I'm not really sure how I want to respond to the events in Ferguson, Missouri over the past week or so. At least, I don't know how to respond that hasn't been said a thousand other places. That's a reason I try to stay away from major headlines; someone else has probably already said what I want to say better than how I plan to say it. And aside from that, it is a rapidly and continuously changing situation, often wildly. It has been a matter of police acting with apparent impunity; of race relations; of police brutality; of police militarization; of why the police have tools beyond those given to actual soldiers in actual warzones; of the wisdom of giving authorities tools beyond that which they need; of the freedoms of speech, press, peaceable assembly and redress of grievances; of the foolishness of escalation compared with de-escalation; of the utility of social media; of the chain of command; of just how much a policeman's word can be trusted when everyone is telling the same story but them; of the fact that people in the Gaza Strip felt the need to instruct people in Missouri on how to protect themselves from tear gas; of the shame and fear felt by so many that horrors such as those witnessed could occur in a country where they were raised to believe things like that did not happen, and that if it happened in Ferguson, could it happen to them?
I'm probably missing a couple. And it will take on more dimensions as we go.
But the all-encompassing matter has been one of power. The people that have it, the power that they are allowed, and what they do with that power towards- perhaps 'to' is the better word- the people that do not have it. And so I think the following TED talk is an apt one to listen to. It's by Eric Liu, who gave his talk last September in New York.
Many of us tune out of politics right now because we don't think those in power listen anyway. We don't think our vote is going to matter, or that it is even going to be counted, or that it will be listened to even if it is. We don't think those in power are doing anything with our concerns whatsoever. Perhaps these things are even true. Some of us envision an endless and hopeless dystopia perpetually around the corner, or that we are inexorably, unstoppably on our way towards one. We may envision that every bad thing that happens in the word is 'the new normal' and that everyone will do this latest horrible thing to everyone forever and that there is no way to ever resist. So people don't vote. People try to imagine that politics and power will just forget them if they don't engage.
The problem with that is that eventually, something like Ferguson happens. If you do not engage power, eventually it may engage you. Eventually, it may engage you to the point where you are forced into basic fight-or-flight. You may be rendered so utterly disenfranchised that the only way you have left to influence the process is with physical action, and you will have to simply hope someone else out there, someone who has more power than you, is able to help you, lest you be crushed. Lest power lob tear gas into your front lawn and allow it to seep through the walls of your home while you are inside it minding your own business or fearful of acting, thinking that power will just forget about you, and thinking it in vain.
There's an election in November. Maybe your vote won't be the one that swings the result. Maybe the winners won't be the ones you want, and maybe they'll just spend the next two years yelling at each other again. But there's a much higher chance that it will swing the result when you vote in the state and local elections, the ones that most directly exert power over your life. The ones that allocate budgets for things like the police and that determine how many toys they have access to. And even if it doesn't, you have the power to go inform your family, friends and acquaintances of who is being considered to be given power, the nature of that power, and what they may do with it. You have the power to petition, to donate your money and your time, to get in the field and take action to make things better. And if all else fails, you have the power to sound the alarm in whatever other social fashion you have available, alerting and perhaps recruiting those further afield to your cause, as the people of Ferguson have so ably demonstrated.
Your voice and your body are power, even if you have, or effectively have, no other formal power left. If you fail to exert them, you are as good as powerless.