A Meditation on Ferguson, on America

AJackThis speech was given by today’s contributor Anthony (Tony) Jack a PhD. Candidate and an Associate Doctoral Fellow at Harvard University at a Memorial/Die-In protest in Harvard Yard this month.  For more information on Anthony Jack visit scholar.harvard.edu/anthonyjack

I was asked to speak as a sociologist today, to provide context to the situation that brought us all here today. I’m letting you know that I will fail at this task. I know the stats but I also live the reality. Black men are incarcerated at six times the rate of white men even when controlling for offense, Bruce Western and Michelle Alexander tell us that. But statistics didn’t kill Mike Brown. More black men are stopped under Stop and Frisk in New York than there are black men in some communities, but facts and figures did not kill Eric Garner. Broken windows is a broken strategy, Robert Sampson tells us that. But debunked policies did not kill Trayvon Martin. Police target black and brown bodies like we are in season, like animals for slaughter. There is something fundamentally wrong when mothers must stand over sons and fathers over daughters and utter words that Emmett Till’s mother should never have had to say in the first place: “I have not a minute to hate, I’ll pursue justice for the rest of my life.” I fear that I am not that strong. It hurts watching the news in the morning to see character assassination of an innocent teenager gunned down by trigger happy cops, for if smoking weed makes you a bad person, we need the National Guard at Harvard on 4/20. It hurts to hear protesters be called rioters, thugs, hooligans, and other derogatory terms when somewhere I read about the freedom of assembly and the freedom of speech. As Dr. King notes, “the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights.” That is what democracy means to me. Yet it hurts to walk around Harvard’s campus and people look at me and fear what I will do to them physically when they really should worry about what I can do to their inflated GPAs.

Black Lives Matter. For some this is a radical concept, but then again, black love always was. To be honest, I am not surprised. This is the land of liberty that reluctantly settled on the 3/5 Compromise. This is the land of justice that needed the 13th Amendment. This is the land of equality that legislated and subsidized white suburbs and dark ghettos, as Malcolm X said, preaching integration yet practicing segregation. I see Black Lives Matter as something much simpler, much more innocent, and shockingly beautiful: a reminder. A reminder that if indeed all lives matter, when 43 Mexican students go missing we should care; when Black, Latina, and Asian women are victims we should all care; when queer-identified people are targeted we should all care; when black and brown bodies are beaten and bruised by those sworn to protect us, we should all care.

What kind of world do we live in when Southern trees still bear strange fruits? The only difference is that now, instead of removing the figurative fruit from branches, we pick them up off the ground after they have been left to fester in the sun for hours. What a world indeed. Faulkner’s words haunt us for the past is surely not yet dead, it is not even past. When I heard Darren Wilson’s testimony I thought I was rereading testimonies from the Rosewood Massacre of 1923. “He was big! He was black!” Bang, bang has now replaced “Let him hang.” There is an anachronistic feel to the whole thing. And that is because we are living with the repercussions of America never really being forced to learn from its past mistakes. Then the question becomes, how do we force America to catch up with the times? Again, as Dr. King reminded us on his last night, “we don’t need any bricks and bottles or any Molotov cocktails.” We must collectively flex the social and political capital that is invested in each one of us. Our president is too slow to act, our Congress and the Senate are too reluctant to act, and our governors fear acting on such issues. But mayors, those urban mechanics and rural draftsman, are invested in local communities in ways that other elected officials are not. Manny Diaz taught me that. They appoint Chiefs of Police and set local policies. We must reach out to mayors to ask them to invest in accountability measures for police officers, to reject military equipment, to create diversity measures so that police and firefighters look like the communities they serve, and to create community programming that removes the boundaries between the blue, the brown, and the black.

I just want to close by sharing that when my godmother was dying, she told us that we better not wear dark colors to her funeral. She said we must wear light colors to celebrate her life. That stuck with. I am wearing white, not to stand apart but to remind us that we are not mourning the death of too many black and brown bodies, we are mourning and protesting the situation that ended their lives. I wear white to celebrate the time they spent with us, although it was cut far too short. So, do me a favor, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the spirit of justice and peace, never forgetting to:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Langton Hughes, Dreams



  1. This is an excellent commentary! #TheStruggleContinues

  2. Burroughston Broch says:

    “A reminder that if indeed all lives matter, when 43 Mexican students go missing we should care; when Black, Latina, and Asian women are victims we should all care; when queer-identified people are targeted we should all care; when black and brown bodies are beaten and bruised by those sworn to protect us, we should all care.”
    I agree, but the author isn’t inclusive. All lives matter – period, end of story.
    Unfortunately, the mainstream media, the President and his administration, and the racial grievance industry don’t agree. To them, the only lives that matter are black lives taken by a white person. No other lives matter.

    • Amos Irwin says:

      The author believes that white lives matter, too. We hear about the shooting of a black 12-year-old holding a toy gun not because the “racial grievance industry” only cares about black lives, but because no white 12-year-old has ever been shot for holding a toy gun. Look it up. Yes, cops have killed unarmed white people for no good reason, and yes it is a tragedy. But black people are 20 times more likely to be killed by police. That is not only the result of over militarized police but also subconscious bias that makes a black man’s wallet look like a gun. We all agree that the police need better training to de-escalate situations without violence, that they need to do community policing (walk around and get to know the communities in which they serve rather than speeding through with tinted windows up and semi-automatic weapons at the ready)– so let’s focus on making that happen rather than bickering about who’s getting the publicity.

      • Burroughston Broch says:

        Try to spin the situation as you will, but you avoid part of the truth. Here’s a recent example.

        An Auburn University football player was murdered last Sunday in yet another black on black homicide. His death was mentioned in the national media for a couple of days, and then no more. There were no anguish, questions, or outrage from the national media. There was no response from President Obama and US Attorney General Holder. There were no threats from Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson Sr. and the rest of the racial grievance industry. There were no street protests or looting. There were only crickets.

        This is another sad example that proves the point that black lives matter only when they were taken by a white person, and no other lives matter.

        • Sir, everyone agrees that black-on-black violence is a terrible tragedy as well. As you mentioned, that made it into the national news. Communities are constantly working on new efforts to try to reduce this violence, which has decreased considerably in the last decade though it still has a terribly long way to go. There are no national outrage protests, just as there are no national protests about Newtown and other tragic school shootings, because the perpetrators are punished to the fullest extent of the law. The difference with police officer shootings is that, while they are certainly rarer, the perpetrators are not brought to justice. Of course police officers are acting in the line of duty—that would be their defense in court—but that does not mean their cases should not receive a fair trial.

          This is not just about the relatively rare occurrence of police shootings. This is about the emotional trauma of 13-year-old kids being routinely verbally and physically harassed by police officers. Many people do not realize the psychological pain of “stop and frisk” and racial profiling in general. How would you like it if your 13-year-old son were constantly harassed by the police for being male? Sure, men commit more crimes than women, but we don’t allow random searches of all males– we believe in a free society, not a police state. Unfortunately, today when it comes to black males, many favor a police state. That is not a conspiracy theory from the “racial grievance industry,” it is a simple observation of how the police operate.

          This is why black people who have worked incredibly hard all their lives and never “played the race card” to explain their own shortcomings are now speaking out, in addition to white people like myself. Everyone knows that black people are treated differently by police, and this needs to stop.

  3. Burroughston Broch says:

    You are focusing on a paper cut while ignoring a severed artery.
    According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 93 percent of black homicides were indeed committed by other blacks between 1980 and 2008. In 2012, the most recent data posted on the web, the figure was 91 percent. That’s hardly a decrease.
    In the 2012 statistics, black on black homicides were 52% of the total homicides while blacks were 31% of the population.
    “Communities are constantly working on new efforts to try to reduce this violence.” Prove it – I see nothing in the news about this.