Chris Graham: Letter from a Ferguson Jail

globeonlyI think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Why I am writing about Ferguson. Mo.? A young man, Michael Brown, of Ferguson, Mo., accused now of being involved in a strong-arm robbery, of a small pack of cigars, actually at most shoplifting and shoving, those of us worldwide who have seen the video provided to us so facetiously by the Ferguson, Mo., police department, can agree, was shot multiple times by a police officer and left for dead for hours, like roadkill, in the middle of a street.

According to witnesses, Brown, an African-American, was confronted by a police officer, Darren Wilson, a white man, who was not aware at the moment that Brown was an alleged suspect in the shoplifting now being cast as a strong-arm robbery, for daring to walk down the middle of the street while black, and after being confronted, Brown raised his hands in the air, imploring Wilson, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

Wilson shot. And shot. And shot. And shot and shot and shot and shot.

Brown died instantly, at least we hope, for his sake.

Again, his body was left in the roadway, for hours. Like roadkill.

Not like roadkill. Roadkill is treated better than Michael Brown was.

We Americans like to go on and on and on about how Israelis and Palestinians and Russians and Kenyan terrorists and whoever else around the world are guilty of various and sundry injustices toward humankind.

Injustice is here.

 I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Most of us, almost all of us, had never heard of Ferguson. Mo., and never would have heard of Ferguson, Mo., if it weren’t for what happened there on Saturday. Injustice in Ferguson is a threat to justice where I live, in Virginia, and where you live, wherever you live. Whatever affects one directly, Michael Brown, tragically, his family, the bystanders in his neighborhood, who saw police treat him with indignity in death, affects us all indirectly.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

There have been demonstrations ongoing in Ferguson almost from the moment of the shooting. Let’s go ahead and call it what it was: a murder. The first night, some took advantage of the situation and engaged in looting, and since, others on the outside have viewed the entire episode as one of looting. Police in Ferguson are trying to seize upon this by playing the PR game with the character assassination of Brown as criminal who deserved to be shot multiple times for allegedly stealing cigars in what they are trying to cast as a strong-arm robbery, and what would at best have been prosecuted as a misdemeanor, even given Brown’s race as African-American.

If this happened to your son, your son’s friend, a member of your community, if a young man had been shot, multiple times, in cold blood, for the crime of walking down the middle of the street, jaywalking, after maybe being involved in a shoplifting incident, maybe not, because we will never have the chance to see that adjudicated in court, and left in the middle of the street, dead, for hours, like roadkill, you would demonstrate, you would loot, you would riot, you would demand answers, you would demand justice.

There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. 

I am struck by the fact of having reported just today, as this news revealing the identity of the police officer who shot Michael Brown in cold blood has been released by a police department that seemed more interested in trying the young man shot to death in cold blood by one of its officers in absentia, that in my own hometown a man accused of shoplifting, familiar crime, considering, then getting into a car, drunk, trying to escape police, hit another, then went on the run, before being caught, was let go after being charged with multiple crimes on a small bond, and then didn’t show up for his first court hearing, was arrested again, and released again on another small bond.

You didn’t need me to tell you that this defendant is white. That much was obvious when I told you that he had been freed, twice, on bond, and is still free, which is to say, not dead and buried after having been shot multiple times in cold blood and left for hours rotting in the street like roadkill, or worse.

Try being a black man accused of multiple crimes including shoplifting, hit and run, DUI, eluding police and then skipping out on a court hearing.

You’re more likely to end up shot and left for dead in the middle of the street like roadkill, or worse, than you are free on two bonds.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963, more than a half-century ago. Months later, he would speak of letting freedom ring, of having a dream.

It is 2014. Emmett Tills are still lynched.

– Column by Chris Graham



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