At times like this, calls for calm are as certain as sunrise. Calm and healing. They go together. They are the peanut butter and jelly of any national trauma.
The pleas for healing and calm started in the days and hours before St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that Darren Wilson would not be indicted by a grand jury in the shooting death of Michael Brown on Monday. The preparations were on par with hurricane season: Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and welcomed the National Guard, Ferguson businesses rolled up their welcome mats, and children were evacuated from schools.
But in this case healing and calm were an early warning sign that the white Ferguson police officer would not be facing any charges in the death of the unarmed black 18-year-old. The expectation was a spiral of protests and police clashes that would eclipse the chaos the unfurled in the weeks following Brown’s death this summer. And late Monday night, as the nation’s cameras turned to Missouri again, Ferguson became the fire this time.
Calm and healing are all about expectations. Those in power expect that black communities can’t be peaceful, or mindful of the tide of emotion that rises from loss. But America once again failed to live up to the expectations of equality and deliberate justice from people of color.
That failure is starting to feel like the norm. It’s difficult to effectively track police shootings in the United States because most departments don’t keep complete reports of officer-involved fatal shootings. But a recent ProPublica analysis of the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report found that black teenagers are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white teenagers.
That jarring, if imperfect, data point tells the story all the same: Black life is cheap, and accountability is a fallacy. By gunpoint and circumstance the families of Brown, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, and Jordan Davis have found themselves in a support group. That circle seems to grow every day as black families are relentlessly crushed under the weight of heartbreak.
Meeting violence with violence in this case is a self-perpetuating trap. If you find catharsis through smashed windows and open flames, that’s an invitation to an ever militarized police. But what recourse does this country offer those who are young, suspect, and black?
Being black in America means trying to heal wounds that feel like they’ve been left raw since long before you were born. And calm? That can be even harder to come by. The body tends to stay in shock when it finds violence. I didn’t know Michael Brown or Renisha McBride or Eric Garner, but I hurt for them all the same. Every black man or woman in America does because we live with this simple fact: It just as easily could have been me.
McCulloch took more than 20 minutes to explain why Wilson would not be indicted, and he did so at the expense of a dead 18-year-old and his community, denigrating and discrediting both along the way. While Wilson was the one up for criminal charges, it was Brown who was outlined as the criminal.
Over and over he repeated two themes: That the loss of Brown’s life was tragic; that Wilson was justified. This reinforces a message that gets whispered and shouted from black parents to their children and all along the family tree: Your life is not your own, your body is all you have, and even that guarantee can be voided in this country.
Calm and healing are supposed to be a path forward, the preface to some means of making things better. When McCulloch wrapped up his statement he was pressed by reporters to offer any solution for those who could find themselves victims of police brutality in the future.
Just days after Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy, was shot by a police officer in Cleveland while holding a BB gun, McCulloch essentially shrugged. His only message? Just try not to be in bad situations.
Justin Ellis is a staff writer at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.