The public display of anger has been piercing in the aftermath of a grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the public execution of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
While many attempt to portray the anger as directionless, amid the justified outrage rests tremendous opportunity. For starters, exposing the prejudice that pervades our system of law and order disrupts a fundamental American belief: that our judicial system is, at its core, an inherently fair and unbiased institution. It may be flawed, Americans are taught, but it is virtuous.
Yet every execution of one of our most vulnerable, and the subsequent refusal to hold accountable those responsible, exposes the belief for the myth that it is.
But laying bare the myth is only a partial solution. In fact, a flurry of partial and reactionary solutions has followed the recent scourge of unaccountable police brutality. They range from the adoption of police body cameras, to demilitarizing police departments, to electing civilian police accountability councils.
It's certainly important to accomplish what you can when there is a moment of political opportunity, but we must also accept the limitations of those proposals. Body cameras may discourage some instances of gross police misconduct, but let's not forget that Eric Garner's July execution in New York City was captured on video. Ensuring that the police aren't armed for military occupation will reduce the frequency of deaths by firing squad, but it was a Taser that extinguished the life of Dominique Franklin Jr. in Chicago earlier this year.
Our partial solutions may stem the tide of state terror, but they are as irresponsible as they are incremental.
The challenge for Americans is to encourage those important policy changes while situating them within a deeper vision of reform. Those interested in that vision can easily find its details. It's being articulated, and created, daily by the communities that know the history of state repression most intimately. We need only listen to them. Their demands are as courageous as they are misunderstood. They begin with a simple recognition: That the tragedy of Michael Brown's public execution, as well as the failure to indict his executioner, is not in its isolation, but its frequency.
We continue by challenging other popular myths that limit our ability to identify and advance a more comprehensive response. One such myth is trumpeted in times of social tragedy. It's the idea that recent events confirm that our system is broken, and merely needs to be fixed. It's a comforting notion. More difficult to grapple with is the reality that state violence against black and poor communities has always been accommodated by the legal system. It isn't broken. It's functioning like a well-oiled machine, mercilessly. The protesters in Ferguson face repression not because they believe the system is faulty. Just the opposite - they recognize that it's working and that is precisely the problem.
When our highest-ranking government officials treat these tragedies as systemic glitches, rather than systemic creations, they blow the opportunity to transform the root causes of these problems. Those who buy that the system is flawed, but ultimately redeemable, rob Americans of an opportunity to create a criminal-justice system that reflects our shared values. They seize on this logic in times of social upheaval. It allows them to pacify public outrage by making minor concessions, while leaving intact the overall system that cause them in the first place.
It's time that we demand more than a vision of change that is merely polish for what's corroded beyond repair. Look no further than President Obama's remarks that frustration in Ferguson is understandable, but that the "rule of law" must prevail. The irony is that it has, but not in the way most think. It has prevailed in absolving anyone or any institution of responsibility. It has prevailed in securing the right of those armed with the power of the state to wield violence.
Fortunately, where national and local elected officials continue to pontificate, communities targeted by police brutality state the truth plainly. Specifically, you can't talk seriously about preventing police brutality without combating its parent - the prison-industrial complex. The connections are clear. To be poor and black is to wield the marker of guilt. In the case of Michael Brown and innumerable others, the outcome is identical to the punishment meted out by incarceration: life's destruction.
But tremendous suffering often begets tremendous hope. Amid the outrage in Ferguson rests a stubborn humanity - violated, but resilient. It's a humanity that acknowledges the power of the law, but recognizes that what's lawful is not always just. It acknowledges that systemic reform is not only desirable, but possible. Making that happen requires that our collective outrage be coupled with collective empathy and organization. In this regard, the communities that suffer the greatest injury continue to lead by example.