Breaking News: Fear and Loathing In Middle America

My Dear Readers,

I can remember having the talk many years ago with my son about safety and being responsible for his sexual behavior. While that risk still remains, new risks facing black children today require a change in that special conversation.

Today, the focus must be on the safety of our children—specifically the males, as they will have ongoing encounters with members of law enforcement.  Given the hype and influence of the media on a frightened society, our children are no longer safe even from simple activities like playing with plastic guns, as shown in the recent tragic killing of a 12 year old child by a frightened rookie police officer in Cleveland, OH.

I noticed a trend– prior to the tragic shooting in Cleveland, there was a similar shooting in New York City.  In that shooting, a young black male was shot and killed by another frightened rookie police officer.  At the time, the victim was merely walking his girlfriend up the stairs in a dimly lighted hallway.

I recently promised my daughter that I would not blog about the incidents following the refusal of the St Louis County grand jury to move forward with an indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown.  Being a black man who lives in a society where my complexion does not warrant protection, I was not surprised by the decision of the grand jury.

However, I cannot ignore my horror as these innocent lives continue to be taken due to frightened police officers being egged on by a society living in fear of black males, regardless of their age, background or station, so I have had to break that promise.  I cannot remain silent.

These occurrences support the unwritten rule that “black lives do not have value and thus, black lives do not matter.” Furthermore, American media has a history of utilizing our society’s fear of black males to encourage their repression. In this respect, the coverage of the shooting death of Michael Brown and the events which followed had a traumatic impact on an already hyper-vigilant and frightened observing audience.

Of course, it’s clear that the objective of media corporations is to increase their audiences by reporting material that they feel is newsworthy, but the recent news coverage of these events was exploitative, distorted and exaggerated in an attempt to sensationalize the situation.   It is evident that the media recognizes the obvious—that is, the fact that race, rage, and fear have strong selling capital.

This “yellow journalism” has been around for a long, long time. Unlike the climate where it originated, however, its current form is one that is well researched and well presented.

Such methods have been used countless times in this country specifically with the intent to control or suppress a specific ethnic population. This fear and uneasiness—the building blocks of conscious and unconscious racism—has historically given America the justification to openly suppress, segregate and discriminate upon the rights of those whom they fear.

Examples of such usage were the justification of the creation of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) following the Civil War and the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during WWII.  In both situations, societal fear was magnified by the media of its era, which led the dominant society to turn a deaf ear as the rights of its “citizenry of color” were trampled upon.

These unfortunate events have resulted in ongoing incidents of intergenerational and vicarious traumas that continue to this very day.  The media is very tuned into the fear that strikes deep into the being of the “American Heartland,” that being its fear, mystique and deepest doubts about black males.

The intense wave of emotion in Ferguson was on full display after the reading of the grand jury verdict. Picture after picture of businesses in flames, looting, and vandalism reinforced the fear of a frightened majority.

The media cannot stand idly by pleading ignorance of these fears.  Clearly they must be aware of the relationship the media has the continuing rise of fear of black males. Research has already shown that since the coverage of the killing of Michael Brown has been available, sales have spiked in the following areas:

  • production and sales of weapons and ammunitions
  • residential and home security alarms, cameras, and various types of locking devices
  • policing, arrests and surveillance by law enforcement

I do not question the right of a free press to operate in our democratic society.  It is important that newspapers, magazines, television, and radio stations are able to report the news, express opinion and criticize the actions of government, organizations and individual citizens.

However, such reporting of newsworthy materials must also be done in a manner that is responsible and does not incite or sensationalize the story. For example, Louis Head, the stepfather of Michael Brown, was simply known as the grieving stepfather before the grand jury decision.  After the grand jury decision, CNN reports:

“Head joins her (his wife) on top of the car and embraces her for several moments before turning around and repeatedly shouting to the crowd: “Burn this bitch down!  Burn this bitch down!

CNN 11.25.14

Louis Head later apologized for his words, stating it was “a reaction to the emotional duress of the outcome of the grand jury.”  The same evening, the city of Ferguson and surrounding communities were “put to the torch.”

The video of Louis Head being overcome with emotion and shouting “burn this bitch down” was replayed numerous times on national media. However, there was no video replay of Louis Head’s apology or explanation of his emotional outburst.

Although Head is not legally responsible for the damages from the Ferguson disturbances, he is nonetheless held responsible in the court of public opinion for inciting the crowd to commit the acts they did.  On 11.28.14 the following headlines surfaced:

BREAKING NEWS Cops Michael Brown Stepfather Inciting Ferguson Race Riot is Blood Gangbanger

The article goes on to state:

Gotnews.com (11.28.14) has finally confirmed that Louis Head, the stepfather of Michael Brown, is a member of the Bloods gang.  Through text messages, a top-ranked Ferguson cop confirmed that Head and the Brown family are members of the notorious street gang.  Head called for Ferguson to riot.

A police officer named “Dan” with decades on the force and connected to Ferguson chief of police Tom Jackson confirmed that Head and the Brown Family are bloods.

Is this really breaking news?

This smells bad. There was no news report of allegations of gang affiliation during the previous three months in which the events has gripped the nation.  It reeks of eye-catching headlines, exaggerations, scandal seeking and sensationalism. Were his words accurately reported? Yes.  Were these words spoken by a grieving father overcome by emotions? Yes.

The claims that Louis Head and the Brown family are members of the gang Bloods clearly cannot be verified.  However, it may be used to fan the flames, and in doing so, reinforce not only the generalized fear of black males, but for some people, rationalize why Brown was shot the way that he was.

This results in a frightened society turning a blind eye to black on black violence, and to justify a militarized police force using harsh measures on what are, at the end of the day American citizens.

Concluding Remarks

For the media, this is a golden opportunity to exploit all sides: the fearful society at large, the angry minority and law enforcement, caught in the middle.

Following Ferguson, television networks have continuously played police and inner city action movies starring people of color, such as Training Day (Denzel Washington), End of Watch (Michael Pena), and television series  such as Blue Bloods (Tom Selleck) and the long running series COPS.

The common theme is that these are simply people who are “on the job, protecting us from the criminal element of society: Other themes are that law enforcement is:

  • Beleaguered and under attack from individuals who are underprivileged, poor or dwell on the lesser side of society,
  • Undervalued and unappreciated for the difficult job they have to do
  • The “blue line” of defense to protect society from the criminal element.

However, what have the events in Ferguson taught us?

  • We have a clearer lens of society’s belief that the life of a black man is not valued and does not matter.
  • We have learned that a frightened society will use the media as a resource to further devalue minorities and their families
  • We learned that tragic accidents such as a 23 year old black man walking his girlfriend up a poorly lighted stairway (New York) , and a black 12 year old boy playing “cops and robbers” alone by himself with a fake gun (Cleveland, OH) can be shot and killed by frightened rookie police officers
  • We learned that a police officer still traumatized from a previous shooting can be deemed “fit for duty” thus resulting in shooting of a black motorist who was reaching for his identification and insurance information after being directed by the officer to do so (Columbia SC)
  • We learned that with our black sons, having the talk is not about “the birds and the bees,” since they don’t wear badges or carry guns. We now accept the sad reality that having the talk about sexual responsibility is secondary to keeping our children alive, less traumatized and safe.

Many of us want to shout out in anguish.  However, this must be done with caution, since such shouting may lead to a more frightened and closed off society, ever more bent on purchasing more guns and ammunition as they prepare “for that fateful day.”

So what does one do? I don’t have an answer.  However, that does not absolve me of the responsibility to find one.  I can tell you what I am not going to do.  I am not going to give up.  I am not going to let go.  I am not going to surrender my humanity to fear.

In fact, I am going to transform fear.  I am going to journey towards living with fear, and not joining a frightened society in darkness by living in fear.

In looking at those marching around the country in protest against the Michael Brown shooting, the refusal of the grand jury to indict and the pursuing violence, I saw people of diverse ethnic and racial groups.  I saw young and old.  I listened to the voices of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender.  I saw the clergy of various denominations.

I believe the young will inherit this world and unlike their predecessors, they will choose not to live in fear.  They will want and will pursue justice.

“The system wasn’t made to protect us,” said one of the protesters, 17-year-old Naesha Pierce, who stayed up until 3 a.m. watching television coverage from Ferguson. “To get justice, the people themselves have to be justice.”

Black lives have value.  Black lives do matter.

Until the next crossroads….  The journey continues.

Dr. Micheal Kane

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