24 November 2014

Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, and the perils of supporting Gunners...

I have to confess up front that I am close to tears at the moment, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with our loss to Man U, our frustrations at our faltering form, or my concerns over rumors regarding Wilshere's ligaments. I have spent most of my adult life teaching in Chicago, Illinois, mostly in its roughest and toughest neighborhoods, and the events in Ferguson, Missouri—an unarmed black teenager was shot by a police officer—cut awfully close to the bone. I have worked closely with young black and brown men who have had similar brushes with the law. To date, I have not seen any of them suffer a fate similar to Michael Brown's. There have been some close calls. Arrests. Hospitalizations. Jail sentences. But no deaths. So far. When Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, my mind raced back to the hundreds of students who share a background similar to Brown's. With Monday's announcement that there be no trial, my heart broke. Among the many other reactions I have each and every time there is a similar incident, one of the more-trivial issues I have to confront is what it means to support a club known as the Gunners.

At one level, I know that there is a vast difference between the club's military origins and my country's civil strife. At that level, there is no worrisome moral dilemma. Arsenal FC is a long time separated from that military origin (so much so that newer fans equate the name with its current manager...), and North London is more than a stone's throw from Chicago's infamously violent West Side. Until recently, I taught in a part of Chicago where there are still vacant lots left over from the 1968 riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I tried to take my students on a field trip to 2337 West Madison, not far from the school where I was then teaching, to show my students the site where Fred Hampton, a member of the Black Panther Party, was shot in 1969. He was on the verge of uniting a variety of street-level gangs around a mission more-centered around human rights and civil rights instead of petty theft and violence. I wanted my students to see the difference between the former and the latter. The trip was cancelled for reasons that remain murky to me. Long story short: I spend my days trying to equip my students, most of them black and brown, with the skills and habits they'll need to understand and overcome the obstacles arrayed against them. When I hear of a person so similar to my students being shot dead without any recourse, something in me falls apart.

I know that, in the grander scheme of things, I'm worked up over just one death. Just one among who knows how many? Are the circumstances any more dramatic or horrific than countless others in Syria or Iraq or Somalia or Nigeria or Colombia or any of who knows how many hotbeds of civil strife, terrorism, or other conflicts? 43 students in Mexico. 300 (or more) girls in Nigeria. The list goes on and on. Why does the Michael Brown case stand out?  As the German satirist Kurt Tucholsky once penned, "the death of one man? this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths? That is a statistic." This doesn't mean that Brown's death is more tragic than those of the 43 or of any other, just that it's more intimate. In the Michael Brown case, the job of the grand jury is essentially to determine whether there is enough evidence for an actual trial to occur. Here, the grand jury decided that there was not enough evidence. Whether that decision was based on the available evidence or on other factors remains an open question. The grand jury consisted of six white men, three white women, two black women, and one black man—which was largely consistent with, if not overly generous to, the prosecution in the case, as our Constitution guarantees the accused (Wilson, a white man) the right to a jury of his peers (ostensibly, other white men).

I won't even wade into the details around the shooting or the legal minutiae beyond that. To be honest, I'm despondent, not because I believe Wilson to be guilty but because there may not be a trial to assess guilt or innocence. Yet another young, black man has died in controversial circumstances, but, as it currently stands, there will be no trial. Our American legal system is based around British common law, and in this case the Blackstone Ratio comes to mind: "it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." Is Michael Brown that one, suffering innocent? As it stands, we may never know unless the federal government continues with its own investigation.

As for me, I'll have to go into work tomorrow and next week and for days after wondering who among my students might end facing a similar fate. I'm not just thinking about the dozens I greet each day; I think back over the last eight or ten years of my career, of the hundreds of students I've worked with, bonded with, come to love and cherish as if they were my own flesh and blood. Come Monday, if a student is absent, my heart will race: is he ill, or has something more tragic transpired since I last saw him? At a deeper level, each time I hear of or read about a shooting death in Chicago, my heart skips a beat: do I know the victim? Do I know the shooter? These are not idle questions for a man who has worked in schools where students have to pass through multiple metal-detectors. We here in America suffer from an epidemic of gun-violence. It sometimes seems as if a week isn't complete unless we've heard of yet another rampage or accidental death or who knows what else. As a teacher of teenagers, most if not all of them occupying the fringes and lower rungs of my society, I can't help but react to Michael Brown's death with despair. I know that the connection between this tragedy and the club I support is tenuous at best, but it does make me worry and wonder: how can I in good conscience, an American educator who works so closely with students who have faced or will face the barrel of a gun, call myself a Gooner, a supporter of Gunners?

This is the only club I've ever followed. It's the only club I've ever loved—a feeling deeper than I've ever felt for my own city's teams, and I've actually been to Chicago Stadium to watch Michael Jordan's Bulls and to Soldier Field to watch Walter Payton's Bears. However, when tragedies such as this one in Ferguson, Missouri transpire, I worry about my association with a club whose name, accidentally thought it may be, evokes the kind of violence that my country, my students, and my friends, suffer from. How can I reconcile these two competing, conflicting callings? My students, after all, are far more likely to follow in Brown's footsteps than in those of any Gunner. I'm in need of some kind of solace here. Whatever wisdom you might have, please impart...