arrogance expecting others to cow tow to them. Only very special people like that can walk out into the street, so to speak, and expect the traffic to come to a halt for them. The rest of us are lucky if we try it and it works. All other jobs, jobs for which any person can train and become proficient, require an adherence to a way that things are done in those professions. And change does not occur very fast in the direction of progress when a thing like this is centered around a way of doing things. Agents of better and great change may come and go without affecting anything. It most often takes a lot, let’s say, to change the way that houses are built or that farming is done. There is both social and economic resistance to such things, but once it does occur a person can sometimes play hell trying to catch up if they have learned only the old way.

The black community of Ferguson may be like a job that people do. They may find themselves centered around a way of doing things. Under such circumstances bringing about change, the work required to do that, may be much more difficult than it is to complain. And, as long as they can complain, they can hold onto and communicate the old way.

Is it possible to separate anger from action, to see it as an emotion in the course of thought and not a guiding principle? Can we learn to focus on effective change? Is it possible that we can re-center and re-balance ourselves with a new paradigm in mind, one which recognizes who we are, who we’ve been and, more importantly, who we can become? Can we do that communally? If we can’t, inasmuch as we are really all just like the black community of Ferguson, it will only lead to more significant apathy, more judgment, more excess in the name of judgment, more automatic defensive posturing, more assumptions based upon group thought and labeling,  in short, more of the same.




Since I first posted this the name of the officer involved has been released. We don’t need to repeat it here, but we do need to understand that he doesn’t have a record of abuse. That doesn’t mean that the characterization of his apparent behavior isn’t justified as an initial appraisal, nor as a continuing one at that. We simply don’t know at this point what kind of a man he was at the community level. We do need to keep open the idea that he was telling the truth when he relayed his side of the story. Certainly, his record contains no support for the accusation that he is a racist.

Also, Brown’s reputation has taken a hit. He may have stolen some cigars from a liquor store shortly before his confrontation with the officer. If he did that might speak to his state of mind when the confrontation took place. People have said some pretty good things about him in the community. We have to understand, however, that he may have acted out of character.

Almost the first thing that happened after the theft was known was that rioters attacked and looted the liquor store where the theft took place. This action by the community plays right into what I said about them, they need to participate in their own futures in the spirit of the democracy they live in. They do seem to actively be trying to protect their apathy. It may be good that we have seen a lot of peaceful protesting. It may be good that a lot of attention has been brought to a situation that it seems has been building for decades. Will this result in the black community’s voter turnout increasing, though? Will black or more even-handed candidates be prompted to run for seats? Also, will the white people of Ferguson reach out more and seek to understand the black community? That dialogue is necessary too.

One other thing has not been revealed either, whether Dorian Johnson was with Brown when he allegedly committed the theft. If he was then we have to take his description of what happened during the confrontation with a grain of salt. He might have been in the same wayward state of mind that Brown conceivably was. He might have felt some culpability which he did not want to admit to. If so, even his memories of what he saw may not be accurate. Certainly, he will not have wanted to admit to any wrong doing on his part and might have left out any part of the story that would have made him look bad.

This being said more than Johnson have said that Brown had his hands up when he was shot. I can only ask, in response to this, how soon was it after the initial scuffle that the first shots took place? I can’t knock the officer for the fact that Brown was shot multiple times because I think police officers are trained to shoot in groups of shots and not singly. I ask how long it was because, since I drive for a living even last night I was reminded of something by my fellow denizens of the road, people can do things that they wish they could have taken back, but which once they decide to do it they can’t. What I mean is, last night I saw a few people run red lights. Thinking about this situation it occurred to me that the officer’s shooting of Brown, hands up or no, may have happened under a similar circumstance. He may have decided to shoot (never mind that Brown was fleeing because, should he have intended to come back, he would have been a threat from the outside then – who could come from any direction) well before Brown ever put his hands up and couldn’t stop it even when that took place. Nobody has said how long they saw Brown’s hands up, so I have to conclude this could be the case. I don’t know.

As you can guess, I didn’t write this about Brown really. I wrote it mainly about the community and human nature. What the black community of Ferguson is doing is not very different from what any group of people will do under a lot of different circumstances. They want their own. They don’t recognize that their own has always been within their grasp. They have to have a “come to Jesus” moment to do that, though. Much more than how they are treated their situation depends upon how they act and believe.



So, I was just out taking a walk and it occurred to me that the black community of Ferguson could actually use this time to their advantage, in a political way. I don’t mean getting street cred by getting seen with Al Sharpton, either. I mean they could launch a recall petition to have a recall election. This way they could recall any officers who are in power in Ferguson currently, so that they could appeal to the voters in an election soon after with their own set of candidates.

They wouldn’t have to worry about whom they took out, only to concentrate on the offices that are subject to recall under the rules of that procedure for their own independent offices. The idea is to begin competing for representation immediately. With the level of apathy what it has been, they would probably find that they need to launch a huge voter registration drive.

They might not have nearly the level of trouble finding good candidates as they will trying to get ordinary people to register. It just isn’t sexy to vote. And it takes forethought in making sure you are eligible. That’s not the kind of thinking that does well under a hail of teargas (it won’t feel comfortable anywhere near teargas). It does well, though, in changing the structure of societies.


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