The Battle for Justice Continues: A Confessional

In the process of trying to understand the shooting of Michael Brown and the Ferguson (and national) aftermath that’s followed, I recently composed this chart to help myself conceptualize the way people in general seemed to be responding. 

racial_responses_to_mike_brown_shooting (6)

After passing this chart to a number of friends and scholars who are either directly involved with community efforts here in St. Louis or somehow indirectly involved through academic discourse or otherwise relevant dialogue, I received some helpful feedback, including questions about whether this chart would help move dialogue forward, and how one escapes from the cycles I’ve laid out here.

Because I could not answer these questions to my own satisfaction, I had hithereto decided not to share this chart publicly…until today.

On my social media newsfeeds this morning I stumbled across this video. (WARNING: Graphic Content)

In this video, sixteen year-old black male who was “arrested in possession of drugs and guns” is seen stepping out of a police vehicle and being struck across the face with a forearm by now-fired police officer Rory Bruce. According to an article by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Bruce was found not guilty of assault by Associate Circuit Court Judge Theresa Counts Burke.

Let me say that again…NOT GUILTY.

How could this happen? It’s quite simple, really — the judge never even viewed the video.

The only way it could be entered into evidence was for someone with personal knowledge of the events to “authenticate” it – i.e., one of the three persons involved had to testify that it was in fact what had happened. The teen in question, no doubt under the advice of his attorney, plead the fifth amendment, as did the officer who struck him, Bruce. (I hope the irony there doesn’t escape you.)

That just left Bruce’s partner, former Police Officer Joe Hogan (also fired), who said the events differed from his recollection of the event, and therefore, he couldn’t verify its authenticity. So, Judge Counts Burke simply ruled that Bruce was not guilty. This is precisely the kind of reality to which I’ve referred over the past month or so when I’ve said that our systems are replete with ways in which the power group has to do very little to stay in power. Here, it amounted to a few legal maneuvers to keep clear evidence of wrong doing out of the courtroom. Nothing more was required.

All of this comes on the heels of the various and sundry videos that have been surfacing since the Mike Brown shooting, showing the actions of police officers that have drawn outrage across the nation. Here are a few of them.  (WARNING: Graphic Content)

As I’ve taken all of this in, and watched my friends and colleagues go to work trying to bring justice and healing to the devastated Ferguson community, I have felt some mixture of outrage, confusion, fear, and sadness.   Since my op-ed was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I have drawn the ire of a number of folks who took it upon themselves to write me personally to express their disagreement. I’ve even had a number of clients with whom I’ve otherwise enjoyed beneficial therapeutic relationships express their frustration and anger with me.

So, in an effort to make sense of things, I’m back to my chart, and the reasonable question one of my friends asked:

How do we find our way out? How do persons escape from the power reinforcement cycle on the left and join the positive cycle on the right?

The truth is, I don’t really know. 

The only thing I can come up with is that oft-invoked, but rarely understood term, compassion.

In his quintessential work, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, late Dutch-Catholic Priest and Yale, Harvard, and University of Notre Dame professor, Fr. Henri Nouwen, remarked that

[button type=”big” color=”teal”] “Through compassion it is possible to recognize that the craving for love that people feel resides also in our own hearts, that the cruelty the world knows all too well is also rooted in our own impulses. Through compassion we sense our hope for forgiveness in our friends’ eyes and our hatred in their bitter mouths. When they kill, we know that we could have done it; when they give life, we know that we can do the same. For a compassionate person nothing human is alien: no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying.”[/button]

Nouwen would later echo these words in his book, The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God Through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence, when he said, “In solitude, we realize that nothing human is alien to us, that the roots of all conflict, war, injustice, cruelty, hatred, jealousy and envy are deeply anchored in our own heart.”

In discussion, these words sound every bit what they are – beautiful, poignant, and compelling. But in practice, compassion is immensely difficult to execute because it carves at the joints of our well-constructed worlds of entitlement, self-righteousness, and security. It requires heart-wrenching and brutal honesty, and it has to start with the leveling admission that we are all, every one of us, complicit in the evils that we see around us.

In discussion this week, a white friend of mine who was distancing himself from my assertions that he too was complicit, said essentially that the problem was mine, and that I was guilty of a monumental amount of psychological projection.  While I believe very much in what I’m saying here, turnabout is fair-play.  So let me start with me.

I have, in my lifetime, slept under the blanket privilege afforded to me as a white, middle class male. Knowingly and unknowingly, I have used this to my advantage on countless occasions.

I have, in my lifetime, broken the law. I have justified my law-breaking by contrasting my violations with others’, and their violations are always judged to outweigh my own.

I have, in my lifetime, been racist. I have been racist implicitly, as when I’ve sat silently while injustices have occurred. I have been racist explicitly, in my heart and in my speech and actions, as I have categorized human wrong-doing along racial lines and felt bitterness toward an entire race of people for the seeming misdeeds of a few.

I have, in my lifetime, been violent – the same root of violence that is evident in police brutality, the same root that is evident in the destruction that has grievously injured Ferguson and black communities throughout the U.S., and the same root of violence that plagues all communities and humanity as a whole. 

I write all of these things through tears, and to my deep shame. I am far from the human I desire to be, and in principle, I am no different than anyone else – not Darren Wilson, not Rory Bruce, not Mike Brown, not anyone. I am deeply fallen by disposition and deeply capable of falling all the more in day to day life. I am capable of all of the same atrocities that the news makes clear happen in big and small ways every day.

But, it is my hope that in these admissions might cause “my heart of stone can be turned into a heart of flesh, a rebellious heart into a contrite heart, and a closed heart into a heart that can open itself to all suffering people in a gesture of solidarity” (Nouwen, The Wounded Healer).

And it is my hope that if others can make these same admissions, we can begin change the world, one heart at a time. Instead of rushing to judgment, instead of reacting to confusing violence by the state or its citizens with more confusion and violence, we can beat our swords into plowshares and bring balm to help heal the brokenness around us. We can begin to say, when anyone does wrong or when anyone is wronged, “That’s me – I am that person. How may I be of service to him or her? How may I be an agent of reconciliation?”


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it… And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer. Those who can sit in silence with their fellowman, not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken.” –Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart[/author_info] [/author]



Photo credits:

Header Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia, used under Creative Commons License. 

Henri Nouwen Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia, used under Creative Commons License. 

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

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