Louis Head, who identifies as deceased Ferguson, Missouri 18-year-old Michael Brown's stepfather, climbed up on a pedestal wearing an "I am Michael Brown" t-shirt to comfort his partner, Lesley McSpadden, Brown's mother. The Grand Jury declined to prosecute police officer Darren Wilson, and the town was in flames before him, "Season's Greetings" spelled in lights over the street.
He became agitated, shouting "Burn this mother------ down!" and repeating "Burn this b---- down!" before violence erupted.
Soon thereafter, family attorney Benjamin Crump shared a podium with Rev. Al Sharpton, currently the subject of exposes in the New York Times alleging tax irregularities (at the least). The press conference was in response to viral posting of videos showing the inciteful screams by Ms. McSpadden, and especially those of Mr. Head. Mr. Crump explained that the "burn this b----down" exhortation was "born out of desperation and frustration after watching the decision that the killer of an unarmed child would not be brought to justice."
I beg to differ: Officer Wilson was 'brought to justice" by the evaluation of the Grand Jury, which determined that he should not be charged.
The reaction in Ferguson to the Grand Jury's decision was characterized this way by CNN: "A row of businesses on West Florissant Avenue, a major thoroughfare in the St. Louis suburb, was engulfed in flames Monday night. Police cars and vehicles at a nearby dealership were turned into fireballs. There were so many blazes that firefighters couldn't reach every one."
I live in Seattle, where protesters blocked the I-5 freeway, exploded a large firework in front of police, and threw cans and bottles. Roosevelt High School, ranked by US News as 351 among the nation's top high schools with a 9% black student body, experienced a student walk-out to a rally on the University of Washington campus.
In other cities, law enforcement had its hands full containing responses. The central, underlying issue is whether police target blacks and treat them unfairly because of their race.
Halfway around the world, it is certain that Jews have been targeted and treated unfairly because of their "race." This week four worshipers in prayer at synagogue, and a policeman coming to their aid in the Har Nof suburb of Jerusalem were cruelly hacked and stabbed to death. Eight were wounded. The deceased left a total of 24 children fatherless. Thousands attended the funeral later that day of Rabbi Moshe Twersky; his eldest son said his only consolation was that his father died in prayer.
Posted by many of my friends on Facebook is a link to an ad-hoc video by Michal Levine, the daughter of slain Rabbi Kalman Zeev Levine, in which she reacts to losing her father just a few days ago. In calm, deliberate words, she explains that her father would want his death to bring greater unity, and inspire others to see the good in what they have. She concludes movingly: “He died because he was a Jew, without harming anyone, and it’s painful, but yet, every person we still see as good. We leave his physical body with pain, but not with any anger with anyone. And that is the message we want to be known.”
I've heard some say the reaction to the Ferguson grand jury announcement is really not about that one case, but anger rooted in persecution since and including slavery. President Obama claims anger "is understandable" here, but shouldn't be cause for violence or destruction. To be fair, Michael Brown's father, quoted in Pres. Obama's remarks before the grand jury announcement last night, was measured: "“Hurting others or destroying property is not the answer. No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.”
Excellent, but then we see the footage of Lesley McSpadden and Louis Head actually reacting after the decision is delivered. Ms. McSpadden visually contradicted her former partner's admonition by wearing a knit cap displaying "#JFMS," for "justice for my son." (The fashionably inclined can select from five t-shirt offerings on the craft-site Etsy alone, most with a "hands up, Don't Shoot" logo.)
By contrast, the footage shown after the massacre in the Jerusalem synagogue featured Arabs in Gaza celebrating by sharing sweets, as well as blood-spattered Jewish ritual items. We can't judge much based on what the press chooses to show us, and I consider the Ferguson announcement an epic fail by our own government, which should have summoned media for a discussion and thereby diffuse feelings about the Michael Brown case in the three months since it occurred. Perhaps if instead of a huge drum-roll in the several days before the announcement, we'd heard more about the info that led to the dismissal--to prepare everyone--there would have been less expectation of violence to fulfill.
Case in point: my local talk station yesterday, at every commercial break, used their most deep-voiced announcer (the one whose inflections imply gravity) to assure listeners that when the announcement comes, they'd suspend all programming to carry it live. The question arises: do news-sites cover or create a national climate? Then again, do we expect news gatherers competing for ratings to hold back from exploiting an opportunity to enlarge a big story? Even in the interest of minimizing possible injury and destruction?
But you can't blame individuals' behavior choices on media. And you can't excuse Head and McSpadden's profanity-laced incitement by saying they were upset.
People can end up doing really destructive things when they're pumped up, like Becca Campbell, 26 of St. Louis, who brandished a pistol in the car while her boyfriend drove. "I'm ready for Ferguson," she said, waving the gun so wildly her boyfriend rear-ended another car. The gun went off, shooting her in the head and killing her.
Each person is responsible for his own actions, and the grand jury determined that was the case for Michael Brown, too. If he'd complied when Officer Wilson asked him to walk on the sidewalk instead of the middle of the street, he'd likely be alive, though probably prosecuted for the convenience store robbery.
Not so for the four slain worshipers in Jerusalem, whose behavior was not what caused their demise. And yet, the response from resident Jews surrounded by potential enemies is one of grief grounded in serenity, confidence in One grander and more just.
So here we have two stories of race-ethnicity with similar sad events but very different responses. "Burning the b---- down" solves nothing and salves little, while withholding anger in favor of communication and trust in God allows life to go on.