Our Lives | BLACK EYE

A world away from Ferguson but feeling the flames

by Baye McNeil

When America received the news — the reminder that some of its darker-hued citizens are in deadly jeopardy when interacting with officers paid to protect them — I was sipping coffee, buttering toast, safe in my quiet hamlet in Yokohama. I decided I would put off scanning any Internet news outlets for a few more minutes.

A day earlier the media had warned that it was coming, this decision, this confirmation of the value placed on a young man’s life. I just didn’t want to hear it. Not again. Not yet. Not before breakfast, anyway.

I am so very far, in every way imaginable, from the daily reality of a community with a high mortality rate. I can go an entire day and see nothing that poses a threat to me — nothing more provocative than, say, some silly Japanese guy throwing himself between his girlfriend and me in an unnecessary act of . . . whatever, chivalry or something — knowing full well that if I had a son and raised him here, similarly subtle micro-nonsense would likely be the worst strain of dehumanization my boy’d ever experience. He’d probably never be harmed by a cop, or told by the society at large, pointedly or unwittingly, that when his ilk are slain it’s likely justified. He’d be slightly scarred by pervasive foolishness, but he’d survive!

For those few minutes before I surfed the Net, I could tell myself — no, fool myself — that maybe what I had learned about the Michael Brown case over the past few months was enough to at least get this case tried before a judge and a jury of people from that community. I’d come to know that the young man was unarmed, that eyewitnesses said his hands were up in the air, that the majority-white police force in Ferguson had disproportionately harassed and arrested the people of the majority-black community of Ferguson for years — not to mention law enforcement’s behavior following this incident, which could best be described as resembling that of a militarized police state.

I dared to ponder the possibility that the Missouri grand jury — knowing that this case had come to be emblematic of the racial disparities and intrinsic shortcomings in the U.S. criminal justice system, and that the nation was watching this case carefully — might do the right thing and serve the needs of a community, and a nation, hemorrhaging from hypocrisy and injustice. I dared to dream that their long deliberation over the evidence and eyewitness testimonies might yield something other than it usually has over the course of my life, namely a validation of the crime and the exoneration of the police officers involved.

And while these jurors deliberated, the nation waited with bated breath and fingers crossed — well, some did, anyway. Others waited with fingers clasped in prayer, some with ink-smudged fingers from writing placards screaming, “No justice, no peace!” Some, fingers reeking of kerosene, made Molotov cocktails while they waited; some sticky-fingered felons waited with visions of loot in their minds; some race-riot fetishists sat fingering remote controls with one hand, popcorn in the other, waiting for the resulting fireworks, the predictable police response to urban unrest — the inner-city version of a “shock and awe” campaign — to commence and light up their TV screens like Operation Iraqi Freedom (or whatever the hell George W. Bush called it).

That’s because their eventual decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson, a “no true bill” in legal parlance, would come as “no surprise” to anyone: Everybody knew what was coming.

After I scarfed down my toast and guzzled my coffee, I caved in and booted up the PC. And, despite myself, despite all my years of experience with this kind of sordid thing, having seen officer after officer go unindicted for killing unarmed black people my entire life, I found that somewhere in my heart still resided the audacity of hope and enough naivete to be shocked, to be caught off-guard by this verdict.

I bellowed a curse so filled with rage, betrayal and righteous indignation that it shocked even me, and I’m sure my Japanese neighbors are still talking about it.

I went to work as usual. I went through an entire day without a single person mentioning that my country was on fire. Of course, they knew; I mean, it’s not like NHK failed to report the story, to show video of Americans — black Americans — running amok, looting stores and burning cars, angry over the killing of a thug who assaulted a cop or some such senselessness. They’d never let an opportunity like that slip. That’s the kind of news that’s makes people feel better about themselves.

But what could my co-workers say, anyway? Should they say, “I’m so sorry the people of your country haven’t learned to love and respect one another, but we understand: It must be difficult with all those different races, classes, cultures and guns all over the place, ne.” or, “You’re lucky you’re here with us, ne? Safe and sound, ne!”? Nah. That might not come out right, and they’d likely be afraid of offending me. Might sound like criticism of the broken nation from which I hail. It would have been interesting, though, if they had said something audacious like, “Why do black Americans riot and burn down their own communities when cops kill black people?” That would have sparked an interesting conversation, I think.

But they didn’t. Not a hint of anything. Maybe they don’t even associate me with America as much as they used to, I’ve been working by their side so long.

But I do.

I wanted to talk this through with someone but there was no one who’d “get it” in the vicinity. I wanted to hear voices that have something to say, capable of speaking to the magnitude of this crime against humanity, but the only voice I heard was my own, speaking to people who understood my language but didn’t understand me, who understood my words but didn’t understand their significance.

I wanted to cry but my tears would’ve felt wasted, like a fuel leak — energy I’d sooner use to empower than to mourn, to rebuild than to destroy. I wanted to burn cars, smash things, hurt people, too. But I’ve never done that. I’ve only ever marched, one among thousands, with placards held high, and head held high, and voice raised high to a power on high, demanding, insisting, begging, pleading, praying, crying for justice! Unheard, unheeded, unacknowledged, unloved. All the while decorum threatened to come undone, thoughts unhinged, feelings uncontrolled, actions unrestrained, inhibitions liberated, despair unleashed — a riot of the soul.

Injustice was victorious once again, as far as I’m concerned. America has reiterated its approximate value of a black boy’s life, of a black man’s life — of this man’s life. My brothers are dying, my sisters are wailing, my community is aflame and I can see the sparks leaping into the air from here.

I’ve never felt so abroad as I do today.

Black Eye usually appears in print on the third Thursday of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books and writes the Loco in Yokohama blog. See www.bayemcneil.com. Your comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

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