John Samuel Tieman: Report From Ground Zero, St. Louis
I’m reminded of a photograph I once saw of Hiroshima. Not the explosion, but the day after. That’s what today feels like in my St. Louis neighborhood. A few walking wounded.
I am a native of St. Louis. Perhaps you saw on television the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney, Bob McCulloch, announce the finding of the grand jury in the Ferguson case? He was making the announcement in the County Courthouse, just up the hill from my neighborhood.
This morning, hours after the announcement of “no true bill” in the case of Officer Darren Wilson, I walked to the courthouse. I figured I’d catch a peace vigil, perhaps a march, somewhere along the way, maybe at the county courthouse, maybe the county jail. I brought my Veterans For Peace cap.
The area around the courthouse was like Ground Zero. Businesses were closed. Government buildings seemed empty. Deserted streets. The few folks, the very few folks, who passed, eyed each other warily. I was impressed by how many parking places were available. A crumpled newspaper blew down an empty street. And so many sad boarded-up buildings. For all the talk of the National Guard, not one soldier was visible. My only moment of bemusement came when I noticed a bar open.
And the church was open. I heard the midday Angelus bells. So I went to noon Mass at St. Joseph’s, a block from the courthouse. The only Black person was the beggar outside, to whom I gave two dollars. There were only maybe ten or fifteen worshipers.
The readings for today were apocalyptic, which seemed most appropriate. “Not one stone lying upon the other.” That sort of thing.
The priest used his sermon to call for peace. To his credit, he said that our beliefs amount to very little if we do not act for peace now, today.
The congregation, on the other hand, was of a different mind.
There is a part of the Catholic Mass called The Prayers Of The Faithful. Folks pray for personal intentions. “For my cousin, who has breast cancer, let us pray to the Lord.” Prayers like that. To which the whole congregation responds, “Lord, hear our prayer.”
On this day, people voiced a prayer for the military, then a prayer for the police. And then silence. Just silence. Like nothing worthy of prayer happened last night. Into that silence, I then voiced this simple prayer. “For Ferguson, let us pray to the Lord.” There was an audible gasp; people straightened their backs; the response was choked and fragmented.
On my way out the door, I asked the beggar how he had fared. He had three dollars. I gave him a five.
At which point, I left Ground Zero and The Apocalypse. For the angel of the Lord said unto me, “Go home. Open thy p. c. and type.”
I must be one of the few folks in the United States who still remains, dare I say, agnostic concerning the Ferguson case. I don’t think Michael Brown was a saint. I don’t think Darren Wilson was innocent. In a certain sense, I think they were both blameless. It is our society that is guilty.
Let me put it this way.
How did our society ever come to place these young people in this situation in the first place? How did we ever get to the point where the appropriate response, to the stealing of a box of Swisher Sweets, is the death penalty? How did society ever come to the point where there are so many guns, and so much fear, so much violence and so much racism, that such a homicide seemed – and still seems – inevitable?
When I walked through town today, the government was immobile, businesses were paralyzed. Even the local church seemed bifurcated between the priest and all the rest, and utterly oblivious to the poverty of a Black man in their midst.
In my darkest moments, I worry about whether our society is capable of dealing with complex problems. Problems where race, economics, policy and philosophy intersect. Yet I remain a reluctant optimist. Why?
Because I just can’t bring myself to believe that we live in The New Dark Age. No one likes to think that they live in a dark age. Yet I’m not sure what else to call the 20th Century. Verdun. Vietnam. Auschwitz. Mustard gas. The Armenian Genocide. Stalinism. World War I, which was followed by another world war far worse. The Crusades pale by comparison.
And now Ferguson.
And yet I have hope. Why? Because the paralysis of government, business, the military and the church may be a sign of transition. The old institutions are failing. And something has to go into that space. What? I don’t know.
But I know this. It can’t go on like this. Why? Because I’ve walked Ground Zero in St. Louis County. And, if this continues, Hiroshima’s fate will be envied.