Columns » Gene Lyons

Cursing each other

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To establish my credentials, here's something that happened to my wife and me a bit before last year's tragedy in Ferguson, Mo. We'd taken our daily three-mile walk with the dogs along our gravel road, where encountering three vehicles is a busy day. Often we see nobody.

We'd paused on a wooded hilltop far from any neighbor. Deer, coyotes, bobcats and even bears cross from the ridge to the river, requiring lots of investigative sniffing.

A quarter-mile further on, two burly young black men riding ATVs stopped at a turnoff. One gestured in our direction. They exchanged words, and then turned and drove directly toward us. They weren't anybody we knew.

Did their being black contribute to our uneasiness? Yes. Virtually all crime in our rural Arkansas county is family-related. But down in Little Rock where we'd lived for many years, things are different.

Was I afraid? Not really. People have always left me alone. We were also accompanied by two Great Pyrenees and a German shepherd. The Pyrenees have never shown aggression toward humans, but they're extremely powerful and fearless. I have seen Jesse, the male, shake and throw a full-grown coyote like a rag doll.  

Actually, it was the dogs that had drawn the men's interest. They pulled up, dismounted and removed their sunglasses — always a reassuring gesture — and asked what breed they were. They turned out to be cousins of my friend Wayne, a U.S. Forest Service employee who does tractor and chainsaw work in his off hours, warm and personable like everybody in his family. We had a lively conversation.

Because we're incurable wet-noodle liberals, we've often talked wistfully about this incident. We'd all four met each other exactly halfway, as if no racial divide existed. Actually, I think it was a country thing. In a county with more cows than people, nobody acts like a stranger.

It ain't heaven, but it's definitely not Ferguson.

Now then: "Hands up, don't shoot."

You know the late Michael Brown never said that, right? It was a media-amplified fiction. According to the 86-page Department of Justice report on his tragic death at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson, "there are no witnesses who can testify credibly that Wilson shot Brown while Brown was attempting to surrender." Instead, he was charging. A footnote adds that no eyewitnesses "stated that Brown said 'don't shoot.' "

This column has already quoted more of the DOJ's painstaking investigation than a recent lengthy New Yorker profile of Darren Wilson that stirred righteous anger in the usual places: SalonSlate and Charles Blow's column in the New York Times.

Up to a point, Jake Halpern's profile of Wilson, unemployed and halfway in hiding after a year spent receiving death threats (and something like $500,000 in donations) from people determined to cast him as either a racist murderer or a hero, was relatively even-handed.

To his credit, Wilson resists both roles. He sees himself as a decent cop blindsided by fate in the form of an enraged 6-foot-4, 300-pound kid who attacked him for no understandable reason. He tries not to think about whether Brown was a "bad guy" or a confused kid. "I only knew him for those 45 seconds in which he was trying to kill me," Wilson said, "so I don't know."

He emphasized that cops don't "have the luxury of dwelling on the past.

"We can't fix in 30 minutes what happened 30 years ago," he said. "We have to fix what's happening now. That's my job as a police officer. I'm not going to delve into people's life-long history and figure out why they're feeling a certain way, in a certain moment. ... I'm not a psychologist.'"

Nor was he mayor, police chief or even a shift sergeant of the Ferguson PD, a place he didn't make any more than Brown did. He was a grunt riding alone in a patrol car who stopped two shoplifting suspects only to find himself in a harrowing struggle that lasted roughly 60 seconds, from beginning to end.

Justice Department investigators concluded that credible eyewitness testimony — and there was a lot — confirmed Wilson's perception of Brown as "a deadly threat" and states that "it was not unreasonable for Wilson to fire on Brown until he stopped moving forward and was clearly subdued."

Ugly, tragic and unavoidable.

Nevertheless, Blow sees in Wilson a "calculated coldness, a willful obliviousness" and "repugnant" racism. That's basically how it goes. On the sentimental left, nobody's allowed to ask what made Brown pull a strongarm theft in broad daylight and then commit suicide by cop.

I strongly suspect a psychotic episode.

On the reactionary right, Brown's simply a "thug," and progressives are name-calling hypocrites who leave it to guys like Darren Wilson to deal with the consequences of their own feckless romanticism. So we curse each other and very little ever changes.

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