A Ferguson Window: ‘Get the F Off the Street’

We have been given another icon into the depth of our souls as a society. What do we see? Who are we becoming?

After reading through some of the testimony, articles, and on the ground reports, one piece I’m struck by is the initial communication between Wilson, Johnson and Brown. As Johnson and Brown walked down the street talking about life, Wilson drives by and says not “hello,” “how are you guys,” or “out of concern for your safety and others,” but instead he says “get the fuck on the sidewalk,” according to Johnson. Let’s pause right here…

What do we imagine Johnson and Brown felt when a police officer who represents and serves the people says this? Perhaps, surprise, shock, anger, disrespect, de-humanized…This choice by Wilson to initiate an interaction of hostility and de-humanization cultivated a process of escalation.

But this isn’t a simple momentary slip, rather it occurs within a social context of distrust between a minority community and the police, of economic dislocation, of racial divisions, of unhealed wounds of disrespect and dehumanization.

I’ve seen little attention to this key “moment” or seed of what even more tragically developed. Why is this? Notably Wilson testifies that he simply said “why don’t you get on the sidewalk.” From my reading, neither lawyer nor juror asks him if he said “get the F on the sidewalk,” as they previously heard Johnson testify. I have little reason to suspect Johnson is making this up as it is consistent with the process that unraveled, whereas Wilson certainly has ample reason to leave out this provocative phrase from his testimony since he is potentially on trial and represents the image of the police community. If he left this out, I do wonder also about the credibility of other parts of his testimony. Either way, without a trial there is now less of a chance to more fully determine this.

Wrongdoing, harm, violence, and crime are always a process, never merely a momentary event of legality or illegality. The problem is that our current system of “justice” still tends to respond as if these are primarily events. So, although something seems so morally troubling, our habits and structures have little capacity to actually address the process, social context, and actual needs of all parties involved.

Wilson and aspects of police culture need to be held accountable for their role in this process including Wilson’s very minimal de-escalation efforts. Such accountability is an actual human need of anyone involved in a process of harm. So, it’s healthy for them just as it’s healthy for the Brown family and broader community for such accountability to occur.

If we are going to turn toward a justpeace, I think a trial is valuable because the community needs it in this case to process the experience, not because an interpretation of the law determines it or not. But even more, is a trial enough or even the best option? Are there not also other human needs of the victim’s family, the offender and his family, and the broader community which won’t be met by a trial? Thus, are not restorative justice processes, such as circles, at least also needed?

This case is a microcosm of deep simmering issues of race relations, police accountability, and militarization of our society. A larger truth and reconciliation commission on race relations in our society would be a good piece to transforming the conflict.

There is no reason for a person, especially a public official to ever speak to a person in the community with “get the F off the street.” But, there are many reasons why we should not ignore this initiating part of the process and instead seek genuine accountability which helps engender deep healing. Who will we become?