Honoring the Anger in Ferguson

I have no idea where this is going.  I don’t have an agenda or an outline thought through in my head as I write this.  This isn’t going to be one of those “10 things you can do” lists about Ferguson or about police violence, because I don’t think my head is that clear at the moment.  I have nothing new or smart to add, as there’s already been plenty of incredibly smart discussion about this topic, from what white allies can do to support, to why the police is so militarized, why Obama has failed us, and many other important angles.

I feel like I need to do a brain-dump about all that’s been happening with Ferguson, with Michael Brown, and with justice in America – for myself more than anything – because I’m going crazy thinking about it.

My Facebook wall is filled with posts about Ferguson and about Michael Brown.  I’ve obviously been following the story like everyone else, but I’ve really had trouble making sense of my emotions this time around.  It just feels like….. too much.  I’m grateful that my 20-month old nephew is visiting from out of town, and that his ridiculously adorable smile keeps my mind sane for the time being.

In some strange way, I don’t even think it’s the shooting itself that’s been so hard to deal with.  And that’s a sad thing to say, and speaks to the state of “justice” in america.  Police killings are just too common (an unarmed black man is killed every 28 hours, according to MXGM) these days.  While each killing is a travesty, it’s more the response to this particular killing that has me all messed up.

I find myself getting incensed when leaders call for “calm.”  People know I’m a nonviolence trainer, and I’ve written plenty in the past about where I stand on things like property destruction and violent protests.  But there seems to be something so condescending and patronizing in those statements for calm.  There is not an acknowledgment of, or an honoring of the pain that is behind the anger that is driving people to, well, not be so fucking calm.

And there is nothing more painful, nothing more incensing and nothing more dehumanizing than having your pain invalidated.

Early on in the protests, NAACP President Cornell William Brooks said that, “to sneak around under the cover of darkness, to steal, to loot, to burn down your neighborhood – this does not require courage.  Courage is when you strive for justice. ……. Martin Luther King did not live and die so that we may steal and lie in the middle of the night.”

As a committed advocate for nonviolence and as someone who considers myself a student of King, you may think I would agree with that statement.  But I can’t.

It’s not that I disagree, necessarily.  But I cannot support a tone that to me does not honor the righteous indignation that is driving people into the streets of Ferguson.  I do not support the looting, I do not support the Molotov cocktails, I do not support burning local businesses.  But tonight, as I write this, I cannot and will not demonize and write-off the people of Ferguson for expressing their rage.

Peace is not calm.  Peace is messy.  Justice is not neat.  Justice is loud. 

Dr. King once said that a “riot is the voice of the unheard.”  And that is exactly what the uprising in Ferguson is.  It is the voices of people who have felt unheard for generations, who have had their pain invalidated for hundreds of years.  It is the pain of a people who have faced 500 years of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, red-lining and police violence.  You really think that amount of pain is going to come out “calm?”

This is not about anger, in the same way that I get angry when I get a parking ticket.  People aren’t taking to the streets because they’re angry about one isolated incident here.  This is about righteous indignation over generations of injustice.  RIGHTEOUS because it is right to be angry with another unarmed black man being killed by law enforcement.  INDIGNATION because it is driven by a desire for justice.

Back in 1963, a group of white clergy wrote a public letter to Dr. King, who at the time was leading mass demonstrations in Birmingham.  From his jail-cell, he penned the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he responded to the criticism of being “untimely” with his protests.

Part of his response reads, Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”  But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

I am Japanese.  I will never know what it feels like to fear for my life simply because I was pulled over.  And yet, knowing the history of institutionalized racism in this country, understanding that the ongoing legacy plays out in the form of mass incarceration and police killings, it pains me every time someone brushes off the legitimate pain and anger that exists in Ferguson right now.

The Lt. Governor or MO is calling for another curfew, because according to him we have an “Anglo-American” justice system that gives everyone liberty.  So people should stop taking to the streets and go home.  This is reminiscent of what the white clergy were telling King.

A CNN anchor asked on air why police aren’t using water canons, not even realizing the painful history she is bringing up with that statement.

A news anchor claimed that “those who have a vested interest in what happens in Ferguson are in home in bed,” as if the young people who are staying out in the streets all night have no vested interest in justice in this country.

A Fox News reporter got chewed out by a protester (rightfully so) for calling the protests “child’s play.”

And the town of Ferguson just hired an all-white PR firm to handle its media relations.  That should help.

As a trainer and practitioner of nonviolence, I do not condone any violence.  AND – I can’t help but want to cry, scream,  be out in the streets with the people of Ferguson.  If we can’t honor that anger, regardless of how it’s being displayed, we will never have “peace” in our society.

I have my concerns about the movement.  I have been to too many angry protests and rallies that don’t bring about any concrete change, and I want to know when things are going to start to change.  Rallies and protests alone will not do that.  Screaming “justice” will not bring us that.  We need to articulate what justice actually looks like, develop a strategy to get us there, and have the discipline to follow through until it comes.

And as critical as I have been in the past about some protest movements, I cannot find it in my heart to criticize those who are out in the streets of Ferguson.  Yes, I want more long-term strategy.  Yes, I want to see tangible change.  AND, sometimes people just need a space to vent.

It’s what is beneath the immediate hurt and anger that will ultimately bring about change.  Love for our people, a vision for tomorrow, a commitment to justice, a desire for peace, a movement towards a reconciled, Beloved Community.  But the emotions are so raw right now that people simply need a place to release.  And the more the “powers that be,” whether that be President Obama, the Ferguson police or civil rights “leaders” undermine the anger of the protesters, the deeper it’s going to get buried.

There is a difference between being in pain and honoring pain.  Being in pain sucks, it hurts, and it doesn’t always help.  It’s when our pain is acknowledged and honored that it can begin to heal, so we can move forward to a more constructive place.

The protesters in Ferguson are showing their pain and anger right now, and I can’t help but feel that it is not being heard by America.  And I guess that’s my main point in writing this.  I feel strongly that we, as a nation, needs to see, hear, and honor what is being poured out into the streets without judgment.  This anger is what is real.  This anger, this indignation, is real, it is righteous, it is what should be expected after 500 years of injustice.

I’m totally rambling now so I will stop with this.

Ferguson: I see you.

RIP to Michael Brown.




  1. charlie says

    thank you for this.. i’m from Missouri, just outside of this area but currently living in San Francisco.. i’ve never felt so far from home and wished to be there more than i do right now. i can’t tell you how many times i’ve felt the same way as you’ve expressed without being able to put it into words. thank you


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