Ferguson, Eric Garner, and Why Death Should Outrage Us

There's a good chance you're seething right now.

If you're unscathed about the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old not getting indicted for it, then you're probably a little disturbed that a New York man was choked to death on camera, and his choker will never go to trial for the incident. And if you're not mad about those two deaths, then you're probably upset that a cop shot a 12-year-old boy holding a toy gun on a playground last week. If none of these stories trigger a little bit of outrage from you, WOW. Good job on not having emotions, Spock. Do you kiss your mother with that icy robot mouth?

Design Pics/Design Pics/Getty Images
Actually, don't kiss your mother. It's weird.

Until this month, I had no idea that black moms teach their sons how to survive police encounters. It's called "The Talk," and black boys get it as soon as they start hitting puberty, because their moms realize that there's apparently nothing scarier to cops than a black teenager. I can barely manage reminders for my kids to wear their deodorant. The only good news in this crapstorm of awful is that history tells us that moments like these birth the changes that mean better futures.

In the meantime, it helps to remember a few things.

#4. Shut Up About Riots, White People


Everyone you know falls into one of three camps on the no-indictments stories:

A. People who don't care at all.

B. People who are mad that the police officers weren't indicted.

C. People who are mad that private property has been destroyed.

A Venn diagram of Group B and Group C would look like an old lady's boobs: no overlap and a little bit of distance between them. I'm not suggesting that it's wrong to be in Group C, or that looting is awesome and everyone should do it, but I am suggesting that white people aren't the best consultants on riot advice.

[Getty Images
Woodstock '99.

People who are mad that Joe Paterno was fired.

People who are mad about ... pumpkins?

The deadliest riot in American history wasn't in L.A. or Chicago or Violence City, USA, it was in New York during the Civil War. And it happened because poor white people were mad that black people were exempt from the Union draft, and that rich white people could buy their way out of it. But instead of peacefully assembling while listing their concerns, the white people looted a black orphanage before burning it to the ground.

The lady with the rocking horse looks so happy.

And then New Yorkers did this cute thing where they attacked police stations, the mayor's house, fire stations, the office of The New York Times, and any business perceived as "pro-black." Then they started lynching.

So when you think back on the Civil War, do you remember this moment when white northerners went on a killing spree, destroyed property in their own communities, and terrorized their town for three days? Probably not. If you heard about the story at all, you probably picked up on some sympathy for the poor Irish immigrants who started the riot. After all, it wasn't fair that they had to fight in a war that they thought didn't concern them while wealthier New Yorkers could buy their way out of it. Plus, they were super poor, and poverty makes us do terrible things. Here's how one 1991 textbook put it:

A majority of the rioters were Irish, living in pestilential misery. The spark that ignited their grievances and those of other working men and women was the provision in the law that conscription could be avoided by payment of $300, an enormous sum only the rich could afford.

When it comes to our poor Irish ancestors, white people are a little more willing to give some leeway in shaping the narrative. Or suppressing it if it doesn't fit our picture of how we got here.

#3. Change Is a Messy Process

Do you enjoy working in a place that doesn't require 12-hour workdays, six days a week? There's a riot for that!

Are you glad your boss doesn't lock the door behind you when you sit down to work, preventing you from taking bathroom breaks or exiting the building when a fire breaks out? There's a tragic industrial fire that killed 146 young girls to thank for your right to not work in a horrific hellhole.

It's reasonable to assume a doctor or medical student won't illegally dig up your body for research when you're dead, right? There's a riot for that!

Tear gas and rubber bullets suck, but the National Guard used to bayonet and shoot peaceful protesters. It took the killing of four college students in 1970 for them to reexamine their "opening fire on everyone" policies.

Like that right to vote, ladies? A woman named Emily Davison threw herself in front of a horse to help get it for you.

Are you gay? The kickoff to your civil rights movement in America was a 1969 police raid followed by a riot at a gay club in New York. Here's how the New York Daily News covered the story at the time:


No civil rights movement is a walk in the park. We look back on the 1950s and 1960s and pat ourselves on the backs for coming so far. But if you were on the ground at the time, you know it wasn't a clean break from racism to not-racism.

Bill Hudson

Charles Moore

Along with putting up with attack dogs, water cannons, and having to go no-bones while the police dragged you to jail, civil rights activists and their kids were murdered during the messy, debauched process of getting to where we are now. Here's the part that's almost impossible to stomach:

We probably wouldn't have changed ourselves without those deaths.

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Kristi Harrison

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