October 28th, 2020


Searching for empathy in the wake of Ferguson riots

Christine M. Flowers

By Christine M. Flowers Philadelphia Daily News/(MCT)

Published December 1, 2014

Searching for empathy in the wake of Ferguson riots

Sympathy is easy.

You see someone in pain, you measure the depth of their anger by the fire in their eyes, you gauge their despair by the piercing tone of their lamentations and you stretch out a hand and say "I'm so sorry."

You can be a part of their world for the few moments that you share their grief, and then you retreat to your comfortable corner. That bridge between you and the sufferer is one you cross over rarely, but it's a pleasant trip because it makes you feel generous without investing too much human capital.

Empathy is another story. Sympathy puts you on the outside looking in and requires nothing more than an open heart.

But to walk in another person's shoes, to make his experience your own and embrace his pain from the inside is infinitely harder. It requires versatility, and something more difficult to manage: intellectual honesty. Sympathy is all about emotion, that squishy and comfortable part of ourselves while empathy demands clarity of thought and reason.

That's why I had no problem feeling devastated for Michael Brown's mother when she found out her son's killer was not going to be prosecuted for the crime. That's why I felt relief for a police officer who quite obviously did not go out looking for a black boy to kill. That's why I felt revulsion for the vandals who passed for legitimate protestors Monday night, the ones who trashed Ferguson when they heard the Grand Jury's decision.

Devastation. Relief. Revulsion. These are all emotions that collide into one another in this painful case, and they're joined by a lot of others that make it difficult if not impossible to think rationally.

And that's why it's hard for me to empathize with any of the major players. I'm not the mother of a black man and have no idea what it must be like to send your child out into the day with the very real possibility he won't come home safely.

I'm not a police officer who walks out of his own home in the knowledge that turning a dark corner could cost me my life, or force me to take the life if someone else.

I'm not a person who thinks the color of my skin makes me a stranger to true justice, and warps my view of my fellow citizens, to the point that I will set fire to a city and take a bat to shatter windows when those citizens render a legal decision I despise.

I look at these people from the outside, and feel some sympathy for all of them but I'll never fully be able to understand what animates them, what condemns them to despair or brings ultimate salvation.

And frankly, I don't think I'm unique. In the wake of the Ferguson decision, and during the long months between the killing of Michael Brown and the Grand Jury's "no bill," there's been no shortage of opinions about who or what is to blame.

Not one of those opinions, not a one, was completely unbiased.

Even my fellow lawyers lined up to say their pieces based not on any deep understanding of the law of Grand Juries, if there is such a thing, but rather based on their own prejudices and preferences.

Defense attorneys started taking the side of the dead victim, while prosecutors started wondering why the Ferguson DA was doing everything in his power-allegedly-to avoid an indictment. It became a free for all, and instead of looking at the facts from a reasonable perspective we all started doing our own version of "Rashomon."

The problem is, that means the truth gets lost. We can feel sympathy for Michael Brown's mother but we shouldn't allow that to turn us into police haters, convinced that the boys in blue have a vendetta against black men. What sheer idiocy.

We can appreciate the very dangerous job our police officers do every day without believing in contradiction of the evidence that an unarmed boy with a large frame was so threatening he deserved to be shot in self-defense.

And most importantly, we can understand how frustrating it must be to see young black men on the losing side of every encounter with police without looking away when that frustration becomes an excuse for barbarism, and when those frustrated citizens impersonate animals.

Nothing, not even a dead black youth justifies burning down a city where innocent people live, work and just try to make it to the next day.

Obviously, I will never be black and face the challenges that still exist in our imperfect society. I will also never use a gun as part of my daily effort to keep order, deliver justice and stay alive to greet my loved ones at day's end.

I cannot walk in the shoes of either. But as a lawyer, I can and do respect the law even when it's misapplied by my colleagues or when it's applied appropriately and still renders something painful, undesirable and infuriating.

I cannot empathize, and yet I force myself to try. It's something we all need to do because unless we look at the world with someone else's eyes, from the inside, we will condemn ourselves to more bloodshed, more riots and a justice system held hostage to emotion and prime time ratings.

Christine M. Flowers
Philadelphia Daily News

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Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.