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Young: A nation of generalizations

Police did not kill Michael Brown. One policeman did.

Black people did not burn down buildings in Ferguson, Missouri. A few idiots did.

It is our sad nature to assign the acts of one, or of a few, to the many (see: Islam), and that’s one reason why we appear to be going nowhere when it comes to racial harmony in this country.



The other day while police escorted students from Denver East High School in a peaceful protest over events in Ferguson and Queens, N.Y., a motorist inadvertently slammed into four officers, critically injuring one.

Police asserted that a few students cheered the accident. Denver Post reporters on the scene said they heard nothing of the sort. Nonetheless, Fox News reported, “Denver high school students protesting recent civilian deaths involving police chanted ‘Hit him again!’”



Whatever the case, by all reports, most of the students — of many colors — behaved just as peaceful protesters should. They were aghast.

What happened in Denver and wherever police do their jobs brought home the collective sacrifice they make, the collective dangers they face.

The destruction in Ferguson and at a few other protests around the country brought home the fact that a few idiots can succeed in distracting the easily distracted masses from the justifiable grievances others seek to address.

One of the under-reported stories of the civil rights movement was the extent to which Martin Luther King Jr. went to keep people peaceful and peaceable in the protest marches he led.

In fact, King pulled out of a much-anticipated march in Memphis just as it began when a few hooligans started breaking windows. He didn’t want his movement associated with idiots. Of course, opponents of the movement quickly supplied the linkage between King and the worst kind of behavior. So, too, with the destruction in Ferguson.

When the TV scenes show flames, it’s easy for those who aren’t there to assume the worst about generally peaceable people. So, too, of course, in generalizing about police.

That doesn’t mean the protesters don’t have a legitimate grievance. They do indeed.

I spoke to an African-American in Central Texas who likes to customize cars and who has a dazzling set of wheels. He constantly gets stopped by police — the quintessential crime of “driving while black.”

No one who doesn’t share his pigment can understand the added dimensions this man’s life assumes simply by stepping out the door.

As to injustices, when I read John McWhorter’s words, “Black bodies are devalued,” in Time magazine, I didn’t think of Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin. I thought of the frantic search in the summer of 1964 for Mississippi civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney — frantic only because Goodman and Schwerner were white.

When dredging creeks and ponds looking for the three, whose grisly deaths shocked the country, searchers found a succession of unidentified black bodies. What had sealed victims’ fates? Registering to vote? Whistling at a white woman? No calls for justice would ring out on their behalf.

Back to King. Though he and his fellow protesters faced horrific indignities at the hands of police, at some point police became allies in the movement by making it possible for participants to carry out what King wanted — calculated nonviolence. That’s all we can hope for some day in this land — that “the few” on either side will become fewer still. Fewer cops will shoot first or otherwise use excessive force. Fewer protesters will see communal outrage as reason to break and enter.

Maybe that day, because of King’s successes and the example his movement set, fewer of us will be in our neutral corners on matters of race, and all will be outraged about pointless violence.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.


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