A Michael Brown Decision and Ferguson Burns: A Faith Leader’s Reflection

“It’s sad but it’s not new. My personal expectation was for the outcome to be what it turned out to be. As long as the people making policy don’t look like us, they have no incentive to create a system that represents all the citizens of Ferguson, especially those from Michael Brown’s community.” 

— Rev. Dr. Velma W. Union, Pastor Emeritus,

 The Lord’s Church, Los Angeles

Bold words and a pained sentiment from a faith leader in southern California who lost her only son to violence and who’s worked for decades as a leader in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches network to stem violence in Los Angeles.  Pastor Union has seen, first hand, what burning buildings and loss of life look like in the aftermath of a community’s response to real or perceived legal injustice, most notably the events that unfolded in the aftermath of the 1992 jury verdict in the Rodney King beating incident.

On Monday, November 24, at 9 p.m., in what is widely viewed as an ill-timed move by state and local public officials, the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson was announced by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch. The timing of his lengthy, dispassionate reading of the verdict simply confirmed, by that time, what most local observers assumed.

The grand jury would not indict officer Wilson.

And then the city burned.

To this writer and many other close analysts of the events that have unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the senseless murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown, much of what takes place in Ferguson is either expected or bizarre.

As a faith leader who’s been deeply involved in youth and policy issues aimed at alleviating youth violence and poverty, Monday night’s surreal scene in Ferguson, Missouri was all too familiar to Pastor Union.

“The police department is a system. They are a systemic group that will always side with each other under circumstances like these.  Law enforcement in our country, in many ways, is designed to keep folks in poverty and in fear.  A friend and colleague of mine who’s a retired sheriff explained how that culture works.  First, police cadets are trained at their academies to shoot to kill. That’s not a bad thing if their lives are in danger.  The problem is the trainees’ interpretation of what ‘danger’ looks like.  The current training culture teaches them to operate in a spirit of fear.

“It’s all about survival.  Whether their lives are truly in danger is really irrelevant.  It’s all about perception.  Their training is to shoot to kill and, clearly, that’s what officer Wilson did that night—whether based on his fears or in fact—in response to the purported threat posed by Michael Brown.

“Systems do not like voids.  They will take out anything or anybody that interferes with their operation.  Unless the current police training culture gets revamped, which will not likely happen in our lifetime, our not so secret weapon is prayer to the Lord of Hosts. It’s our obligation to educate our boys and young men about the systematic racism that has gone on in our country since we were first brought to these shores.”

Disheartening but heartfelt words, to be sure, but Pastor Union says that it’s not just the police structure and training culture that is hazardous for our youth, especially young black men, but issues within the family structure also contribute to the ongoing genocide of young black lives and the communities they are expected to thrive in.

“If you consider some of our family systems—not just black youth but from many households where young people are not raised by stable, intact parents—many families are so jacked up because they don’t have both parents present and functioning in their traditional parental roles in the household.

“Children were born as children, they were never designed to be pint-sized adults.

“Officers like Darren Wilson are only doing what they were programmed to do. Unless some new evidence surfaces, we will never truly know what happened that night between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown.

“Aside from solid families and the interventions, many young people need to lead happy, healthy lives. As a faith leader, my default position is to always appeal to the Christ in each of us.  It’s important that we remain prayerful and vigilant.   Scripture tells us that if Christ is in us and for us then who can be against us? Through His power, we can take control over those principalities and powers that feed agencies that are unfair or unprincipled as, clearly, the criminal justice system in Ferguson, Missouri appears to be.”

When asked about her take on the unusual timing Ferguson officials chose to release the grand jury’s results, Pastor Union, who also serves as the Executive Director of the non-profit youth serving policy organization, One Light International, said, “In my view, the leaders there handled this situation in a very, very strategic manner.  It was designed to allow anger to brew.  It was emphatically stated by the officer interviewed on CNN “there will be violence.” It seems that this strategy was designed and implemented to elicit a desired effect.

“There’s no other explanation unless we’re all to believe that the Ferguson, Missouri leaders truly didn’t know better.  I think it was a case of underestimating the minds of ‘we the people.’ State and local leaders should have known that in a situation where you’ve already got a lot of people emotionally upset, on edge or flat out angry you don’t pour salt on the wound, so to speak, by dragging out the announcement to a time late at night.

“How did they think law enforcement officers would see people in the dark?

“While it may sound extreme, in my view Ferguson serves as a classic model of the type of old guard systems in our country—systems that, historically, were designed to protect the existing power structure.  That power structure did not count African Americans or other people of color as assets, even those who were in their ranks. What played out on America’s TV screens on November 24th in Ferguson, Missouri was a system designed to protect the entrenched power structure, not ‘we the people’.

“In many respects, Michael Brown was irrelevant in their view.

“If you listen to some of the legal analysis that’s transpired since last week, it’s pretty obvious that those who purportedly led this process have much to answer for and to learn about humanity.

“It’s my hope that the full weight and force of the federal government will take a detailed look at what took place that Monday night in Ferguson.

“I think Dr. King said it best when, in part, he was quoting biblical scripture as penned by the prophet, Amos, when he said, “…let judgment run down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  My prayer for the people of Ferguson is that they can work their way to a measure of peace in the aftermath of this verdict.

“In the short term, aside from educating our young men on the way to survive encounters with law enforcement, I believe, this is a spiritual battle and we must equip our youth with wisdom. They need to learn skills that will help them to discern and to think with wisdom and clarity when they find themselves in circumstances similar to Michael Brown’s.  I continue to keep that community and the Brown family in prayer.

“I think Dr. King said it better than anybody, “The only way for us to get the oppressor off our back is to remember God is always on the side of the oppressed.”

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