Walking along West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo., last night, watching the slow retreat of that evening’s protest march, I was suddenly blindsided by a racial stereotype that hit me right in my social conscience.
It happened in an instant.
A young white woman in shorts and a T-shirt, who had been walking with a small group on the sidewalk nearby, paused for a moment to take a photo.
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She held her cellphone out between two thumbs and two forefingers, the way we do nowadays, and framed the shot.
Whoosh! Like a trout rising to a fly, a black teen appeared out of nowhere, reached over the woman’s shoulder, snatched the phone from her fingers, and raced off into the night.
"Nooooooo!" wailed the poor woman with a sound that began as outrage but quickly spluttered into a whimper as she accepted that the transaction was final.
Less than a minute later, something like it happened again.
The victim this time was a white man in his late twenties or early thirties. But in this case, there was no fleeting escape. Instead, there was a showdown.
"Gimme back my cellphone!" screamed the white man.
A tall, skinny, black man sized up his screaming complainant, then punched him in the face and walked away.
I felt my own anger rising.
I wanted to thrash the thieves. Not because I deplored the crimes, though I did, but because I’d had enough of people seeming to reinforce ugly stereotypes this week.
I have had race relations and "crime and punishment" issues buzzing around in my head constantly since I arrived in Ferguson. Suddenly, some things I thought were settled in my mind came loose and started to float around again. All because of foolish young men behaving like caricatures.
The question is whether the shooting death of Michael Brown is a portrait of race relations in America.
The protesters who have turned out every night to confront police and the National Guard certainly think so. But I’m not so sure.
A cop like any other cop, but not
One of the outstanding figures in the sad drama of the last 10 days has been Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, a black officer who grew up in Ferguson.
Johnson took over control of security for the protests last week and from the start made personal contact his priority. He walked the street every night and listened to the people as they complained about what happened to Michael Brown and how badly they felt they'd been treated as protesters.
When Johnson spoke, he didn’t sound like a cop so much as a preacher. He quoted scripture, felt the other guy’s pain and articulated it beautifully.
He talked about what Ferguson "could be, should be, will be" and when he spoke to the audience at the Michael Brown memorial on Sunday, he touched their hearts. They were on their feet interrupting him with cheers and applause.
Yet on the front lines against the protesters, he is abused and insulted. His pleas for calm, patience and understanding are ignored. His promise to not use tear gas was broken the moment there were shots fired from within the crowd.
It’s as though no one, not even a favourite son such as Johnson, is allowed to break out of his stereotype. He’s just a cop like any other cop except, really, he isn’t.
A long, sad history
Away from the protests, I have found black voices who have serious doubts about whether a racially motivated crime has been committed.
They do believe it’s outrageous that anyone should be shot dead by a police officer for walking down the middle of the street.
They believe justice can only be served if that officer is charged with a criminal offence.
But they also say they can’t know what the motivation was. They haven't any evidence. Was it race, or was it simply fear or something else?
They don't know. Neither do I.
My Twitter feed overflows with comments from people who are nowhere near the scene and have no special knowledge of the facts but who have very strong feelings about whether this was or wasn’t a racially motivated shooting.
I have learned that people most often choose to believe what they want to believe.
We know America has race problems. We know they aren't what they used to be but they are still worse than they should be.
But we don't quite know yet how Michael Brown's death fits into that long and sad history.
If we think the cop shot the young man because the cop was white and the young man was black, that's a belief we have chosen.
I think it's a sad choice but the fact so many seem to have made it is the real indication of race relations in America.