It’s been 11 years, but I can still see the kid’s face: reddish cheeks on a plump, cherubic face with an impish grin. The photo of a dead man.
Michael McKinney was 21 years old the night he mistakenly banged on the door of the wrong person. After a night of heavy drinking, he stumbled back to his friend’s house, as planned, to slip through the back door and pass out, thus avoiding a potential DUI.
Instead, he found a home occupied by a scared woman who called 9-1-1, fearing the banging on her back door was a prowler or worse. A rookie police officer, Robert Duplain, responded to the scene and ended up putting four bullets into the Ball State student.
The next day, as I returned from a convention across the country, I got the call from the editor at my student newspaper. The editor laid out what we had: We don’t know much. The kid is dead. The cop shot him. We don’t know why.
I dropped my suitcase inside the door, kissed my wife hello/goodbye and worked another 12 hours.
The students covered the event incredibly well, given their lack of experience. They asked the right questions, worked with the right people and kept the campus updated as well as (or better than) the local and state papers. They also followed the story for more than a year as officials were investigated, lawsuits were dismissed and memories faded.
The thing that stuck with me over all these years was that first night, as the students vacillated between figuring out the news and coming to grips with the shooting. One of the editors, someone who had lived his whole life in that community, said, “This doesn’t happen here…”
He said in a way that felt like he was partially trying to explain his lifelong home to a new resident and partially trying to reassure himself of something.
That line came back to me as I thought about the Michael Brown shooting and the subsequent escalation of violence in that St. Louis County community. According to crime statistics, the city has barely a handful of murders each year and this year it drifted just above average for overall crime. It compares pretty favorably to Muncie the years I lived there and, believe me, nothing there felt horribly unsafe. The closest thing to “major police action” we got was when the short-lived show “Armed and Famous” filmed it six episode lifespan in our town.
This doesn’t happen HERE…
This was probably the thought citizens there had as looters tore through their stores, police gassed protestors and President Obama said their city’s name on TV repeatedly. It was probably the same thought they had when they heard about the shooting itself.
This. Doesn’t. Happen. Here.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., a man who has seen his share of things that don’t happen “here” throughout his life, penned an editorial for USA Today titled “There’s a ‘Ferguson’ near you,” which looked at the way economic disparity, a dying middle class and racial tension have coalesced into a simmering pot of anger and despair. He notes that this isn’t a country mouse/city mouse or white/black or rich/poor issue, but more of a sign of the times. However, I think the incident in Ferguson and the ensuing backlash goes much deeper than economic or racial divisiveness. It cuts to the core of who we are as people.
We are so easily capable of finding ways of dismissing the problems of others as if we could never be in those situations. Police brutality? The people were probably trouble anyway and then resisted arrest. Poverty? They just didn’t want to work or didn’t work as hard as I do to get where I got. Abortion? Sluts couldn’t say no or think to spend a buck on a condom. Drugs? They’re animals anyways, so let them lose their souls.
When Robin Williams committed suicide this week, amid the outpouring of sympathy and sadness came the veins of righteous indignation and self-congratulatory spite. Fox Anchor Shepard Smith called Williams a “coward” for his actions. Others openly mocked his daughter or told family members he was going to hell. The “fuck you anyway” crowd always finds a way to shine in moments of complete anxiety.
I remember this happening to the McKinney family when we reported on Michael’s death. People posted comment after comment on our website. Some were supportive, but a lot of them took the “drunk kid got what he deserved” line and ran with it. I remember his sister taking to the boards and pleading with people to stop. My parents read this stuff and they’re dying inside, she told them. “Fuck you. You’re a shitty family too. You’re probably to blame for this at some level,” was the response.
To these trolls, it was simple. This kind of thing wasn’t happening to THEM. Why would it? This kind of thing just happens to other people in other towns where you have a confluence of bad life, bad people and other shit that just doesn’t happen here.
Whether it is due to poverty or circumstance or life or whatever, Jackson was right about his main point and his headline drove it home: There IS a Ferguson near all of us and it’s just one of many out there.
And whatever happens there, could easily happen here.