From Ferguson to Yemen: What If We Aren’t So Different After All?

By By Jack Hamlin

While saddened by the news out of Ferguson, Missouri this past week, I am not surprised. Once again an unarmed black teen was shot dead by an “other than” black man, and the legal industry was used to exonerate the killer. I say legal industry, because it is no longer a system of due process and equal protection, and no longer seeking justice. It is merely an industry which allows experts and insiders to use the law to further their own agenda.

I am certain, had Michael Brown shot and killed Darren Wilson in the same manner Wilson shot and killed Brown, the outcome would have been very different. Had the situation been reversed and had Brown been arrested and not gunned down, after his stay in the hospital recovering from the law enforcement beat and release program, he would be in jail facing the death penalty as punishment. He would have not been allowed to testify in his own self-defense before a grand jury, and he most certainly would not have had a prosecutor working hard to return no criminal indictment.

As events unfolded in Ferguson last week, National University hosted delegates from the International Visiting Leadership Program here in San Diego.

Briefly, the program is through the U. S. State Department and brings folk from outside the U.S. to meet with folk who work in the same field here in the States to exchange ideas for global improvement. My expertise is in conflict transformation and the delegates were those who work in peace keeping fields in their respective communities. This particular delegation was from North Africa and the Mid-East. Blessings on all of them for the work they do, sometimes at very great risk to their lives.

One of the delegates was from Yemen. As the only female delegate from the region, she was reserved and respectful, but she was far from silent. Through an interpreter, we had a very pleasant and pointed conversation during our lunch. Following lunch I gave a presentation at NU’s new Sanford Center focused on Restorative Justice. At the end of the presentation we had time for a questions and answers from the delegation and faculty members who attended.

The delegate from Yemen asked me how we could begin to speak of justice, when U.S. drones were being used to kill “enemies” of the U.S. in her country, and in so doing, were killing innocent civilians. I was at a loss. I managed a feeble answer, citing many U.S. citizens did not agree with the drone program and were saddened to see our current administration using such means without consideration of the death and destruction caused to the innocents.

I told her those of us who disagreed with the use of drones would continue to voice our disagreement with the program (I found out later, her home was destroyed by a missile fired from a drone). She smiled politely, but we both knew these words carried little to no value. Perhaps this essay will.

As a teacher at the university level I find myself continually moving back and forth between what we call the liberal and conservative dichotomy of the U.S. I often find difficulty trying to find some sort of common ground to begin dialogue between the two. I try to find a way for folk to look through one another’s eyes. Very cliché, I know, but seldom actually used.

At this point some of you are probably asking yourself “what does Ferguson have to do with Yemen?” How does the killing of a black teenager in the U.S. have anything to do with drone-fired missiles on the other side of the world? Well, the answer is violence. Violence against the disenfranchised of the U.S. Violence against those who oppose the U.S…and whoever happens to be close by. Violence against those for whom we believe are less than us.

An exercise I conduct with my students is to ask them to watch the film “Red Dawn” (either the 1984 or the 2012 release). The premise is simple. Suspending reality, the U.S. is invaded by a foreign nation. In the 80’s release it is Soviets using Cuban illegal aliens to cripple the defense system and in the more recent version it is North Korea releasing a virus in the defense computer system. As a result of the invasion, a group of small town teenagers engage in attacks on the invading military from small ambushes to large scale assaults on installations. It is all very jingoistic.

While watching the film, I ask my students to move the setting from the U.S. to Iraq or Afghanistan, the teens being Iraqi or Afghans. And of course, the invading military would be from the U.S. Do you still root for “Johnny” if his name is “Ahmed?” Do you still cheer if the ambushed convoy is U.S. and not Soviet or North Korean? Do insurgents become patriots? Questions to ponder and discuss.

Outside the classroom in conversations with some of my conservative friends about Ferguson (or any other case of white on black violence), I find a certain disturbing disconnect in understanding the black experience in the U.S. In fact, many believe we have solved the issue of racism and it is merely a certain group of malcontents who always play the “race card,” when a killing occurs, such as in Ferguson. They are quick to point out if one simply obeys the law and law enforcement, then “none of this would happen.” These are same the folk who feel oppressed if they are stopped for DUI or cited for a dog off leash.

So, I ask them a series of questions, which invariably makes them uncomfortable, but drives home my point.

  • “When have white people ever been slaves to black people?”
  • “Did white people need a constitutional amendment to be liberated from slavery?”
  • “Did white people have to wait another 100 years for a law which basically states they are equal to everyone else?”
  • “Have you ever seen a photo of a group of grinning black men posing by the bodies of white boys hanging by their neck from a tree?”
  • “Have you ever seen newsreel footage of black men releasing dogs on a group of unarmed white men and women, or spraying them down with fire hoses and firing tear gas at them?”
  • “How often do white men/boys get chased down, confronted and beaten or killed in black neighborhoods simply because they were there?”
  • “Why is the U.S. population 77% white and 12% black and the U.S. prison population 59% white and 37% black?”
  • “Have one third of all white men either been in jail, in prison, on probation or parole?”
  • “Have over twice as many incarcerated white men as black men been exonerated of crimes (most of the capital offenses) through DNA testing?” (hint: No)

Hopefully you get the point. Hopefully my friends do too.

When we think of a group of people than less than “us,” we justify acts of violence against them. And when I write of violence, it is not just physical violence. I define violence of failing to act to help when you are able.

For example, we have gone into over-drive protecting ourselves from the onslaught of Ebola here in the U.S., but where is the outcry for those who are in Africa? To date, the U.S. has had four cases and one death from Ebola, while in Africa, in five of its countries, its people have experienced nearly 16,000 cases and 5,700 deaths.

My grandmother, who passed nearly twenty years ago, told me when I was young it is easy to hate someone when they are different from you. It is a lot of work to love someone who is different. So maybe the key here is not looking for how we are different from others, but looking for sameness. How we are alike? Perhaps we could start by realizing, in our hearts, everyone else is someone’s son, daughter, father, mother, sister, or brother. And as Shylock opined in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice,

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

We are a violent and dangerous creature. But we do not have to be. The potential we have achieved as a species in a short time (evolutionarily speaking) is truly remarkable. What if we turned some of those efforts into practices of peace and non-violence? What if we stopped making war profitable and made peace profitable. What if the U.S. exported the most advances in medicine and education instead of the most weapons? What if we simply started looking at all people as the same as us and not different?

What if Darren Wilson thought of Michael Brown as someone’s son? What if the person who “pulled the trigger” on the drone missile in Yemen thought of the sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, just like his or hers, who would be killed and injured by his or her act?

I know this essay will change nothing in the broader scheme of things. That is reality. It is only a drop in the ocean in an attempt to make a change. But it is a drop and the ocean is made up of drops. And maybe, just maybe, we can begin to challenge those who deny justice through the use of violence.

Only then can we begin to move toward peace and not merely imagine it.

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