By Meghann Burke
Meghann is an attorney at Brazil & Burke, P.A. where she practices civil litigation and criminal defense. She also serves as Legal Team leader for the Campaign for Southern Equality.
Jasmine and I have closely watched the events in Ferguson unfold these past weeks with broken hearts. As we hold our 2 month-old son, I cannot help but think about the unspeakable grief of Michael Brown’s mother. And Kajieme Powell’s. And Eric Garner’s. And Trayvon Martin’s.
The events in Ferguson shine a light on a national crisis related to the safety of young black men in America. There are other issues indeed, such as the militarization of police forces and freedom of the press. But the core issue – the one we must address – is the daily risk that black men live with simply for being who they are.
I’ve followed events in Ferguson closely for many reasons, among them that it’s personal. I can imagine the very playgrounds that Michael Brown played on, the very schools he attended, the very streets he walked, because St. Louis is my hometown. It holds a special place in my heart as the place where I was born and raised, where my large family calls home.
The story in Ferguson does not start with bullets piercing an unarmed young man. Its origins reach beyond the recent decertification of a primarily black school district, through white flight, and past the use of racially restrictive covenants to prevent African-American families from fully participating in the city’s civic and economic life. It begins somewhere on the steps of St. Louis’ Old Courthouse, seated below the Arch, where Dred Scott’s life was summarily dismissed as nothing more than a white man’s property. (Dred Scott v. Sandford, decided in 1857, is the most infamous case in U.S. Supreme Court history. The court found that African-Americans, whether free or slave, were not citizens of the United States, that Congress lacked the power to ban slavery, and that the white man’s property rights to a slave were protected by the 5th Amendment. It was later overturned by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.)
As in countless communities across the South, the pulse of St. Louis beats with good-hearted people whose lives are more complicated than oversimplified headlines. Michael Brown’s death is the impetus of the grief and anger expressed in recent protests and prayer vigils, but these protests are also about so much more.
In times of grief, words may not soothe the pain. Silence, however, is worse, for it suggests that one’s suffering does not merit recognition.
As a white woman, I am writing as an alternative to silence. I am writing to say publicly that I care about the fate of black men in America, about black men who are my friends, and those who are among my heroes. About the young black boys I know and the families that are raising them. To say publicly that this issue is personal to me. That it matters to me. That it drives the work I do as an attorney and as CSE’s Legal Team leader.
I also write as a gay white woman. I urge white LGBTQ people who may not feel immediately, personally impacted by events in Ferguson to pause and reconsider. The struggle for racial equity and justice in America is directly linked to the struggle for LGBTQ equality. Some of these connections are explicit: LGBTQ people of color are directly impacted by both forms of injustice as are the many multi-racial LGBTQ families in which children of color are growing up. But beyond this, there is a shared experience that opens up space for understanding – the experience of having one’s basic safety and rights at stake simply for being who you are in public spaces.
In our struggle for LGBTQ equality, we strive to act from a place of love. This commitment to an ethic of love requires us to reflect the ideal of love in both our private and public lives – from our laws, to our politics, to our schools, to our economy, to our law enforcement policies and practices, to our personal lives. Doing so is a life’s work that transcends any milestone for any particular group within what Dr. King called the Beloved Community. Our work – yours and mine – means nothing if we cannot find our shared humanity in all calls for justice.
The streets of Ferguson and the people who have been filling them each night have been telling us a story. We must listen. More than that, we must respond.
The story of Ferguson is complicated, and we should not attempt to simplify it. The moments of shared humanity we have seen in Ferguson – a black police captain talking openly and vulnerably about his concerns for his own son’s safety, residents of Ferguson cleaning up local businesses destroyed by looting the morning after, Trayvon Martin’s mother writing a letter of condolence to Michael Brown’s mother, protesters giving first aid to a journalist injured by tear gas – remind us of these complexities.
I am standing with the people of Ferguson who call for peace and justice not as a distant observer but because this struggle impacts all of us: The ability to be who you are in public spaces is more than just a right of citizenship. It is what it means to be human.