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Demanding 'perfect mourners' in Ferguson

Ferguson expressed sorrow in its protests. Jamil Smith confronts critics who insist racial angst must only be expressed in ways that make others comfortable.
People protest for Michael Brown on August 17 in Ferguson, Mo.
People protest for Michael Brown on August 17 in Ferguson, Mo.

There is so much we are not meant to see at funerals. I have kept my tears at bay while delivering a eulogy, and kept my distance from many a distraught family member, despite my urge to comfort them. A funeral is a public display of a private emotion. That is why it is both fascinating and invasive to see one occasionally televised.

It usually happens only when the departed was famous. Since there is something relatable in the entire experience for us all, such a funeral becomes spectacle, fodder for our own anger or catharsis.

Grief is not only a fundamental human emotion, it is an inevitable one. We feel it after the loss of a loved one, a treasured possession, and even at times at the start of something good. If we have meaningful connections with others, grief will find us eventually.  It found the family of Michael Brown and the city of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, when Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. Last Monday, the 18-year-old’s remains were finally buried.

There, the family’s grief was on display. That’s what we tuned in to witness: the multicolored suits and hats, the buttons and clothing bearing Brown’s image, and the civil rights leaders and clergy who made a pilgrimage to Ferguson to lend their platform to a family who, until the unrest over their son’s death, lacked a national voice.

All of that was just a formality, though: a ceremony to cap the public exhibition of grief we’d also been watching on television for more than two weeks. The nightly police violence in Ferguson that played out at the peak of the crisis obscured what I saw as a community in the midst of grief and loss, and at its wit’s end.

Most of America (myself included) watched it unfold on a screen – a television, phone, a laptop. And with the ease of a text to vote for our favorite talent-show musician, too many of us judged.

Brown’s alleged theft of cigarillos and the fact that he’d smoked some weed cast him as an imperfect victim – “no angel,” to borrow the parlance of the New York Times. And as people watched, they judged him and those in Ferguson who were overcome with grief and anger after the teen’s death. The Ferguson they saw was the home of rabble-rousers, miscreants, and even terrorists.

That said, it is a waste of time to say the authorities shooting tear gas and rubber bullets at the Ferguson protesters were actually the bad guys or that the protesters were peaceful, simply exercising their right to free assembly. Trying to justify what marchers did is straight out of the respectability playbook that hasn’t won us a thing. Respectability politics profess to humanize us in the face of oppression, as if it’s on us to correct that error. Those who judge won’t be convinced the Ferguson protesters deserved the same due process they clamor for Officer Wilson to receive.

If critics are ever going recognize the humanity of the protests, they will have to want to understand, for themselves why residents and activists were on the street those nights.

They were mourning.

America was born with both civil disobedience and a discomfort with black discontent within its genetic code. We have seen it in the resistance to virtually every social advancement by African Americans and other peoples of color --  so much so that it has become easier to dismiss racial concerns altogether, and put the onus of racism onto the marginalized. “Race cards,” and such.

But the caustic reaction to Ferguson’s mourners was further evidence that a discomfort with black progress is just the beginning. If there is to be racial peace, we are being told to do it only in a way that makes other people feel comfortable. We need to not only die as “angels,” but mourn like them, too. Justice and equality have become conditional upon the behavior of the aggrieved.

What kind of grief do we recognize? When we see Michael Brown’s father wailing over his son’s casket, America gets that. After all, that’s how people do it on television or in the movies, and even on the spectacle of our local newscast. So when Ferguson says goodbye to Michael Brown, mourners are expected to have their makeup done, clothes tailored, and to hit their mark. And, action!

On cue, Ferguson must mourn and be perfect in the face of provocation, of triggers of every definition. Riot gear cannot break the concentration, nor can a shove or pair of hog-tie handcuffs. Not one plastic bottle can be thrown at a law enforcement officer. Mourners must accept a curfew that blames them for the violence visited upon their heads. And by no means must anyone loot or destroy property, either out of rage or opportunism.

Media, you are also being judged. You must accept the false equivocation that “no one talks about ‘black-on-black’ crime” and that by neglecting that non sequitur, you’re sensationalizing the story and possibly even provoking the violence yourself.

Truthfully, this is all a distraction from the systematic oppression, racism, and discrimination that literally shaped Ferguson into what it is today. Justice and equality should not be conditional upon the behavior of the aggrieved.

Besides, Michael Brown’s family and loved ones have it hard enough with him being dead. They don’t need those still living to determine whether or not his behavior in a convenience store or on the receiving end of a marijuana joint meant he deserved to be executed on a Ferguson street. 

America also needs to grasp that what happened in Ferguson was grief manifest in action, and that it never had to look perfect. I don’t know how we could it expect it to.