Listening in Ferguson: It’s not all black and white

No monk should ever defend another in the monastery. Nor should he take sides in an argument…. We decree that no one should be permitted to ostracize or to strike any one of his brothers; and if any monk should break this rule, let him be publicly reprimanded, that the others may learn from his mistake.

—Rule of St. Benedict

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In two consecutive passages, St. Benedict outlines how a monk should respond when he encounters discord in his community. He should not lash out, even if he feels justified. And he should not choose a side, even though he may think he knows all the facts. Instead, he should listen—as he is compelled to do by the opening words of the Rule itself: he “inclines the ear of his heart” (Prologue, 1.1).

Like most people in North America right now, I have been thinking about Ferguson. Or rather, I have been wondering what I should do about the conflict that has come from it. But I live in a monastery in a suburb of Saint Louis that was recently ranked 12th among the 25 most affluent neighborhoods in North America. What do I know about urban poverty or racism?

Tired of This

So recently I asked permission to drive out to a prayer service in Ferguson, and I caught a ride with my friend Dennis, who works here at the abbey. Dennis is African-American and lives in Ferguson. I asked him, as we were driving out to the service, what he thought of the protests. He smiled and avoided the question. “I don’t want any part of that. I’m just trying to get on with my life. Those people are making trouble. They aren’t even from the neighborhood.”

“But they aren’t the only ones making a scene,” I said. I wanted to press him for a deeper answer because how else is a white guy like me from West County going to understand this situation if I’m not willing to ask some awkward questions? “Are the cops racist?” I asked. “How come black people keep getting shot? And why is everyone so angry?”

“The police have always been like that,” he said. “It isn’t going to change.”

Of course I noticed that this second answer was a bit different from the first. And I figured if I asked a third time, maybe I’d get an even deeper explanation. I said maybe things should change. I said clearly something must be wrong or this many people wouldn’t be this angry. I asked him why so many people think the police are racist.

“There are good police and bad police,” he said. “But I’ll tell you this much: I’ve been pulled over three times in your neighborhood. I don’t know why they’ve got to be pulling me over that many times except that they see a black man on this side of town and assume he must be up to something.”

Three times. My friend Dennis has been working here for eight years, and he has been pulled over three times. I’ve lived here for 18 years, and I’ve been pulled over once: for doing 45 in a 30-mile-an-hour zone, and the cop let me off with a warning. So I asked more questions.

Dennis continued: “A few weeks back, my car broke down, and I had to walk the rest of the way to work,” he said. “A guy sitting on his front porch called the police on me. Just for walking down his street at eight in the morning. I know he did because I watched him do it as I walked by. Sure enough, two patrol cars showed up. Look here, I’m just trying to make money, you know? Trying to get by; I don’t need that [stuff].”

There was some anger. It took some time for me to pry it out of him, but sure enough, it was there. And here’s the thing: my friend Dennis is a family man—a married man with three children and two jobs, who pays his taxes and pays his rent on time and goes to church on Sunday and educates his kids just like anyone else.

While I was thinking about this, Dennis started to back off a little. Maybe he felt self-conscious. Maybe he felt this kind of talk wasn’t something I needed to hear, or maybe he was afraid I’d judge him for it. “But you know, that’s just how things are,” he said, “I don’t have time to be angry about it.”

Dennis doesn’t have time for the anger. He does not want the anger. He would rather live his life without the anger. And that was pretty much all I was going to get out of him. He didn’t want to talk about it any more. I don’t blame him. He doesn’t want to be lumped in with the looters, bottle-throwers and arsonists. He has other fish to fry—like making a living. Like taking care of his kids. Like getting to work on time (provided he doesn’t get pulled over on his way here).

Caught in the Middle

I have this other friend named Charles Lutz. He is a policeman from around here, and he helps with security on campus at our school when he is off duty. So I told him about Dennis and how he’d been pulled over three times, and how when his car broke down, someone called the cops on him.

“I hate that,” said Officer Lutz. “Honestly.”

Hate what?

“I hate that some old racist with nothing better to do has to call the cops just because he sees a black man walking down his street. It embarrasses me. It’s a waste of my time. Plus, I’m the one who ends up looking like a jerk. And the worst part of it is, a peaceful citizen gets harassed by the police.”

“You don’t have to harass him,” I said.

“Look here,” he said. “Yesterday, we get a call from a jewelry store owner here in town because there are two black men in his store ‘acting suspicious.’ Is it a crime to be black in a jewelry store now? Of course not. Do I want to drive over there and get in the middle of that? Of course not. And how do I even walk into the store without making those guys feel like dirt? But what happens if I ignore the call? What happens if I decide not to drop by and, God forbid, those two guys do end up robbing the place? Then who gets blamed for that? I’m caught in the middle. And I hate it.”

So here’s the situation the way I see it. On the one hand, you have many white cops all across the country who are angry and embarrassed and don’t want to be in the middle of this mess. On the other hand, you have black people all across the country who are angry and embarrassed and don’t want to be in the middle of this mess. There’s righteous anger on both sides. And that means they are trapped. Too often, both sides are being squeezed into a conflict that neither asked for—and by forces way beyond their control.

Max’s Way

These forces, however, are not, I believe, beyond our control. I believe we can disarm this trap (or defuse it or unwind it) if we stop focusing on the riots and the protests and even the shootings themselves. I think we can begin to restore peace to our city if, instead of lashing out or taking sides, we simply stop to listen. And maybe if we listen patiently to this anger—if we ask the awkward questions and really listen to the answers—practical solutions will emerge.

There is an eighth grader here at our school named Max. A couple of months ago, he and his older brother asked their mom if they could drive down to Ferguson to help with the cleanup. She understandably declined to send them into an active riot zone.

Still, Max and his brother felt they needed to do something, so they went online and looked up a list of the businesses that had been damaged. They found the name of one of the owners and called her on the telephone. She hung up on them. So they drove out to her house. For three and half hours, they sat in her living room and listened to her anger. And it turned out that unless they had $20,000, there was not much they could do. Well, that was the answer, wasn’t it? They went home, started an online petition, and eight days later, they had raised $20,608. And Maria Flores rebuilt her business.

When Max and his brother saw injustice, they didn’t lash out in anger. They didn’t choose a side. They listened carefully. They reached out with their hearts, they created partnerships, and the answer spoke itself. Now if Max can help change Ferguson, so can we. Let’s start really listening. And if one of you hears an answer, let the rest of us know.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Tom Fields
2 years 7 months ago
Many stories use the "driving while Black" worn out quote. This attitude continues the liberal destruction of the inner city African-American community--brought about by liberal political misuse, misdiagnosis of the problems they have created. Here's where we are. Please read Jason R. Riley--a Black journalist--who wrote, "Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed". Riley points out---80% of kids in NY public schools are performing below grade level;; there is a concern about, "acting white"; racism has become the all-purpose explanation for all bad black outcomes; homicide is a primary cause of death among young black men---90% of the perpetrators are black; 98% of black shooting deaths do NOT involve police. a cop is six times more likely to be killed by someone black than vice versa. 72% of black children are born out of wedlock. Fathers may have multiple children with multiple women. Police have taken the role of fathers in inner city black communities. In 48 States out of 50, African American students have the highest High School drop-out rates. With poor parental guidance and poor education--child rearing responsibilities--the unemployment rates are very high. In Chicago, the unemployment rate among black male teens is 92%. "Racism" is a liberal political excuse for their failed policies. "Racism" is a cash-cow for exploiters like Sharpton and Jackson. We can not change this horror until we correctly diagnose the problem. I often wonder if we could reproduce the work of Catholic Schools--in past times doing miraculous service to the poor, minority communities.
Art Fandel
2 years 7 months ago
Susan I got a lot out of this article.........FYI, Art
Henry George
2 years 7 months ago
The First Change we can make in the US of A is to admit that Poor People bear the brunt of the law and are treated terribly by the Legal System. If Bail is set for you and you cannot afford it - you will lose your job, your car, your home while you sit in County waiting for trial. You will also receive minimum legal representation and be badgered to accept a Plea-Bargain by Prosecutors who may well lie about the evidence and witnesses they have against you. [ If you are pulled over for a traffic ticket and cannot pay the $ 500 dollar fine, they may take your car and/or put you in County until you can pay. How are you suppose to pay the ticket when you can't get to work ? The Second Change - admit that people of different races - at this time - on the whole do not like to buy homes next to each other, thus we do not send our kids to the same schools, do not socially mix and thus really do not know each other. [ This is changing but we are largely still strangers to each other. ] The Third Change- Admit that our Public Schools are, in many places, absolute disasters, especially for the poor. Our public schools are more segregated now than they were in 1954. The Fourth Change - Admit for whatever causes - African Americans do commit crimes and/or are prosecuted for crimes, found guilty of crimes at far, far, far higher rates than other Americans. How much this is due to poverty, poor schools, parent(s) unable to raise their children, living in Urban Environments there gangs proliferate... The Fifth Change - The Media has to stop turning everything into White vs Black. Michael Brown evidently went for the Officer's gun - his un-necessary death followed but he initiated the violence. Statements by his partner in crime that he did nothing were false but the Media treated them as being true. Eric Garner may not have fully co-operated when he was arrested but was it necessary to choke him to death ? It does no one any good to have the Media exploit, for their own profit, these unfortunate deaths and it does no good for the government to stand by while businesses are broken into and burned down via riots that do no one any good. If you are poor in our society the government ignores you as best it can. Perhaps all the poor should unite and stop paying taxes, stop serving in the Armed Forces until the governments - both Federal and State treat them as full citizens and provide the necessary services to help them climb out of poverty.
Tom Poelker
2 years 7 months ago
The first two responses are very disappointing because they seem to be efforts to blame the victims, confusing what is suffered with what causes the suffering. May I suggest, that the Ferguson tragedy began with the policeman verbally attacking Brown and his companion, shouting at them with rough language. Would it not be better if law officers always chose courtesy over dominance? Could they not get across the same points politely? Would not this one simple, systemic change lead to better overall community relations? Did officer Lutz ever apologize for having to respond to a call of some bigot? Does he have to enter the jewelry store or could he not sit outside in the patrol car until the customers leave, then go inside to assure the manager that he was there keeping an eye on his store. Can we not find alternative ways to provide security without giving the impression that some are presumed guilty instead of innocent? I think that the police, being the ones who obviously have the power, can afford to be generous and kind instead of domineering. They can keep their suspicions out of their behaviour and treat all courteously, with constant reminders to themselves that the majority of every social and ethnic group are law abiding conformists with the community standards. Can not law and order be kept through constant vigilance without constant demonstrations of dominance?
Joe Zammit
2 years 7 months ago
"... decree that no one should be permitted to ostracize or to strike any one of his brothers;" Violence has been with us since the beginning of humanity. Abel and Cain were not members of St Benedict's Order and, though they had a similar commandment from God, Cain ignored God and wanted to have his way.
J Cosgrove
2 years 7 months ago
Why is the photo above part of this article. It represents an inflammatory bit of propaganda which is not true. Including it in an article about Ferguson will just prolong the mistaken beliefs about what happened there. I suggest that Fr.Wetta remove it. But otherwise it is a great article. I suggest that Fr.Wetta try to understand how we got here. If both sides do that then we may be able to get it solved.
Augustine Wetta
2 years 7 months ago
For the record, I didn't choose the photo and I don't know how one would go about removing it. I think you're probably right. I assume the editors chose the illustration simply because the raised hands have become a symbol of this conflict.

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