Out of order: Despair and the American way

May 1, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 1, 2015

There have been a handful of days in my life that have shaken my belief in America, the nation that has sheltered and nurtured me. Two of them have come in the last six months.

The earliest such occasion was March 30, 1981, when I came home from school and learned that someone had attempted to kill President Ronald Reagan. It was the first time since 1963 that an assassin had seriously jeopardized the life of the leader of the free world.

The next world-shattering day was Jan. 28, 1986, when the seven people aboard the space shuttle Challenger were killed by an explosion 73 seconds into their ascent. It was the first time in history that an American space mission which had cleared the gantry had resulted in the loss of lives. I got out of school early because of testing and spent the afternoon in the basement of my friend Eric’s house watching coverage of the catastrophe on CNN and other TV channels. The deaths seemed entirely at odds with my belief in the United States (and in adults) as technologically competent.

On April 29, 1992, a mostly white jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of severely beating motorist Rodney King following a high-speed chase. (The assault, which was videotaped, took place in March 1991; King was never charged with a crime for his actions that evening.) The night of the acquittal, parts of L.A. erupted into violence.

Over the next three days, according to History.com, thousands of buildings were burned; total property damage amounted to nearly $1 billion. More than 60 people died during the rioting, including 10 who were shot by law enforcement officers, according to the Los Angeles Times, which reported in 2012 that 23 murders had yet to be solved.

The L.A. riots were more disturbing to me than either the Reagan assassination attempt or the Challenger explosion. After all, the first event could be chalked up to the delusions of a single man, the second, to the failures of a single organization. The riots, however, signaled much more widespread and systemic problems, implicitly indicting just one city but an entire society.

Nearly nine years later, I, like much of the rest of the world, was mesmerized by the horrific carnage in New York, Arlington, Va., and rural Pennsylvania, all of which took place beneath sunny, clear skies on Sept. 11, 2001.

This was horrific and shocking, much more so in its way than the 1992 riots, but 9/11 belonged in a different category. The riots represented Americans lashing out against other Americans. The terrorist attacks were outsiders striking against us; the otherness of the aggressors made their actions more palatable, in a way.

Which brings us to recent history. On Aug. 9, 2014, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis where the police force had a long, troubling history of discriminatory practices. There were conflicting accounts over whether Brown’s actions might have provoked the shooting. According to the popular narrative that emerged, Brown was killed while attempting to surrender.

A prolonged grand jury process ensued, led by top St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch. Some were critical of McCulloch’s involvement from the get-go; he had, as a Newsweek headline put it, a “long history of siding with police.” Ultimately — predictably, it seemed — the St. Louis grand jury declined to indict Wilson in the shooting.

There were riots and looting in Ferguson on several evenings in 2014; some of them seemed to have been all but deliberately provoked by a heavy-handed police interactions with angry crowds.

But the confrontations on the streets of Ferguson the night of McCulloch’s announcement seemed to represent a national nadir. The images were simply jaw-dropping: Cars and buildings engulfed in flame; isolated figures hampering the progress of armored police vehiclesà la the so-called tank man in the 1989 protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square; a row of armored cops arrayed beneath a “Seasons greetings” banner stretched across a street.

Forget police provocations, and forget reckless civilian agitators; certainly both played a role in the night’s chaos. But much worse, it seemed that the American justice system, that American society at large, was so irrevocably broken that huge segments of the population had surrendered any hope that corrections could be made.

A similar despair took hold of me a few nights ago, on Monday, when violence broke out in Baltimore in the aftermath of the funeral of yet another apparent victim of police brutality.

Freddie Gray, 25, was arrested on April 12 after fleeing from bicycle-mounted Baltimore officers. No force was used to apprehend Gray, according to the authorities. And yet, about 40 minutes after he was placed in a police van, paramedics were called to address serious medical issues. Gray was taken to a trauma unit with a severe neck injury; he died on April 19 after spending a week as a patient at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

William Murphy Jr., a lawyer for Gray’s family, described the young man’s injuries as catastrophic: “[W]hile in police custody for committing no crime — for which they had no justification for making the arrest except he was a black man running — his spine was virtually severed, 80 percent severed, in the neck area.” Murphy said that Gray lapsed into a coma, had to be resuscitated and required multiple surgeries before his death.

There was some violence on Saturday, April 26. But two days later, when Gray’s body was laid to rest, parts of Baltimore erupted in violence. Arson, looting, tear gas deployed by armored police officers — all were on display.

In an article on Tuesday, Mother Jones described the city shutting down public transportation before many students could ride home on the buses they normally would have taken. The police also blockaded streets near Frederick Douglass High School, essentially trapping students, who were then approached by cops in riot gear. This does not excuse all of the crimes that we saw in the Charm City on Monday night — police assaulted, cars and buildings set ablaze, stores looted. But it helps explain a small part of it.

Perhaps it’s childish of me to think that a nation built on slavery and subjugation might offer health and prosperity — or the reasonable prospect of attaining these things — to most of its citizens. But after watching the violence in Ferguson and Baltimore, just five months apart, I’m more certain than ever that unless America’s most desperate citizens are given reason to hope, this nation’s future is dark indeed.

In multiple gospels, Jesus tells his followers that a house divided cannot stand. Abraham Lincoln reiterated this maxim in 1858 at the Illinois Republican convention, where he was chosen to run for the U.S. Senate. It’s advice that Americans ignore at their own peril.

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