Things I Learned in Ferguson

September 4, 2014

Many people are writing and reporting on the events unfolding in Ferguson, MO. I am tempted to simply list some of the more accurate articles; after all, I am just a white chick who jetted in for the big Labor Day protest and jetted home again once it was over. However, I learned a ton while I was there. By writing about it, I hope to both help myself remember what I learned, and to share these insights with the folks who read my blog.

Lesson One:  Don’t believe what you see on television. I expected to witness chaos, devastation, and drama. Instead, I saw a community coming together to try to address deep systemic issues and individuals trying to get back to their normal lives. The looters got plenty of screen time; meanwhile, we haven’t heard or seen much about the local folks who shut the looters down, and protected local businesses with their bodies. Yes, many people are angry (see below) but things are not out of control. And the folks who restored order were, by and large, the people who live there – not the people with the badges, guns, tear gas and tanks.  

Lesson Two:  The protests in Ferguson are not just about what happened to Michael Brown. They’re not even about the outrageous, out-of-control militarized response to the initial protests.  Protesters are hoping to shine a light on issues that run deep.

I saw a lot of families on the march, mothers who point to the very long list of people of color wrongly profiled and killed by police, and the very short list of officers held accountable for their actions. One woman (a college professor) said, “It basically feels like open season.  If things don’t change, it could be one of my boys that gets killed.”  Another woman, a pastor, shared the story of her son who was shot while handcuffed, the wound on the right side of his skull even though he was left handed. Yet the police insisted it was suicide, and six years later, she still has no answers and no justice.

People invest a lot of energy into trying to prove that these victims were ‘thugs’ or somehow behaved in a way that warranted such a violent and permanent response.  (This ‘thugification’ is, in my book, abusive.  Can’t we let the families mourn?  Imagine losing a loved one and in the midst of your grief, having the entire nation weigh in and judge him.)  Folks on the ground know that it’s not just ‘thugs’ that get killed.  They also know that even victims who ARE involved in drug trade/crime/etc. are theoretically protected by policies and procedures that keep deadly force as a last resort…and they know that those policies and procedures are all too often ignored in real life.  This means that no one is safe, and people are scared for their kids. 

People were talking about The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  They were pointing out that the US has 6% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners, disproportionately people with brown and black skin. I learned about the specific ways municipalities in St. Louis County persecute and exploit people of color. In Feguson, with a population of just over 21,000 people, the police issued over 32,000 citations, mostly for traffic violations. Fees from traffic violation are the second largest source of income in the city’s budget. Most of these traffic violations are pretty minor- and people of color are, of course, stopped at a disproportionately high rate.  If you happen to be poor, and can’t pay your tickets, the stakes ramp up pretty quickly…higher fees, then warrants for your arrest.  This article in the Washington Post shares a disgustingly typical story:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/09/03/how-st-louis-county-missouri-profits-from-poverty/

Michael Brown’s story is one of literally thousands that have systemic racism as their root cause. As tragic as these deaths are, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Lesson Three:  While the entire black community agrees that these problems exist, different folks have different ideas on how to address them.  Some people seem to distrust not just police and the justice system, but community leaders, churches, and organizations. Others are trying to mobilize political power by encouraging people to vote. Still others propose specific policies (body cameras, independent review of all police homicides) to address specific issues.  It was awkward to watch this tension play out, especially as an ‘outsider.’

Attitudes toward the presence of white folks varied, as well.  Many people expressed gratitude to us for being there, and no one was unpleasant to me personally. However, it was also made clear that there were spaces where white people weren’t welcome. After watching some really unskillful behavior by a couple of folks, I really understand why. It’s so important for people who aspire to being white allies to understand that none of this is about us.  We are not at the center of the struggle, or at the front.  At best, we can be quietly supportive.  We can pray.  We can show up.  

The most valuable thing we can do is to have those difficult conversations with other white folk in our family or our social circle who perhaps aren’t as aware of the effects of systemic racism…so that black folks don’t have to.  We can choose to be learners, always listening and processing and, hopefully, becoming more skillful in our attempts to support the black community and work for justice and compassion within our own community. Then we can pass on what we’ve learned in a caring and compassionate way.

We’re looking at a big, complex problem, and there are no magic bullets or easy solutions. I know that shaming one another doesn’t help.  I know that denial doesn’t help.  I know that white folk tend to be intimidated by black anger, myself included, and yet I also know that black folk have the right to be really angry. It’s not fair to expect people to conform to cultural norms which require calm, rational discourse.  The pain is raw, and so the anger is raw.  

So we can also work on developing our capacity to be present to that rawness.  It doesn’t help to take it personally. It really doesn’t help to reinforce and perpetuate a sick stereotypes of ‘the angry black man’ or ‘the angry black woman.’ Yes, some of the folks I met were angry and upset.  They were also intelligent, insightful, and working really hard to figure out a way forward.  I encourage you to read this account of ‘the Crew’ by Pastor Renita Marie:  

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pastor-renita-marie-mdiv/love-always-wins_b_5757066.html  

I am still processing the experience, and there are new lessons being offered up almost every day.  Perhaps the most important is this:  

Lesson Four:  Change comes hard, and it takes a long time.  We need to continue to pay attention.  We need to resist the unrelenting push of the news cycle and stay focused.  And…we need to do the work of unraveling racism WHERE WE ARE, with the people we love and serve.  

This is “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

 

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4 Responses to “Things I Learned in Ferguson”


  1. […] Rev. Elizabeth Stevens shares some of the lessons she learned from a visit to […]

  2. Denise Shungu Says:

    Thank you for your wonderful article! I also want to suggest that not just Alexander’s structural racism needs to be studied when thinking about the police, but intrinsic racism as well. A book, Blind Spot, Hidden Biases of Good People, shows how deep unconscious racism is. The police react to threats using the unconscious part of the mind, so they are predisposed to react negatively to black people. Almost everybody my age has this intrinsic racism, but it is, as a generalization, less strong for the young generation. That is the positive part. The negative is that we don’t seem to know exactly how to overcome the effects of intrinsic racism except to be aware in our conscious minds of its presence and to adopt strategies to try to compensate for it. Until this is studied in police academies, I fail to see how we can get beyond these unnecessary shootings.

  3. irrevspeckay Says:

    Thanks for this report back and keeping us awake. I always, always quote Stafford


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