Thoughts On Difference

Like many I sat glued to my television last week as the Grand Jury decision was read in the case of the shooting of the unarmed black teen, Michael Brown, by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson Missouri earlier this year.  As the decision unfolded I realized that no matter how the jury voted there would be great dissatisfaction.  Finally we learned that Officer Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting.  Immediately the protests began.  We have seen much violence and some destruction.  Even the St. Louis Rams got into the action when the Rams receivers all gave the now famous hands up gesture as they marched on the field prior to the Rams game yesterday.  The gesture has become the sign of solidarity for those opposed to the Grand Jury decision. 

The problem with all the protests and anger is that there seems to be little discussion over the meaning of what the Grand Jury did, and there is even less discussion about the bigger problem of our country’s intolerance of difference between our various citizens.

The Grand Jury only said that there was not enough evidence to charge Officer Wilson.  The jury members did not say the officer was not guilty.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter in the long run, but still we should realize that after all the evidence was presented there is little doubt that Michael Brown did commit a crime which ultimately precipitated the shooting.  Did the crime justify Officer Wilson’s actions?  By no means.  There was significant evidence that Mr. Brown contributed greatly to what happened when he was stopped by Officer Wilson which, again, seems to be ignored by the protesters.

At the same time, there is much evidence that profiling does take place by many police departments.  More African Americans are stopped than whites, and many people of different races and persuasions are treated differently by the white law enforcement community.

 

Race is not the only factor that evokes different treatment by the “establishment”.  My wife, who has used a wheelchair her entire life, points out to me that she is physically abused and mentally harassed by airline personnel every time she flies, but few listen and no one has fixed the problems of intolerance and a lack of education she and others face.  As a successful blind bestselling author, business owner and public speaker I face daily people who do not even think I can sign my name or find the handle in a public restroom when I go to flush a toilet.  If I speak out about the treatment I, my wife and others receive at the hands of an uneducated public I am called militant and I am told to recognize my place and be grateful that people “want to help me”.  The irony is that the pushback I and other persons with disabilities receive comes from all quarters’ white, black, Asian, male, female and every “nondisabled” group in the land.  Yes there is still racism in our country.  There is still gender prejudice too.  There is also bias and a lack of attention paid to the disabilities community.

The real attitude change we all must make in the United States is to accept all difference between our various population groups and move to adopting a true mindset of inclusion for all.  Several years ago I read an extraordinary book, All On Fire; William Lloyd Garrison and the abolition of Slavery.  The author describes how in the 1840s William Lloyd Garrison was resoundingly criticized for allowing women such as the Grimké sisters to speak before mixed audiences about not only the abolition of slavery but women’s rights as well.  Garrison was told that such women were a distraction and might even cause people not interested in anything but the abolition of slavery to leave the movement.  He was told that women’s rights should only be discussed by women with women and that such an issue was not fit for the larger public stage.  Garrison’s response to his critics was always the same, “it’s all one issue”.  “It’s all the same issue.”  The issue is not prejudice against race, religion, gender or ability.  The issue is a lack of tolerance and understanding of any person who is different than we.

When an incident such as the Michael Brown shooting occurs we see an immediate knee jerk reaction resulting in protest.  The protests create a larger barrier between the two sides and no one wins.  Did the Grand Jury make the right decision in the case of Officer Wilson?  All I have read tells me that the right legal decision was made.  However, was Officer Wilson justified in killing Michael Brown?  That question has not been answered.  The bigger question of whether a white teen ager under the same circumstances would have been shot may never be answered, but statistics tell us that such an outcome is less likely.  Do I come under more scrutiny and prejudicial treatment because I am blind and use a guide dog?  I submit that the answer is yes.

It is time for all of us to examine our consciences and examine our own motives and actions.  For my part I see as much prejudice and provocation coming from the African American protesters as I do from the so-called establishment.  There is a time for protest and action to put different treatment of peoples on the public stage, but even then there is also a time to find ways to work together to tear down the walls of bias and prejudice and create a true “one nation under God with liberty and justice for all”.

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