Under the Overpass: Ferguson, One-Time, and Juror No. 9

You have just walked under the overpass and, down here, we have a name for the police: one-time. Etymological origins aren’t always easy to unearth for the children of asphalt, but one-time’s origins probably rooted in a story that begins with “One time” and ends with “the police.” An unhappy ending.

One time when I was 10, three of my pre-pubescent friends and I found three smashed and abandoned newspaper machines in an empty lot. We were trying to liberate the few remaining coins that clinked inside. Candy money. Now & Later loot. The first police car swooped into the dirt lot, and came to a hook-sliding, dust kicking stop about 30 feet from me. A white man leaped out, clutching a gun in both hands, arms stretched out forward and stiff—just like on TV. His momentum carried him a few steps toward me. He had to squat to line up with the bridge of my 10-year-old nose.


No one had ever pointed a real gun at my face before. He was so close. I was shaking violently. My forearms, feet, chin and knees were stuttering so hard that he had to yell, “Freeze” again.

After we were handcuffed and placed in the back of the car, the officer riding shotgun turned to his partner and began a joke with “What do you call five ni**ers …” The cop’s partner ignored him, but the comedian plowed on. He told ni**er jokes all the way to the police station. One-time.

Most of my black male friends have one-time stories. I know because I have heard them. We share them like psychic scars laced in pain and shame. These scar stories are not respecters of class. Friends on bikes and buses and friends in Lincolns and Lexuses have one-time tales. The only good news is that they are alive to tell the tale.

Like Oscar Grant, Ezell Ford, Michael Brown, Dillon Taylor, Dante Parker, Eric Garner, and John Crawford, Michael Brown did not live to tell his one-time tale. It is incumbent upon those of us who know Brown’s story, to tell it for him. To be one-time proxies. To give voice to the lives silenced by bullets paid for with taxpayer money. It’s our civic duty.

One of the multitude of troubling aspects about the Michael Brown murder is the racial divide about racial issues in the case. Recent Pew Center poll results involving St. Louis County residents provide a stark reminder that “post-racial America” is a Koch Brothers’-financed, GOP-think tank-tested talking point—with absolutely no grounding in reality.

The Pew poll found that by about four-to-one (80% to 18%), African Americans say the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that merit discussion. By contrast, whites, by 47% to 37%, say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.

Whites also are nearly three times as likely as blacks to express at least a fair amount of confidence in the investigations into the shooting. About half of whites (52%) say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the investigations, compared with just 18% of blacks. Roughly three-quarters of blacks (76%) have little or no confidence in the investigations, with 45% saying they have no confidence at all.

The poll’s statistical evidence reminds me of an interaction with a white colleague. This is a colleague with whom I’ve had friendly relations in a professional setting. A man. A guy I liked a lot and who seemed to like me. Smart and funny. Nice. A good guy. A guy I enjoyed spending time with talking sports, politics and art.

One day our conversation turned especially personal -— real talk -— and I shared a few of my one-time stories. It was an intimate moment, which I why I recall so clearly the look on his face. The slightly raised eyebrow. The somewhat bemused look.

He didn’t believe my one-time stories.

He thought I was exaggerating about being stopped by three different police cars, three times, on the way to the mall even though I only lived a mile from the mall. He doubted that I had witnessed police routinely beat black men in my Long Beach neighborhood. He thought I was lying about the times I had been called a ni**er by cops.

It was an eye opening experience for me.

My lived experience as an African American, tax-paying citizen was so different from his lived experience as a white, tax-paying citizen, that my experience was literally unbelievable. My black life was unbelievable because, for my white colleague, the police actually did protect and serve him and people who looked like him. They lived in his neighborhood. Knew his parents. Which is why policemen could excuse crimes like possession of weed and drunk driving as “blowing off steam,” and why these crimes could be handled with a firm tongue-lashing and the dumping of a stank baggie of Purple Haze. The same crimes that would have had me -— and those who look like me -— serving time in the county jail. Or worse. Much worse. Michael Brown worse.

As the country awaits the St. Louis County grand jury’s decision about Brown’s killer, officer Darren Wilson, the same Pew poll of St. Louis County citizens found 72% of white residents think Wilson should not be charged with a crime and 71% of black residents think he should be charged. If the grand jury (9 whites, 3 blacks) votes along racial lines, officer Wilson walks free. Not even a trial.

This is where the Pew Poll meets my good guy white colleague. The grand jury is meeting in secret and their identities are being protected, so all we seem to know about the jury members is their apparent race and their status as residents of St. Louis County.

But is this all we really know?

I would bet a blueberry bean pie that the 3 black members of the grand jury have at least one one-time story. As a result, they could imagine an officer shooting an unarmed black man who, according to at least three eye witnesses, had his hands up in the universal sign of surrender, when he was gunned down.

I would bet a Trader Joe’s gift card that at least 8 of the 9 white jurors, have already decided that officer Wilson must have felt like his life was in danger for him to shoot an unarmed American citizen. They’ve already decided that Michael Brown must have done something that led to his unfortunate death. They’ve already decided that Michael Brown’s death was Michael Brown’s fault because it simply doesn’t make sense for a police officer, like the ones from their neighborhood, like the one’s in their families, to shoot an unarmed American citizen for no reason.

I would bet justice for Michael Brown’s family will rest on one white juror. I’ll gender him male and call him Juror No. 9. Juror No. 9 may have had a friendly, collegial, relationship with an African American person at work. Maybe they talked sports, politics and art and shared good-hearted laughs. Maybe Juror No. 9’s black colleague broke off some real talk one day and shared a one-time story that seemed so painfully real, that maybe it was real. Even though its depiction of police officers was so far removed from the way that Juror No. 9 had experienced members of law enforcement in his own community. In his own family. Maybe Juror No. 9 will think of this black colleague’s one-time story as he sits in the jury room deciding whether officer Darren Wilson should walk free without even so much as a trial for shooting an unarmed teenager six times—with his hands up in surrender. Maybe Juror No. 9 will let that one-time story lead to a rare story of justice. Justice for an unarmed black teenager. Justice for Michael Brown’s family. The black community. Justice for me, here, under the overpass.

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