Michael Marshall: Noise

For some background, you may want to read my two previous posts (1 and 2) about Michael Lee Marshal.

Narrative Power

In my post published January 22nd, I wrote that language had failed. Except that isn’t what has happened. Mike is dead and we are left with competing narratives: the injustice of Mike’s arrest, police brutality, what is “necessary,” the worth of black lives, homelessness as a social issue... So it goes.

This is how people make meaning in reaction to events and ultimately how they exert power.

Recently, I have found in myself a skepticism about my own thoughts. I don’t quite trust that my patterns of thought, prejudices, or reactions are really my own. I’m not saying there’s some other personality at work whispering in my mind. But I question whether my opinions about public events (especially events as fraught as Mike’s killing) are generated within me or whether I simply default to whatever narrative happens to have been convincing enough to gain power over me.

Of course, this is also a narrative I tell about myself.

Noise

Working with homeless folks, I’ve sometimes noticed and grown to suspect that speech is a distraction from true presence. In part this is because with people experiencing homelessness, you’ll often find yourself buffeted by a stream of words that frankly don’t make sense. I find myself nodding and smiling and thinking to myself “I don’t know what this guy is talking about.” I’ll look at the volunteers who work with me and we just sort of shrug and shake our heads. “Who knows?”

But other times, when I feel particularly grounded or, more often, when I’m just too tired to put on the stupid play of active listening, I have experienced a deeply spiritual connection with the person who is speaking. In these moments of revelation, speech becomes exactly what it is: noise. I wish I could explain the uncovered fullness of another person I’ve experienced in these moments, like the envelope containing the world has been opened for a moment to something cast just beside us, always there at hand but hidden by our narratives about how the world “really is,” but of course I can’t.

Opportunities for this kind of encounter with Mike are over. His narrative has ended. As a single individual, one must resist the tempting offer to take up the easy narratives offered by competing powers.

The truth is language really has failed. It failed before the sheriffs who killed Mike restrained him so brutally. No dumb narrative will bring him back to life. There is no justice for Mike, only silence. To claim anything else is to attempt to make meaning out of his meaningless death, and to use his story to wield power.

Ferguson

Ok, I lied. I'm a liar. I said we were taking the week off, but it's hard when news hits that riles you and enrages you and stifles you all at the same time.

A kid got shot by a cop. The kid didn't have a gun. The cop had a gun. Maybe the kid was gonna run away or maybe he tried to fight the cop. Don't get hung up on those opposing ideas, please, or we'll never get anywhere. The thing is, he got shot and he's dead. MLK Jr. had a lovely saying about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. Maybe it does, but Mike Brown didn't benefit. He's dead. The stories around what happened are muddy because someone's lying, maybe lots of people, but that's what happens when the stakes are high. People lie.

Fortunately, we have a trial system to sort out the lies and try to figure out the most likely truth so that we might pronounce innocence or guilt. Unfortunately, the grand jury and the prosecutor more or less robbed the Brown family and the public of that process. Whether you believe that Darren Wilson acted wrongly, the hazy nature of the events should have convinced everybody to take this matter to trial. It's what we have trials for. To look at all the evidence and make a decision. This is not what grand juries are for.

Grand juries look at the broad information, including cut and dry pieces of damning evidence, and say whether there's enough murkiness to warrant a trial. If Wilson had had a body camera on, or if the cruiser camera had caught anything, or if a bystander had be taking a video on their phone and taped the whole exchange, the grand jury would be within its authority to say "This happened this way, and nothing illegal happened." Of course, that evidence didn't exist in this case. Lots of people failed to do their jobs, so we're left with more questions than we should ever have when a person sworn to serve and protect kills another person.

At the bottom of all this, I'm tired. I'm worn out from my own cynicism, and equally worn out from clinging to bits of hope that things might turn out differently this time. I'm from Alabama, the land of this kind of injustice. I grew up seeing those images of cops beyond the law, especially in racially charged situations. As a teenager, I saw some of the more covert versions with my own eyes. It's tough to be this cynical about the moral universe. I wish I could believe as strongly as Dr. King did. I can't imagine what the Brown family must believe. I wish I could believe those religious leaders I respect who cry prophetically that "love and justice always win." Except they didn't for this kid. He's dead. They don't win for a lot of people.

I don't know exactly what happened the day Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. You don't either. That's what trials are for in this country, but we won't get one of those. Instead we'll have the rage of those who feel like their lives are worth less, the naive belief of some who feel law enforcement can do no wrong, the insidious joy of those who cannot empathize, the weary voices who still try to proclaim the good news, the sighing of we who don't know how it could get better, and the racial tension you could cut with a knife. But probably a bullet.