Last night I wrestled the television from my teenagers so I could watch the grand jury announcement exonerating Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown.
As the decision was being announced in Missouri each of my sons asked in turn, “Who’s this Ferguson guy?” and “Why is this so important?”
Turns out that my teenage sons, one a sophomore in high school, and the other a sophomore in college, had not learned the details of the trial, which was not mentioned in their school classes.
Since the verdict was to be announced at 9 p.m. EST and was about 15 minutes late in coming, I had time to show them news coverage of the trial online and brief them.
I also explained that looting, riots, and other forms of violence were likely to occur if the grand jury voted not to send the white police officer to trial for shooting a black teen.
Neither of my sons believed that was possible. There was lots of eye-rolling and looking at me as if I was overreacting.
My sons tends to think of civil rights-related violence as part of history, not something they expect to see in the news today. They have become more familiar with the debate over gay rights, which since the New York City Stonewall riot (1969), has been largely non-violent.
However, last night, many parents sat with their teenagers in front of a television and conducted a crash course on the legacy of the civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s, civil disobedience, and the nature of hate and opportunism as Ferguson erupted in riots and looting.
After the grand jury chose not to indict Wilson for any crimes related to the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in August, my sons began processing the news while watching police cars burn in Ferguson.
“So it comes down to one black 18-year-old boy stealing some Swisher Sweets cigarillos from a convenience store before walking home, being stopped by a white police officer who ended up shooting the him to death,” my son Avery, 15, summed up as the street violence spread.
However, the defining teachable moment for my sons was not the verdict or the upset evident on the faces of the crowd gathered outside the Ferguson police complex.
It came when President Obama began to speak, and the CNN split screen coverage showed the chasm between hopes for peace, and the anger that ignited in Ferguson and the city erupted into clouds of tear gas and flames.
“This can’t be America,” Ian, 19, said in a state that teetered between shock and fury. “Look at all that tear gas! There are little kids in that crowd. An hour ago I thought I lived in a country where this could never happen. I can’t believe what I’m even seeing here.”
Just as Obama said people shouldn’t throw bottles Avery leapt off the couch, pointing at the split-screen of the president and downtown Ferguson and shouting, “Someone just threw a bottle! No way! Obama said don’t and there it is! They’re doing the exact opposite of everything he’s calling out for!”
As the mother of four sons, it was painful to watch video of Michael Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, as her grief was captured so publicly on camera. Her frustration and rage seemed to wash over her and spread to the surrounding crowd gathered in front of the police department. Her cries of anguish at the verdict greatly offset the good done by the family’s earlier calls for peace.
Turns out that, according to an informal Facebook poll I took this morning, many parents watched the verdict with their kids and had to work hard to explain what they were witnessing and why it was taking place in an America some saw in a whole new light.
“My kids' teachers talked about it. They had class discussions. The Principal sent updates even though we live far away from Ferguson,” wrote Susan Polgar, who lives in Missouri and is the mother of two teenage sons, in a response to my post.
Another friend, Kate Hofheimer Wilson who lives in Norfolk, Va., with kids in elementary school replied to the same post, “Our kids' school is talking about it, and they sent an update to parents from the asst. principal.”
What was interesting in those two responses is the fact that schools sent home “updates” on how the issue was being handled. I find that telling because I imagine some schools might have avoided the topic in order to remain above the fray.
Like many parents, Ms. Polgar wrote, “We all watched it together when the announcement was made. It was a learning moment for them. They were also very interested. We always talk to the kids about important news from around the world. Knowledge and full information are important to shape them the right way.”
Norfolk attorney Derek Turrietta responded in a Facebook chat that his daughter, Elise, 16, was very interested in story but he was unsure if her school had been the source of her information. He says the two had a long conversation about the case.
“I do not know whether her school discussed it,” Mr. Turrietta wrote. “We spent about 2 hours talking about it: the incident, the process, civil disobedience, race relations, legacy of racism, nation of laws, how perceptions are effected by culture. Tough night. She was confused and upset by images.”
He added, “As a dad who is a lawyer it was my responsibility to listen to her concerns, questions, and fears. We talked about the known facts. We discussed how there were lawyers involved on all sides trying to work in a legal way to reach a just result, but that justice was a process that took time. We talked about orderly protest and lawless mobs. We talked about instigators. We talked about power and powerlessness.”
Parents saw some painful images after the Ferguson verdict was read, particularly the faces of disillusioned children as they witnessed our nation in one of its darker hours.
Now that we have witnessed these events as families, perhaps we can sort through the pain and confusion together in the hope that there won’t be a next time.