Ferguson on My Mind

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on September 26, 2014

Outside my house, two young African-American boys, maybe 9 or 10, scoot by on skateboards. One is carrying something on a leaf and stops to show me a giant slug. We chat about it a bit; I tell him that I looked up what kind of slug that was recently but now don’t remember.

He tells me the other boy had tried to run over it but he saved it. I give him a smile and thumbs up, not because I have any strong feelings about saving slugs’ lives, but because of the compassionate impulse behind it. He zooms off. A few minutes later the other boy comes back, looking concerned and says “You wanted me?”

“No,” I said, confused.

“You said you wanted me?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Well, my cousin says you said if I run over any more bugs you’ll call the cops on me.”

This happened a week or so into the martial law in Ferguson, Mo., and so I found it particularly hard not to grab him and just hug him tight, though I didn’t know him from Adam.

But instead, I just said, “Oh my god, sweetie, I would never call the cops on you,” and he took off.

In a better world that exact exchange would still have happened—kids make stuff up like that. It’s their way of figuring out the world, what’s reality, how they can interact with it. But it wouldn’t have hurt to hear in the same way, because pictures of murdered and imprisoned children wouldn’t have immediately flashed in front of my eyes. Because I would have also been able to say things like, “No one will call the cops on you unless you commit a crime,” and “Don’t worry, the cops are here to protect us from real danger, not enforce a random white lady’s idea of how people should behave.”

But this is the country we are living in: one where I couldn’t really say those things. A country in which a recent study found that white female college students tend to over-estimate the age of black boys over the age of 9 by an average of 4.5 years (but accurately identify white boys’ ages), and consider them more culpable when accused of the same infractions.

My exchange with the young cousins was also only a few days after my partner had lost her wallet. 

Whoever found it had taken the debit cards to the grocery and spent a few hundred dollars before the fraud folks were on to them and we canceled the cards.

At that point she held a lengthy social media conversation among friends about whether or not to file an official police report. On the one hand, it’s required to defend yourself against possible later identity theft—a big deal. On the other hand, the chances that someone who would take a found debit card into the local grocery store is someone whom the current legal system would not treat well—to put it mildly—if they got their hands on them is, shall we say, high. We know too much about what involvement in the current punitive and discriminatory system does to someone’s future chances to be sanguine about sending someone into it, especially for petty theft.

It was startling to me how surprising this thought was to so many people, who were at great pains to emphasize the wrongness of the theft. But that was never in dispute. We weren’t trying to naively imagine this person into a Robin Hood.

What we were weighing was whether the likely response if the perpetrator were to be caught would be proportional, fair, or at all useful in preventing it from happening again, or whether it would be an opening for far greater wrongs than we suffered. The answer seemed likely to be the latter. I think it was a moral imperative for us to at least weigh the likely outcomes with the whole context in mind.

The conversation reminded me a little of the flip side of so many people’s need to emphasize the fact that Michael Brown was college-bound in discussing the awfulness of his murder. Let me say this: if the person who had taken my partner’s wallet had been killed by police while unarmed and fleeing or surrendering it would have been just as bad. People don’t just deserve to have their lives considered valuable only when they are squeaky clean, college bound, and meek and unfailingly polite in the face of hostility and antagonism.

All lives matter. Black lives matter. Moving past learned fear to act like all lives matter, matters.

(I first published the above as a column in my local paper. I wanted to share it here too, because I think it's relevant to many Shelterforce readers, and the contexts in which you work.)

(Photo by Blue Skyz Studios, CC BY-NC-ND.)

About the author more »

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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Dana Hawkins-Simons
26 Sep 14, 11:15 am

Powerful, thoughtful, and beautifully written. Thanks for sharing your essay, Miriam.

Chris Tomlin
26 Sep 14, 7:58 pm

Holeeee   $HlT!
You’d actually seriously consider not reporting a crime ...specifically because the criminal might actually get caught and punished for the crime?
  You are God’s (or perhaps someone else’s) gift to criminals! 
And you make the streets more dangerous for us all.
The fact that you still cling to the fiction, now thoroughly debunked, that Michael Brown was peaceably strolling down the street and gunned down for no reason at all is bad enough.  The case is still under investigation but the forensic evidence indicates pretty strongly that Brown, himself a robber en route from his earlier crime, was in the process of assaulting a police officer when he was shot.  There hasn’t even been a finding by the grand jury.  At the very least, the case has not been made that he was arbitrarily “murdered,” as you so cavalierly say with no attribution at all.
But now you actually oppose the idea of holding criminals accountable for their crimes? 
Oh, it was just a few bucks on the ATM card, right? 
That’s simple insanity. 
A few bucks on the ATM card crosses the line,
the line between society and those who destroy society.
Someone who would casually take someone else’s ATM card is already on the other side of that line and the actual amount of money is utterly irrelevant. 
Can someone like that be reformed?  Possibly.
But if there are no consequences, why not keep at it?  Hey, why not graduate from picking pockets to burglary, strongarm robbery, holdups….  hey, you wouldn’t want him to get a HARD TIME for committing a crime, would you?
Meanwhile, you really need to look inside yourself and confront something that ought to make you uncomfortable.
You’re a racist.
You look at your 3rd or 4th grade neighbors and, because they’re black, you see them as criminals likely to get themselves killed committing crimes or confronting the police. 
It’s to your credit that you see that as a bad thing.  But seriously… THAT’S what you see when you look at these beautiful children?
The world you have constructed in your head is a pretty ugly one.
That’s sad.

michaelann bewsee
30 Sep 14, 8:58 am

Miriam, I work for a membership-based community organization that spends about half its time advocating for homeless people.  We’re in the heart of the African-American community and our membership is more than half people of color.  We ALSO think long and hard about calling the police and in our 30 year history, have very rarely done so.  The exceptions have been when it was an insurance policy requirement or, in one case, significant violence occurred.  And we don’t call the police for exactly the same reasons that you gave in your article, including the disproportionate response of the criminal justice system.

Instead, when one of our own members commits a transgression, we offer a restorative justice process, and if a member chooses not to avail her/himself of that process, then they are no longer welcome in the organization.  In fact, later on this afternoon we’ll be having such a process over petty theft by one of our members.  The process, if all goes the way we hope, includes full acknowledgement of the transgression and a plan to repay the money.

Sometimes we do workshops where we imagine that the formal law enforcement and criminal justice systems do not exist and we ourselves have the power to hold each other accountable.  Believe me, sometimes the penalties people come up with are far harsher than the system would apply!

The poster who called you a racist because of your decision needs to remember ‘les Miserables” and the transformative power of forgiveness.

Bob Jones
30 Sep 14, 9:21 am

The sentiment about saving the slug was touching.  The other comments no so.  What I observed in the story was that that the young boy was not taught by either parents, guardians, or teachers not to lie.  He provoked his cousin to accuse you falsely of threatening him in the least and possibly hating him with his made up comment about you. There are boundaries in society and overlooking crime or not provoking youth with values outside the common sense and don’t hurt their psyche methods only set them and others up for problems. It also sends the signal to them that a small white or in this case a black lie is OK. If they continue in that thinking it can lead them to made up stories with more serious consequences and worse, the loss of self control and self esteem.

Barb Van Kerkhove
30 Sep 14, 10:52 am

Thanks for sharing your experience, Miriam. I am inspired by your honesty, empathy and vision of how we might treat fellow human beings with dignity, even when they cause us harm. As a commenter noted in the Metroland piece, I hope your partner will advocate for a Restorative Justice process with the person who took the wallet.

Paul Dribin
30 Sep 14, 4:06 pm

I live in the St. Louis area and usually enjoy your comments but not this time.  A couple of points.  There was never martial law in Ferguson, I hope you were not using the term literally.  Second, we don’t know if the killing of Michael Brown is murder.  If I had a wallet stolen, I would not worry about the perpetrator.

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