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An Open Letter to the Girl Who Thinks Mike Brown Deserved to be Shot

To the girl whose Facebook status said Mike Brown deserved to be shot:

You weren't the first person to post something about Ferguson, obviously. You and I are from a town just about 30 minutes from the place that's been making both national and international headlines, so most people at least made a casual status about it.

A lot of those statuses were about how they wished people would STOP talking about Ferguson.

Yours, however, was the first one that really shocked me.

What you wrote went something like this:

If my father had been in the same position as Darren Wilson, I hope he would have shot Mike Brown. He had it coming. It's sad he died, but why are all these people rioting over something that doesn't really matter?

For a moment, all I could do was stare at my screen open-mouthed.

I don't know why I was shocked. I grew up hearing casually racist remarks from people who didn't even realize they were being racist. I was the minority in an overwhelmingly white town, so that was normal.

But saying that someone deserved to die? I couldn't believe those words were on my screen.

michael brown protest

Bottom text reads "The story's old, but it won't stop repeating..." (Elvert Barnes / Flickr)

You're far from the only person who thinks this way. St. Louis and its suburbs have a long history of racial tension and unease. That history isn't something everyone in our area is aware of, since people would rather forget about the ugliness than teach it in schools.

And to be frank, it's mostly white people who are unaware because it doesn't seem to affect their everyday lives. But the racial history of St. Louis informs our interactions, and it has definitely contributed to what's happening in Ferguson right now.

Let's review, shall we?

In school you should have learned about Dred Scott, the black man who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom in 1857.

dred scott

Photo of Dred Scott taken in the 1850s. (Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know Dred Scott was from St. Louis? It was the biggest slave market in the state of Missouri, probably since we're right on the Mississippi River. It was a hub to send slaves down the river to New Orleans, where I currently live and go to college. No, the irony has not escaped me.

The white citizens of St. Louis were, shall we say, not pleased when slavery was abolished. They wanted to find ways of maintaining the status quo -- and they did such a good job that it has continued today into 2014.

The St. Louis suburbs are a product of white flight after the city was integrated. In St. Louis proper, just look at the Delmar Divide, where rich white families live across from poor black families. Walk on the Loop at night and watch the police officers stop black teenagers for no reason.

Or even just think back to when Ballpark Village finally opened, a space that was supposed to bring us together to support St. Louis sports. The biggest story wasn't about the facilities, but about the subtly racist dress code.

St. Louis is one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Most of its suburbs are no better.

And it's with all of that in mind that I scroll through my Facebook News Feed in absolute disgust, reading post after post like yours from people back home saying that Michael Brown must have had it coming.

Here's how the conversations on Facebook are going:

He must have charged at Darren Wilson. (Experts have concluded that his wounds suggest that he had his head down and hands up, in the position of surrender, when he was shot.)

Well, he shouldn't have stolen those cigars, people write. He was a thug, plain and simple.

This isn't a race issue, the officer was just defending himself.

And that's if people even discuss the situation at all. When this news first broke, it was a huge topic of discussion locally, across races and classes. But after a few days, that died down. What has shocked me most is how it's been business as usual in the other suburbs of the area, including ours just across the river in Illinois.

In the city itself, a diverse crowd has been taking action.

The St. Louis black community especially has made sure to keep the conversation alive and focused on Michael Brown's death and the issue of police brutality.

But in the suburbs, life hasn't changed. Ferguson is not discussed often, and if it is, it's condescendingly. People prefer to harp on the actions of a few looters instead of the real issue of police brutality and the disproportionate amount of black people who are gunned down every 28 hours in the United States by a member of our military police.

The main concern in the mostly white suburbs is not the appalling disregard for human rights that is happening every day in Ferguson. They do not want to continue talking about the unjust death of Michael Brown. What suburbanites are really worried about is if the looters will come for their possessions and that this whole story is just making St. Louis look bad.

You know what? It is. It is making St. Louis look bad. It's making the United States look bad. Because we are finally being confronted with the reality of our country -- black lives are not seen as equal. Institutionalized racism is still a pervasive part of our society. Our police forces are becoming increasingly militarized and apparently even more willing to dismiss our basic rights as citizens of this country.

But what's making us look even worse is the number of people who, even when confronted with all of the recent images from Ferguson, continue to say there isn't a problem.

Really?

There isn't a problem?

You don't think this is something that deserves conversation?

Michael Brown did not deserve to die. It doesn't matter what mental image you may have of him. It doesn't matter that he allegedly shoplifted. That is irrelevant. He did not deserve to die because he was a human being. And we live in a democracy with a justice system. The last time I checked, we didn't hand down the death penalty for shoplifting. 

Yes, it is a race issue. Why?

  • Because black people continue to be disproportionately searched, arrested, and beaten by the police.
  • Because black women like myself are afraid to have children because we don't want to bring more dark babies into a world that will see them as criminals first and people second.
  • Because I have been terrified for my 17-year-old, six-foot-three, black younger brother, and silently give thanks that he has lighter skin than I do because light skin protects you in this country.

No, you should not hope that more police officers act like Darren Wilson. Wilson is a product of an increasingly militarized police force, a phenomenon that is being seen across the country.

As our police begin to function more like armies, they begin to see the people they're supposed to protect and serve as enemy combatants. And if we let this continue, what is happening right now in Ferguson could happen anywhere to anyone. That's an American issue.

Don't get me wrong, I am very proud of where we're from. As I'm writing this, in fact, I'm getting updates about the Cardinals game sent to my phone. I still don't understand why toasted ravioli hasn't caught on, and anyone who has met me knows I love the city of St. Louis. It's my home. But I'm also not blind to the issues that the area has.

Opinions on Ferguson have been drawn across racial lines. As long as we keep pretending that racial tensions don't exist and that everyone is living in harmony, we will have no justice. It starts on an individual level.

It starts with us.

And that's why I wrote you this letter - with hope that you will understand.

Sincerely,

Lauren

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

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An Open Letter to the Girl Who Thinks Mike Brown Deserved to be Shot

Lauren Wethers

Lauren is originally from outside Saint Louis, but traveled down the Mississippi River to be a student at Tulane University, where she is the editor-in-chief of The Tulane Review and director of the New Orleans Universities Relay for Life. She has also written for NOLAWoman.com and Winnovating. One day she’ll figure out how to make the Time Turner real, but until then, she’d like to thank coffee for her success. Follow: @laurenwethers.

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