“Welcome back. Concluding our segment on Ferguson, Missouri, if you’re just tuning in,we’ve been talking with Andre Foster, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, and former Governor of Massachusetts, Gerard McNulty.
“Now, in the aftermath of the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson,Mr. McNulty, you’ve argued that the case should not have been brought to a Grand Jury in the first place.”
“That’s correct, Brian. As I stated before, this is a case lacking in substantial evidence. It was clear from the start that the prosecution lacked probable cause. What we’ve been seeing these past few months is an issue drawn out by race baiting. Had it been a white teenager who attacked a police officer, there wouldn’t be any outcry, and there wouldn’t be a case. To add to that, statistics have shown 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. What we’re talking about with Officer Wilson is the exception. What I want to know is, why has there not been more pressure put on the black community? What we’ve seen in many of the news outlets is a sugar coating of Mike Brown. We’ve seen the footage of him, not only, stealing but boasting about it. His marijuana use has also been swept under the rug. Why has this not received more attention? The boy was a criminal. He should have been in school.”
“Mr. Foster, were almost out of time. Anything else you’d like to add.”
“Brian, I’m only getting started. Mr. McNulty fails to grasp the significance of the situation. The death of Michael Brown is a story that has become all too familiar with the American public. Despite notions of a so-called Post-Racial society, we continue to see people of color, black men especially, facing abuse and in many cases, death at the hands of those sworn to protect the community. As a professor I encourage all young people to further their education,Mr. McNulty, but if you genuinely believe the disparity between races in America is going to go away or be fixed by, essentially, keeping your head down, staying in school and going to work,then there’s not much else we have to discuss.”
“Alright, that’s all the time we have for tonight. Thank you, Mr. Foster and Mr. McNulty. We hope to have you back on our program again soon.”
Michael Kowalsky turned off the television but remained seated for a few moments. The house was silent. He got up, put his glass in the sink, and turned off the light. In the bathroom, he brushed and flossed. Afterward, he stared at his reflection. His expression was vacant but serious.His eyes moved over the patch of dried skin between his eyebrows and the tired lines streaking across his cheeks. He ran his hand through his hair, let out a burp, then went to bed. The rest of the night Michael tossed and turned.
* * *
The next morning, the news, from the nationally syndicated to the local jockeys, reported on Ferguson. Protests were taking place, nationwide. On the drive to work, Michael flipped through the channels twice before conceding to the broadcast on a local hard rock station.
“George Bryant, former NFL player and renowned coach, was on Minneapolis radio earlier this morning. Let’s listen to what he had to say about everything that’s been going on in Missouri:
“I think it’s a travesty. I’m sick of hearing about all this ‘arms up,’ nonsense. It’s really unfortunate when you see the footage from the ground in Ferguson. Dozens of local shops and businesses have been torn apart. The cost of repairs is going to be staggering. This has been nothing more than an excuse for the criminals in that town to loot and riot. It’s just senseless destruction. I can’t see how this is any way to honor the death of Michael Brown. It’s disheartening to see.”
Michael Kowalsky was of Polish/German descent and he agreed. He earnestly believed there was no connection between the two. The news surrounding Ferguson, and the outrage over the court ruling had him vexed. It took only a few articles to convince him the only thing people should be outraged by was the kid who tried to take a police officer’s gun. For him, it was open and shut.
Michael worked as a commercial underwriter for a large insurance company. He assessed the potential losses and gains of policies pertaining to a swath of people a notch below him on the class ladder. He lived and worked in Scottsdale, the suburb of Phoenix where he’d grown up.He was the product of what many would call, a good upbringing and education. But whose education? Once a year, for the better part of a decade, his teachers took two weeks out to cover the chapter on The Civil Rights Movement. The class ran through the lives of notable figures such as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but glazed over Malcolm X, before quickly transitioning back into the Cold War. The notion that racism had been defeated, that it had been slain by the virtues of American freedom and democracy, were heavily instilled upon him in his youth. Even in high school, the discussions were one dimensional and the sentiment remained;racism, like Nazism, was antiquated. Sure, from time to time someone in a white hood showed his face, but those were extremists, outside the realm of the every day, rational thinker.
In Michael’s mind, racism appeared only in tangible forms— a slur, a fist, a noose, a ‘whites only’ sign. Racism was a personal attack perpetrated out in the open. How could something exist if he couldn’t see it?
So then why did Michael Kowalsky feel conflicted when he watched the news reports? He wrestled with that throughout his workday. It distracted him. Every five minutes it seemed he was clicking over to Facebook and various news outlets. The internet was seething with claims of racism. Darren Wilson and the police were called out, and finally, the entire system. It agitated Michael and caused him to shift uncomfortably in his seat. If the system was racist and he agreed with the system, did that make him racist? He let the question linger in his mind for three full seconds before declaring it absurd. It angered him that he’d even considered it. “I’ve never picked on someone because of their race. I’ve always treated everyone equally,” he thought. “My girlfriend is Vietnamese. Hell, I voted for Obama in the last election.”
* * *
“You hear about the walk-out protest, tomorrow?” asked Jill in the office kitchen.
“Nope,” answered Mike while fiddling with the Keurig machine.
“They’re calling for everyone to walk out of their jobs or school tomorrow at 1pm.”
“Who are they?” “I don’t know, but it’s been circulating around the internet,” said Jill.
“Guess who will be firmly planted in their seat?”
“You don’t agree?” “All I have to say to everyone who walks out is, good luck trying to find a new job.”
“Hey, hold up a second,” Jill called out as he reached the door. “I need to see you about the prints for the space on the Union Hills development before you leave today.”
“Stop by my office.”
“Oh, Excuse me,” said Michael. He nearly bumped into Alan, who worked down the hall.
“Was he listening?” Michael thought.
* * *
The protest irked Michael in a way that was both obvious and unclear to him. What right did these people have to criticize the police? Wasn’t it obvious how difficult it was to be in law enforcement? How many of the people carrying a sign, could put on a uniform and do the job fora day? He thought to himself. On the other hand there was something undeniable about the recent fervor. The more Michael read, the more he felt he’d inadvertently tapped into a vein of grief and frustration wider than the events of the summer. His thoughts returned to the walk-out protest. What was the point? He asked himself. Was it worth losing your job? Why hurt your education? He went back to his office and pulled up some information on the protest. Afterward,he took to social media to add his two cents.
“Ferguson protesters are asking for a nationwide walk-out of schools and jobs at 1PM today. Clever way to protest, since it’s usually those with education and a steady job who have a better chance of avoiding altercations with police. Am I right? Somebody look up the stats.#Justsayin”
* * *
That evening Michael went to his parent’s house for dinner. George and Becky Kowalsky lived in Silver Hawk, a neighborhood in north Scottsdale. Silver Hawk saw its first racial integration in 1997 when a black family moved in a block from the Kowalsky’s. The father worked for the Dial Corporation as an engineer and the mother taught preschool. They had a daughter in middle school and a son in elementary. As a family they enjoyed baseball games,carnivals, and going to the movies, much like their white neighbors. A week after their arrival, a sign was hammered into the gravel in their front yard. It read, “Go home niggars.”
George and Becky had no part in the assault. They condemned it behind closed doors, but they never spoke of their disgust around eleven year old Michael. Even when word spread throughout the community, over the playgrounds and golf courses, they kept quiet. Yes, it was an ugly thing, they reasoned, but what did it have to do with Michael?
At dinner, Michael was eager to hear his parents’ take on the Ferguson. Even as he approached thirty, George and Becky remained his moral beacons. “Have you been watching the footage of the protests?” he asked.
“It’s all they’ve been showing,” his father replied dryly, as though the question tired him.
His mother kept quiet as she felt out the situation. His father continued chewing.
“I guess the Manhattan Bridge was shut down tonight.”
“How much has been broken?” asked his father.
“Not sure. I only heard about the marches.”
“There’ll be trouble. Just you watch.”
“How are things with Kirsten?” asked Becky. “Why don’t you have her over for dinner,next week?”
Nothing else concerning Ferguson was said for the rest of dinner.
At work the following day, Michael dropped in on Alan with some paperwork he needed signed. The two met a year prior and had spoken only on a handful of occasions. While they made small talk Michael noticed the background on Alan’s computer. It read, “I CAN’T BREATHE,” in large black font against a white background. Michael knew this was in reference to Eric Garner, the 43 year old black man held in a fatal chock hold by police officers for selling handmade cigarettes. Garner was on a street corner in New York City when his death and final words were caught on tape. “I can’t breathe,” had since become a rallying call for protest. “Obviously he supports Garner,” Michael thought, “He’s black.”
“Were you watching the protests, last night?” Michael asked. “They arrested over two hundred people.”
“Not last night. I was down the street at a march. Saw it was on the cover the Times this morning, though.”
“Where did you march?”
“It started off of Roosevelt and I stayed with it ‘til Thomas.”
“Did anyone get arrested?” Michael asked.
“Not that I saw but there were almost as many police out there as people.”
“Don’t you think they need it, though, with all the rioting?”
“Rioting?” Alan snapped.
“Yeah,” answered Michael nervously. “It’s all over the news.”
“There wasn’t any rioting, last night.” Alan responded while looking at his watch.
An uncomfortable silence lingered between the two for a minute.
Michael told himself to speak softly, and not to get worked up. “Millennials, man. They don’t know real struggle.”
“I mean,” Michael proceeded cautiously. “Kids these days, me included, don’t know real struggle. Like the Civil Rights Movement or the Depression. Things are a lot,” he paused.“easier, I guess. We don’t know—”
Alan looked Michael up and down and asked, “I disagree.”
“It’s not a racial thing. I mean everyone,” Michael retorted.
“Not a racial thing? What do you mean, it’s not a racial thing?”
Michael let out a deep sigh. His hands were shaking and he felt his heart thump. “Look,it’s almost noon. What are you doing for lunch? We could continue this somewhere else.” Michael glanced a few times at the open door.
Alan, still annoyed, considered the offer. “Sure, yeah, I don’t have any plans.”
“Cool. I’ll swing back over here in twenty. Is that enough time?”
“Yeah,” replied Alan. “I’ll see you then.”
* * *
The two sat down at a Mexican restaurant across the street. Michael, eager to avoid even another minute of awkward silence, spoke first.
“What I was trying to say earlier is that I don’t how Michael Brown has become such a hero.”
“You think people look up to him?” asked Alan
“Yes. Yes, I think they do.”
“Why do you think that?”
“You see his picture all over the news and protests. He’s had television segments dedicated to him. He was caught stealing, but no one cares.”
“And he deserved to get shot because he stole five dollars worth of cigarettes?”
“No. I’m not saying that. I’m not saying he deserved to die.”
“So then what are you saying?” Michael searched for words which were all too elusive at that moment. “I don’t get why this has blown up. When I saw the story, I didn’t think the Mike Brown or Eric Garner things had anything to do with race. And, for the moment, I can’t say for certain that I agree with the verdict in either case. I’m still not sure how I feel. I’d like to read more about both before I make a decision. But with all the rioting and protests, it just seems like black people want to divide everyone. The way they’re going about things excludes others instead of bringing people together.”
Alan sat with an expression of disbelief. “Do you have any idea how insulting it is to hear that?”
Michael had a blank look.
“In the face of everything that’s happened, you’re suggesting black people to just… get along and play nice?” Alan continued without waiting for a response. “Let me ask you, have you ever been profiled by the police simply because of your skin or your attire?”
Michael considered the question then answered, “No.”
“How would you react if a kid in your neighborhood, regardless of color, was shot over a few dollars, by the police, and left in the street for four hours? Would you be angry? If so, what would you do with that frustration?”
“I’m not sure,” Michael answered honestly.
“Now, imagine this happened all the time and that no one outside your neighborhood cared. Imagine that it happened so often, that collectively all the cases of brutality and murder of unarmed black men over the last year didn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Am I the first black person you’ve talked to about this?”
Embarrassed, Michael answered, “Yeah.”
“The reason why you, and don’t get me wrong it’s not just you— it’s an issue with whites across the country,” Alan assured him. “The reason why this is such non-issue for you, is because you never have to deal with. You don’t see it, you don’t have to experience it, thus you don’t have to care. You believe the news when they portray blacks as criminals, looters, rioters because why not? You don’t have to care. You pretend like you want change, like you’re accepting, but you’re not. You want things to stay the same, you’re just too scared to say so. You’re afraid of being called out for being as a racist. Honestly, I don’t know you very well, but that’s the conclusion I’m starting to draw.”
“Hold on. That’s not fair. I haven’t called you any names. I haven’t disrespected you, so don’t come down on me like that.”
“Come down on you?” Alan scoffed. “I didn’t come into your office and insult you this morning. Remember? No, you haven’t called me any names, but you’ve damn sure disrespected me.”
“Can you keep your voice down please?” asked Michael anxiously.
“Tell me, how should I react? You brush off the struggle of my people. And because it’s a threat to the fantasy you walk through every day, you belittle it. You cut it down because it makes you feel uncomfortable. I’ve tip-toed around white men for most of my life, it’s been necessary to get ahead. It’s been necessary for my survival. A lot of folks are tired of playing that game, though. I don’t blame them.”
“Again, you make it seem like I’m responsible for all of this.”
Alan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m sorry for coming down on you so hard.But what I said needed to be said.”
The two sat in silence for a moment.
“I heard you in the break room talking about the walkout,” said Alan. “What was your issue?”
“I didn’t think it was a very effective way to protest.”
“Why?” asked Alan.
“I don’t think telling people to skip school or work sends a good message.”
“You think missing half a day of either makes that big of a difference?”
“I think the message does.”
“What was the message?”
“It’s encouraging people, kids really, to drop out. I’m all for focused, organized protest,” Michael continued. “I thought what happened on Black Friday was great.”
“Only protest on your days off?” Alan asked.
“You’re saying, go ahead and protest, but only if you have no other obligations.”
“No. Well, no, that’s not what I’m saying.”
“Then when would be a good time to protest?”
Michael shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Well, let me ask you, what are you doing tonight? Do you have plans?”
“Good,” replied Alan. “I have a meeting I’d like you to come to.”
* * *
They arrived at the Boys and Girls Club just after five. It took Alan only a few minutes to drive them over from work. That night the club was hosting a community discussion on Ferguson. Everyone gathered in the large room just past the entrance. The crowd was mostly black faces, with a small percentage of Latin attendees, and a few whites dotted the crowd.Michael had never seen so many black people in one place. “Not even at a Suns game,” he thought. He wondered if his presence offended them. He worried might get berated or called out.He breathed heavily and kept glancing at the door.
“Over here,” Alan directed them to some chairs in the third row.
Up front, two long tables were pushed together with a line of chairs facing the audience.At half past five, the panel assembled. It was an all black panel divided equally between young and old, male and female. The youngest, a sheepish thirteen-year-old boy, spoke first. He seemed prodded into filling the panel’s youth quota. “I think… what’s important… is that, we… is that people can come together. We need… to talk… and to share opinions… to heal.”
The room filled to capacity and organizers began turning people away. A number of black personnel from the nearby police department stood among the crowd. The local news set up shot to the side of the panel.
It took Michael twenty minutes to adjust to the anxiety of being a minority. He couldn’t think of a similar moment in his life. How aware of himself he was that night— aware of his skin, aware of his clothes, the way he spoke. He felt as though a spotlight were shined on him,and wherever he moved it followed. He just wanted to blend in. What a thought! Was it prejudice to think so? He wasn’t sure. It wasn’t all stress, though. He experienced fleeting moments of exhilaration from being ‘the other.’ This isn’t so bad, he thought to himself, then he wondered ifhe should have worn better shoes. He never thought to ask himself why he felt so uncomfortable but some part of him got it.
“You know, we’re not wired to hurt each other. If you really think about that. And, this,this is for the young people. That is, learned behavior. And you say what about the other lens,what about the police? There’s been tragedies all over the United States, for decades. For decades, right? And you have to speak the truth. But where there’s a problem, there’s a solution.And human beings naturally come upon compassion. If you don’t know a law enforcement officer,get to know one. The uniform is just an artifact. Nobody leaves their office, their car, their precinct, that I know, speaking from experience, looking to hurt someone. But what you do hope is that you come home alive. Will I be hurt? Will I come back to work if I’m hurt. Will I be courageous enough to stand up in my own organization and speak the truth?
Michael enjoyed listening to the pastor. His soft tone and clear enunciation made it easy to follow. This is what the black community needs, Michael thought. Not the loud mouthed Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. The community needs someone to bring people together, not to runaround accusing everyone of being a racist.
Michael wasn’t as keen on the next speaker. Her words cut like acid. She was well-known in the room, as well as the community, for being outspoken and passionate.
“I can say that if I left my house everyday wearing a bulletproof vest, to go to work in, I wouldn’t, you know trip too hard if I was criticized. Right now with the Ferguson situation, thething is, it does hurt us when the police kill us. Because you know what, there’s these crimes and there’s these laws that are in the justice system that say that if there’s a racially motivated crime,which black-on-black crime might be, but it’s part of our trauma but if there’s a police officer that has on a vest, that with impunity and with a gun, and a taser, and a baton, is able to take our lives, and is able to become a justified killer because he’s abstracting punishment on our bodies,because we don’t know our rights, we don’t know if we can say, ‘Am I under arrest?’ We don’t know if we can say ‘Am I being detained?’ ‘Am I free to go?’ We don’t know that. But what we do know is that people are dying here. We know that police officers sometimes harass us. We know that we’re over-represented in our juvenile justice system. You know what I’m saying? What we need is a safe place that’s available with healing in it, that will keep us educated on those things that will keep us safe in our community.”
Michael listened to all opinions, intently, though he continued to feel like an outsider.Listening, he couldn’t help but feel like the villain, the oppressor. “Should I even be here?” he thought. “To them, I’m the problem.” For the first time in his life, he was without an easy solution. Things were complicated in a way he couldn’t sort out. How easy it would be to go home and forget about all this. It felt as though a lightning storm raged in his abdomen. “This is an issue for the black community, right? It’s not up to me, right?” But he stayed— half motivated by courage, half motivated by the embarrassment of walking out.
After an hour, the discussion was cut short when a march passed by. Protesters chanting “I can’t breathe” and “Hands up, don’t shoot,” could be heard outside. Michael saw the heads of protesters, many of whom were white. Most of the audience quickly gathered their things and left to join in. Noticing this, the panel brought the discussion to an early close.
“Thanks for coming, tonight,” said Alan.
He leaned in so Michael could hear him over the chants from outside. “It shows a lot of character that you’d participate.”
“What do we do now?” Michael glanced toward the window.
“That’s up to you,” responded Alan.
Matt Smith was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He has lived in Phoenix, Arizona and Ulsan, South Korea. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon and works for the Portland Children’s Museum. Previously, he’s taught ESL for both public and private institutions.