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Why the Ferguson Apology Matters

Chief of Police Thomas Jackson's apology was a profound act of courage.

In the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown, rage at the continuing killing of African American males by law enforcement (and by self-appointed-vigilante-turned-media-star George Zimmerman) is understandably acute. There is no disputing the fact that white men can walk around with loaded weapons ready to fire upon any perceived “threat” and be treated as virtuous protectors of our Bill of Rights, while any black male who dares to walk in the middle of the street, much less shop for toy guns, can find himself gunned down and buried as a tragic misunderstanding. Racism knows no logic.

But when Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson issued an apology for the killing of Michael Brown and the treatment of his fallen body, the response was almost uniformly harsh and unaccepting. With comments ranging from the sarcastic to the aggressive, the message was clear: no apology will be accepted. Yet such a response does far more to fuel injustice than to quash it.

Thomas Jackson’s apology may have struck many as too little and too late, but let us not underestimate how rare and powerful such an apology actually is—particularly when litigation is on the horizon. Many condemned Jackson for not appearing in uniform. Yet the fact that he didn’t appear in uniform speaks volumes. He went up against his superiors to speak as a man, and not an employee, an act for which he may well face repercussions.

Many have condemned him for not apologizing for the fact that there is racial profiling in Ferguson, or that the killing was a homicide. But such criticisms fail to underestimate the profundity of the act—Jackson cannot speak to such legal issues given the context of pending litigation and investigations. Had he done so, one thing is certain—Jackson himself would have been made the fall guy for the killing and subjected to so many accusations and internal investigations that his apology would have been converted into a confession—circumventing the entire point of any investigation into Michael Brown’s killing.

The truth is, what Police Chief Jackson did was so unprecedented and courageous that to downplay what it took for him to stand before the camera and say what it was he said—however limited it may have been—is a monumental step in healing. The failure of abusers and accusers to apologize for the harm they cause is extremely difficult for victims of abuses of power—however that power is defined—to accept. An apology does not mean that the act that prompted it was okay. It does not mean that there should be no further investigation or reflection. But what it does mean is that the person issuing the apology is acknowledging that an injustice has been done, and that someone suffered for it. And that fact is profoundly significant to the person or people who have suffered. The number one thing a victim of injustice wants is an acknowledgement that they were wronged and that the wrongdoers recognize that fact.

Beyond an acknowledgement of someone’s suffering, an apology marks a shift in thinking for the perpetrator. When a person apologizes, they acknowledge a wrongdoing and the awareness that something was done wrong. For Thomas Jackson to apologize for the acts of his employees suggests that however misguided his direction in the past, however wrong-headed the policies of his police force, he has taken a step, however small, toward acknowledging his errors. Was it enough? Of course not, if “enough” is measured by restoring Michael Brown to life. The taking of a life cannot ever be restored. But was it profound? You betchya, if profound is measured in the likelihood it has caused him to reflect on the policies of his police force and the guidance he has provided as their chief.

Thomas Jackson’s apology may never be sufficient in restoring peaceful and equitable relations in Ferguson or elsewhere. But the rarity of public apologies—and more significantly, of police chiefs who dare to appear before national cameras out of uniform to say that they are sorry—is so great that to scoff and dismiss his apology can only achieve one end—others will never dare do the same.

There are likely to be no heroes in the murder of Michael Brown. But in my view, one hero to emerge from the rubble of his death may be the most unlikely of them all—Thomas Jackson, who appeared, polo-shirted and nervous, hard nipples and all—as the first in what I hope is a long line of repentant leaders who have learned that they have so much more to learn.

I bow my head to Thomas Jackson because though he may have led a police force fraught by prejudice, he took an action that will put him into the line of fire of those very men he led, as well as those before whom he has apologized.

In other words, Thomas Jackson has acknowledged to the world that he is ready to learn from this great tragedy. Let us extend to him the grace that this may truly be a most teachable moment for us all. Because to do so opens the doors to apology and forgiveness in all its many facets, which is a door through which each of us ought pass, with our heads bowed low—and our hopes held high.

More from Janice Harper Ph.D.
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