Be Angry But Sin Not: Why Calm Is Not an Option in Ferguson

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Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. – Ephesians 4:26-7.

In the wake of the slaying of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, by the hands of a lone police officer in Ferguson, MO, I have been thinking about the place and legitimacy of Black rage in U.S. society. Let me be frank, regardless of the disputed circumstances that led up to the shooting, Brown’s murder is something for which Blacks are legitimately outraged. Over at Salon.com, Dr. Brittney Cooper expresses this sentiment quite well.

Not only is Black outrage legitimate in this case, it ought not be easily quenched or satiated. Yet, just as in so many cases recently where irrational fear of Blacks has resulted in unjustified murder, the call for calm and “peace” seeks to negate that legitimate outrage. This call comes in multiple forms.

First is the critical gaze on looting. This attention to the bad acts of a few serves to divert focus away from the cause of social unrest. To some, the violence proves that the irrational fear of the Black body and presumed criminality of Black males in particular are justified. At the very least it demonstrates to them that Black rage is not interested in justice or truth, just revenge. These are the same voices that predicted a violent uprising if George Zimmerman were to be acquitted. Of course, these fears were proven unfounded when the acquittal came and Sanford did not burn.

Second is the appeal to calm and patience for the investigation to unfold. This appeal is invalid because too many times in our distant and recent history Black rage has had to provoke the powers that be into launching a full investigation. In other words, we cannot simply wait for an unjust system to investigate itself without our rage provoking it to transparency and honesty, especially when the powers desperately want a particular outcome that sweeps the injustice under the rug. In the case of Michael Brown’s murder, it is clear that the police wish to legitimize the officer’s actions. According to their accounts, Brown provoked the officer by disregarding an order, attacked the officer by forcing him back into his squad car, and attempted to steal the officer’s gun. Even this account is true (and eyewitness accounts make these claims seem quite dubious) that still does not explain how Mr. Brown ended up dead 35 yards away from the vehicle, why the officer emptied his clip into Mr. Brown’s body, why Mr. Brown was left unattended for hours in the street as a result of an officer involved shooting, and why the other suspect involved in the altercation was neither pursued, nor arrested.

Calls for calm and patience fail to take into consideration that the system has failed Michael Brown, his family, and the entire town of Ferguson, MO. They would deny or delay justice to avoid social turmoil, but did not Dr. King write, “True peace is not merely the absence; it is the presence of justice.” (King Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1958)? We need a healthy channel to funnel our legitimate outrage. Further, just as Dr. King modeled, we must keep the pressure on the authorities to get to the truth and to do so transparently. Making excuses for the officer in question, confronting vigils and protestors with militarized riot gear, and withholding the name of the accused does not give us confidence that being calm and patient will yield a just result.

Dr. King said in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that the purpose of nonviolent direct action was to “create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community [would be] forced to confront the issue.” The vigils, blockades, verbal confrontations with police, letters and emails to city officials, tweets, and the like will hopefully force an authentic confrontation of the issue.

This last point brings me back to the scripture that opened this posting. Be angry but sin not means that we cannot let our rage become destructive. Doing so allows our legitimate grief to be easily overlooked and dismissed. It makes justice that much easier to deny. At the same time, our anger should not abate because it is the fuel that will allow “justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

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