The angry words echo into indecipherable sound, like screams across a great divide.
More than two weeks after the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, there still is much we don’t know.
We don’t know with anything resembling precision the events that led to the 18-year-old’s death. We don’t know if Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot him, was injured in a struggle with Brown – or if a struggle even took place. We don’t know what happened in the moments before six gunshots killed a young man and carved deep wounds into first a community and then a nation.
All we do know for sure is that a white police officer shot an unarmed young black man six times.
Absent knowledge, angry speculation has filled the void.
In some ways Ferguson has stopped being a community and instead has become a kind of perverse national symbol, a forum for dueling counter-narratives about some of our deepest fears and resentments.
On one side, we hear mutterings about Brown as a big and angry young African-American male, a walking challenge to a suburban community’s safety and serenity, a young man whose very existence to those frightened by him constitutes probable cause. You don’t have to listen very closely to hear the subtext: He got what he deserved.
On the other side, the narrative is about an overwhelmingly white and out-of-control police force, a collection of John Wayne and Dirty Harry wannabes who treat the town as a kind of fantasy camp for aspiring bullies. You don’t have to listen very hard to hear the subtext there, either: They were just itching to shoot.
Welcome to angry America, 2014, a place where we believe we know the answers before we even ask the questions and, liberal or conservative, we seem to find it easy – oh so easy – to reduce human beings to types or issues or just talking points.
And, though we are both neighbors and fellow citizens, we are eager – oh so eager – to believe the worst about each other.
Ferguson now has become a flash point, a spot where cranks from left and right have traveled from every corner of the country to gather and shout about race, about crime, about guns, about poverty and about every other thing that scares them.
The problem with shouting is that it makes listening so much harder.
And we aren’t going to solve any of these problems if we don’t find a way to listen to each other.
In this case, the reality of Ferguson is the inverse of the perception.
It is a community, not merely a symbol of our national phobias. It is a place where people, our neighbors and fellow citizens, have seen their lives damaged.
Here is what we know for sure about what happened in Ferguson:
A young man’s life ended before he completed his second decade on this earth. His family and his friends are devastated. They will have to live with this loss and their grief for the rest of their days.
A police officer killed that young man. The police officer may face criminal charges and prison time for his actions. For the rest of his life, he will be known as the cop who shot to death an unarmed kid.
These are human beings, not symbols. This is a tragedy, not a cause.
When we think and talk about what happened in Ferguson, we should start from a place of sadness, not anger.
Anger helped bring us to moments like this, but anger can’t lead us out.
If we are going to solve the problems that afflict us, we are going to have to stop screaming and start listening to each other.
Ferguson demonstrates how great the divide separating us is.
If we’re going to close it, our only hope is to still the echoes and quiet the noise so that we can talk with each other, once again, as neighbors and fellow citizens should.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.