Wake Up: Why the Marginalized Riot

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Photo credit Facebook/Justice for Mike BrownI am still in the process of forming a true reaction to the tragic shooting of Michael Brown, which occurred just under twenty miles away from my house in a suburb of North St. Louis County two days ago.

I am deeply disturbed by what happened. 

I’m human, for starters, and seeing a life end virtually before it has begun is difficult to understand.  Michael Brown was supposed to start college today. 

I am also a parent, and can honestly say I’m not sure that I would be able to go on living if one of my children was taken from me.  There is a love and connection there that defies explanation.

On top of all of this, I have spent enough time in the company of African-Americans to know that the phenomena they go through on a regular basis as it regards abuses of authority, police intrusiveness and brutality, and institutional racism are real in ways that are difficult for me to personally or experientially fathom. 

After all, I grew up in Columbia, IL, located 15 minutes across the river from South St. Louis (the historically “white” portion of the city).  Columbia is located in Monroe County, the fourth highest income per capita (of one hundred two counties) in the state of Illinois.  There were virtually no persons of color.  The worst “abuses of authority” were when police ran radar in speed traps, or when they were rumored to have caught some star high school athletes with alcohol and let them go with just a warning.  Certainly, I had no reason to be frightened of them.  At worst, they could be nuisances, but were easy to avoid as long as you didn’t do anything stupid. 

Now that I think about it, I had mostly positive experiences with police.  When I was about fourteen, I remember walking along the highway one afternoon on the way home from our local video store when an officer pulled over and gave me a ride home just to be nice.  

So, in light of all of this, I am trying to understand what an appropriate response is from me to this weekend’s tragedy.  Social media friends have already littered Facebook and Twitter feeds with news stories, quotes, prayers, or other statements of support and sympathy.  Still a few more have already attended vigils or services.

I support each person working out an appropriate response in his or her own conscience.  I do often wonder about my participation in a great many larger social movements or issues.  “Am I doing enough?  Will you look back on yourself in 20 years and think you should’ve done more?  Should I be attending rallies or vigils?  Should I be making phone calls for some grassroots organization?  Should I be protesting something?” 

But I’m not sure any of these are appropriate for me.  I feel sorrow in my heart, and I have chosen to express it in smaller ways, given that to this point in my life I can only experience by proxy the pain of Michael Brown’s parents, the Ferguson community, and African-American folks as a whole. 

One small way I’d like to express my sorrow and solidarity is in my recognition that this kind of sentiment is (perhaps) well-intended, but generally unhelpful:

As a matter of fact, when marginalized people groups riot, when they destroy parts of their own neighborhoods or cities, it is more important than ever to listen to them.  It DOES make sense.

You see, when I see a client at my St. Louis counseling practice, I have in mind a core axiom; while he/she may be the “identified patient,” acting out at the level that therapeutic intervention is required means there is almost always something wrong with the surrounding “system” – usually the family.  Take adolescents, for example:

If a teenage girl is restricting her food intake, it may be because she experiences herself as utterly powerless in her family.

If a teenage boy is cutting himself, it may be because he has no outlet within his home to safely show emotion.

If a teenage girl is disrespectful, unmotivated, and truant at school, it may be because her parents are so entrenched in battle at home.

If a teenage boy is abusing alcohol and drugs, it may be because he is being abused by someone else.

And so on.  In the mental health world, these realities are so well-known they’re practically clichés.  But in day-in, day-out work, they’re very painful to experience with my clients.

In each case, a client is effectively harming him/herself in an effort to fix some other problem over which they feel (and often, are) powerless.  They harm themselves because nothing else gets anyone’s attention.  They’ve given up.  They don’t know what else to do.

I often think to myself, “How bad must things be that he is willing to do this to himself?  How much pain must she be in that she’s willing to destroy herself?”

I have cried many tears living and working in these realities. 

I have often said to loved ones, nearly literally, “Wake up, family!  Your kid is hurting and this isn’t just some thing they’ve made up!  You’re a part of this too.  Something else is going on, and you’ve got to help me figure out what!”

Here’s the hard part. 

The kind of pain my clients put themselves through can be a tragic, but necessary predecessor to systemic change in their lives.  When a loved one becomes mentally ill, sometimes the entire family wakes up and begins to address the larger dysfunction, usually slowly and over time.  But make no mistake – it is their loved one’s very self-destruction that splashes cold water on everyone else. 

It is even more tragic when the family fails to wake up, and instead blames everything on the very person who is self-destructing.  Ultimately, it is my job to help my clients try to find a less self-harmful way to respond in the event the system never changes.  But if I’ve thought this once, I’ve thought it a thousand times – individual client change is so much easier when the entire system around him/her changes, and so much closer to impossible when it doesn’t.

When considering the tragic death of Michael Brown, the self-destructing community is the plural equivalent of my self-destructing clients.  They are trying to tell us that something is drastically, unequivocally, FUBAR’d.

We can blame them, if we want, and tell them this is somehow their fault.  We can point at their communal self-mutilation and wag our heads in disgust and amazement.  

Or we can say, “How much pain must this community be in that it is willing to destroy itself so that we pay attention?  What part have I played in this, and what must I do to help?!”

No community is an island.  Just like my individual clients, to think that a community develops pathology in a vacuum is ludicrous.  To turn around and fault them for trying to get the world to notice long enough to do something about it, even if it means sacrificing themselves and their community, is cruel.

Wake up, American family.  Your kids are hurting.

Mother Hurting
“…a riot is the language of the unheard.”  –Martin Luther King, Jr., 1966



A condensed version of this blog ran in the 8/14/14 print copy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and their website, STLtoday.com. Click here to view.
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Author: Ryan Thomas Neace

Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, husband, and daddy. Please contact him for counseling via skype or in-person at ryan@changeincorporated.org.

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