It can only be a good thing that the attention of the nation is focused on the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and its aftermath. However, if the debate continues to be on the details of this particular case – many of which will likely never be known – or even on the growing problem of police heavy-handedness, or even the besetting problem of racism in America, we will never reach a solution to these tragedies.
As one minister from the region pointed out, every time a black person is killed by a white police officer, the country is split in two. What we need is a national dialogue on unity, on healing. I agree; but I think we need to go even further. We need to remember the prophetic words that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pronounced from the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, in his famous sermon called Beyond Vietnam: “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” he said, and to cure this malady “we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” King instinctively knew and often said that racism was a form of violence, so until violence itself was addressed racism would never leave us. And he was right.
I am not in the habit of patronizing the mainstream media, but I did see that even as the reports and debates over Ferguson rolled on last week they were interspersed, on the TV set in the men’s locker room at the gym I go to, with a “reality” show where a woman sneered in rage against someone else (not being able to hear the sound from the room I was in only made the mental state of the people clearer). Sure enough, the word RAGE in huge letters came on the screen, evidently the name of this show or the whole program, and indeed the more she raged the more the audience roared in approval. Am I watching a gladiatorial game in ancient Rome or a reality show in America, I asked myself. My point is this: if we do not want the brutality of some policemen, or of anyone else, we will have to stop the brutalization of the human image that has become, even since King’s day, a norm of popular “entertainment.”
No act of violence occurs in a vacuum; it occurs in an atmosphere, a climate, a culture. In the Beyond Vietnam speech King connected the dots between the racism of our northern or southern ghettos and the violence that pervaded our “policy and values.” We can specify today that the way we’re supporting wrong policies and wrong values is very largely with the dehumanization, what he called the “thing-orientation” of our commercial media. A lot of good research has established this point – research that is no less valid for its being largely ignored.
Of course, there are other things we can do to address the kind of violence of which the tragic killing of Michael Brown has become an icon. We can stop militarizing the police – a blatant violation of the principle, enshrined in the Posse Comitatus Act in this country, that in a democracy military forces are not to be used against its own people. We can greatly spread and support the establishment of peace teams that have been so effective – often moreso than, and appreciated by, local police – in making police intervention unnecessary in certain community situations and calming disturbances that are likely to occur after a tragedy like this one. But measures like these by themselves will not go far enough unless we are also addressing the root cause, the cause that underlies racism itself, which is violence. And since a large part of today’s violence comes from the images of who we are and how we are to relate to one another, and since these images are put before us most effectively by our violent media, there is one simple step every one of us can take: not to watch them. This is the platform on which we can build the world of trust and peace we seem to be crying for, a world in which not only police brutality but all kinds of violence are all but gone.
Michael N. Nagler is Professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley and author of The Nonviolence Handbook and The Search for a Nonviolent Future.