SEATTLE, August 18 – I began Home Free, my account of the 3 1/2-month driving trip I made around the United States during the 2012 election season, with an entire chapter on Wisconsin for three reasons. One was topical: the then-recent occupation of the state capitol building in Madison, by tens of thousands of citizens opposing the policies of Governor Scott Walker, and the seemingly intractable polarization of the state that that expressed. Another was geographic: Wisconsin was on my way from Seattle, where I live, to points east. But the overriding reason was personal: Wisconsin had been my home. I grew up in Oconomowoc, an all-white town of 15,000 at the western edge of suburban Waukesha County.
Oconomowoc is where it is, thirty miles west of the largely poor and black city of Milwaukee, for a reason: it’s near enough that you can get to Milwaukee for, say, a Brewers game or Summerfest, but far enough away that you can ignore and disavow the things and people there that you find frightening or distasteful. There are towns like Oconomowoc in suburban counties all around America, and in those towns live white guys who grow up to become cops.
As I write in Home Free, I made a beeline for Wisconsin because it was available to me personally in a way that Missouri or Indiana would not have been, yet I also felt it was thoroughly representative: middle-class, middle-western America, writ medium-sized. And, after two weeks in Wisconsin in late September 2012, I found my hypothesis vindicated. As lifelong Milwaukee resident Moshe Katz told me specifically about my hometown, “There’s a side of Oconomowoc that is the wonderful beauty of America. But then there’s another whole side of it that’s more than scary.”
Which brings me to Ferguson, Missouri. I’ve never been to Ferguson, but it’s part of the same world as Oconomowoc. And I don’t mean, in some high-minded way, the world at large, but the particular regional world – at once wonderful and scary – of the provincial Midwest.
Elisa Miller, a Democratic Party activist in Wisconsin who chose the largely thankless task of working in heavily Republican Waukesha County, told me, “You have this white horseshoe of racist crap, and that was my area. People were afraid to put yard signs in their yards. A volunteer was driving on a rural highway, and she saw a children’s play set with a noose hanging from it and a sign that said, ‘Obama’s Play Set.’ This doesn’t just affect Obama. This is domestic terrorism.”
A reviewer of my book on Goodreads named Lori complained that she “just couldn’t get past the fact that it was mostly a book about politics. I would not have read it if I had known.” Another, Earl, griped inaccurately and tellingly that most of the people I interviewed were “either liberal intellectuals or poor, downtrodden, and minority.” I actually bent over backwards in Home Free to avoid “being political” but, I’m sorry, the world we live in is political. And, again, I mean not only the world at large, but in particular – whether we like it or not – the world of provincial America that most of us call home.
Being political means acknowledging that we all live here together, that every citizen and every community has standing. And it means that, as the Midwesterner John Mellencamp puts it, you gotta stand for something or you’ll fall for anything. What I stand for is an America where police are not entitled to execute an unarmed teenager, regardless of whether he stole cigars from a convenience store. But as horrible as the shooting itself was, even more ominous for all of us is what we’ve all seen, and residents of Ferguson have experienced, since: the militarization of law enforcement. In the America that I want to live in, it’s not all right for police to intimidate entire communities with automatic weapons, riot gear and armored vehicles.
It may be, though, that we already no longer live in the America that I want to live in. Events like those unfolding in Ferguson happen when societies fail at being political. As a journalist living and working overseas in the 1990s and 2000s, I witnessed the specific and predictable consequences of the failure of civilian politics in Burma, Cambodia, Haiti, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. Military occupations and dictatorships occur in such countries not only because generals are ambitious and power-hungry, but because the factions and communities of civilian society have proven unable to live and deal with each other justly and peaceably. Something similar is now happening in Ferguson.