How To Turn A Law Abiding Citizen Into A Rioter

I would like to throw a brick at a cop in Ferguson. Any cop. All the cops. As a black male, I would like to fight back, violently, against the forces that have hunted me all my life, and will hunt my son all his life.

I'm not going to, but that is because history is not on my side. I no longer give a damn about the moral virtues of non-violence, but recorded history tells us that an oppressed minority population cannot succeed through violence. I don't have a magic staff that can bring locusts and selectively drain or flood rivers, and without such a weapon being peaceful out there is the only effective and reasonable option. I have just enough education to understand that, and just enough restraint to practice it. I believe in non-violence because it's the only thing that works.

Thomas Jefferson has a famous quote about slavery. He was talking about the Missouri Compromise, which allowed Missouri to enter the union as a slave state (a fact way more relevant to the current situation than Mike Brown's alleged shoplifting). On the slavery question, Jefferson offered: "We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go." Everybody remembers that part, but here's the next line: "Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." Jefferson is talking about justice for the slave, and self-preservation for America.

What America has done since 1820 is to gain self-preservation for itself without granting justice for those it oppressed. It's been a neat trick. Go ahead, name any "justice" statistic: incarceration rates, conviction rates, homicides, homicides by cop, death penalty rates, drug prosecutions, forced plea bargains, diversity in the police force, diversity on the bench, name ANY JUSTICE STAT YOU CARE ABOUT. You have just named a statistic that illustrates how African-Americans are denied equal justice as compared to white Americans.

And we all know this. You can sometimes get a debate going about why justice is deferred for black people, but that it is so is not up for discussion. We've all just kind of accepted that this is the way things are. That we can't actually have a racist-free police force. That of course judges are going to come down harder on black defendants than whites. That black people are going to have a tougher time retaining competent legal counsel. We talk about the "justice gap," we make movies about the justice gap where noble white lawyers defend wrongly accused black men, but over 150 years after emancipation, the gulf persists.

This seems like a good time to mention that an unarmed black teenager was shot six times in the street in broad daylight last week, and his killer is sitting at home on paid leave. Once again, black people are being asked to wait for justice to get around to them.

To wait non-violently, of course.

Basic social contract theory tells us that individual citizens give up some of their rights — including their right to kill others which exists in the pre-government state of nature — in exchange for the state's promise to protect them. But what do you do when the state does not protect you and in fact sets its agents against you? This is not a theoretical question, it's a practical issue and debate that has defined African-American strategic responses to racism since we were brought here. Every generation, it seems, has its Martin and its Malcolm. But they were not the first. Every generation of black people wrestles with the question of when vigilante justice should replace state justice when state justice doesn't exist.

Martin is always right. Batman doesn't fight for black people. But it's too easy to dismiss the small minority of violent protesters as opportunistic criminals. Some of them surely are that. Others are just regular people who are reacting ineffectively to a police state set against them. Again, I'm a middle-class, well-educated family man with no criminal history whatsoever, and I have to convince myself through BOOKS and STUDY that I shouldn't fly halfway across the country to go rumble with the police. Don't think for a second that I'm the only one. Non-violence is right, but it's not obvious.

People have been saying that the Mike Brown shooting "exposes" deep racial divides in this country. That's a little bit like saying Christopher Columbus "discovered" America. The racial divide has been here, all along, with people living all up in it.

I was in my suburban grocery store with my family after the shooting. A white lady in the vegetable aisle commented on how tall my kid is for his age. I don't know what white parents feel when they're told their kid is growing up tall, but my emotion was a flash of fear. Maybe half a second of actual terror that I could feel bubbling in my gut before my rational brain suppressed it and shifted the conversation to the quality of potatoes. That is the racial divide. I have to know that as my kid gets bigger and taller, he becomes a target for the police and other men with guns.

If throwing a brick or smashing a window or setting a car on fire would in any small way lead to a world where my son and I could travel safely, you best believe I would do it. I just happen to know that such actions would be ineffective by any measure. My commitment to the rule of law hangs by a thread when those laws continually refuse to protect me and my family. Don't talk to me about "peace" when that very thing is taken away from me because of my skin color. America's unwillingness to bring African-Americans under the protection of law has rendered peace down to a mere tactic.

There can be no peace for black people without justice. All we can really ask for is patience. Luckily, for America, African-Americans are not wolves. We are people and therefore we can override our instinct to fight back and instead, peaceably, demand justice.

At least until history catches up.