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Thinking together about Ferguson

alesnick's picture

Dear Africana Community:

This past week we have learned, again, about police brutality against a Black man by a white police officer, and more broadly, about an American community too long used to unfair, biased, and mean treatment by the local, largely white police force. The New York Times provided this useful overview of the racial history here.

As their editorial board wrote:

". . . it doesn’t take a federal investigation to understand the history of racial segregation, economic inequality and overbearing law enforcement that produced so much of the tension now evident on the streets. St. Louis has long been one of the nation’s most segregated metropolitan areas, and there remains a high wall between black residents — who overwhelmingly have lower incomes — and the white power structure that dominates City Councils and police departments like the ones in Ferguson."

The persistence of inequality of income, access, and power here and in so many other parts of our country and this world is terrible. We are seeing its consequences everywhere, including with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which is the consequence of poverty and inadequate health care structures, which in turn are the direct result of white, Western domination.

This is everyone's problem.  It is just as much a problem for people not directly in harm's way as those who are.  Because we are all in harm's way here. And part of the harm is that these stories persist in painting Black communities as deficient -- violent, sick, poor -- and covering over their beauties, powers, and histories.  Then, the range of histories, powers, and beauties is obscured and possibities for co-existence and dialogue among them suppressed.

On Facebook recently, two Africana students from Bryn Mawr posted powerful notes, which I quote below.  As a way to start a dialogue, I invite you to respond. Please use conscientious language and engage differences honestly, openly, and honorably. The purpose of this forum is to bear witness and open space for dialogue, thinking, and learning. I will moderate it to try to maintain it as a safe-enough space.


If you've ever felt surprised by learning about riots or genocide in a class you've taken and found yourself saying, "How come I never heard about this?", examine your relationship to what's currently happening in Ferguson. You might be willfully contributing to the ignorance of others and the erasure of history. #Ferguson #JusticeforMikeBrown #blacklivesmatter


#justiceforMikeBrown because if I were in front of a police officer with my hands up and said, "don't shoot," I wouldn't be shot. America continues to be a place where my friends, neighbors, and fellow countrypeople are in mortal danger because of the color of their skin. Praying that justice prevails in Ferguson and the wider world tonight.


Serendip Visitor's picture

White male in the south

Hello Alice:

As much as may wish to believe, otherwise our culture is still very racist and lacks perspctive. I have been listening to Noam Chomsky's thoughts on the matter and they are sobering. Kiese Laymon also has been particularly insightful as well. I beleve what we are seeing is a slow steady decline by forces that profit in the incarceration of black men and lack of our culture's concern for preparing our black youth to enter mainstream society.

The ship is sinking and it's going to take a lot of effort to turn this around. I am really hoping my fellow white Americans are up for the challenge, because the alternative of seeing more barack people taken off the stret before they have reached their full potential is really sickening!!!

I appreciate the comments made heretofore.

Vanessa Christman's picture

Thanks for this opportunity

We recently concluded the Tri-Co program, and while we were very busy looking at the personal and systemic factors contributing to racism in the US, it was hard to acknowledge that our tight schedule allowed little time to discuss this specific, current, national issue. Fortunately, Michael Brown came up in our smaller reflections. And wonderfully, my colleague Walter Sullivan *took* the time in one of our closing sessions to directly address the issue.

I'd like to add a personal story to the others expressed here. My son, who, like Michael Brown, graduated from high school this spring, will--unlike Michael Brown--leave for college this Friday. In his adolescence, he walked around with friends and was occasionally confronted by a police officer. We never had to fear, though, that one of these confrontations would end his life. I am aware of the many specific ways my privilege--and our country's privileging people like me and not people like Michael Brown Sr.--have led to my sending my son off to college, rather than burying him. I am thankful that my work demands that I confront this issue and seek to change it. In Arthur Miller's words, they are all my sons.

Stacy's picture

Thanks for the opportunity Alice

At our Meeting (Quaker) we typically set aside a time before the close of worship to request prayers for persons or issues that weigh on our minds, be they joys or sorrows, so that our concerns may be prayed for collectively within our corporate worship. This past Sunday I requested prayers for the community of Ferguson, MO. and for all other communities world-wide that experience the weight of disparity.

In recent weeks, witnessing the horrors of the marginalization of the Yazidi people in Iraq; the angry response to Central American children seeking a safe haven in the United States; and the ongoing divisiveness in Gaza and Israel … I have, at times, needed to turn off the news and remove myself from witness to all of the hatred.

Technology has certainly provided us access to more information about critical events that effect people all over the world. I wonder, though, if we don’t fully engage in the issues that concern us personally, that we are somehow complicit in the inequitable treatment of others.

My hope is that the upside of these concerns, and others not mentioned above, is that we all begin to seek more active engagement in humanitarian issues and continued growth in our ability to share our values by demonstrating our positions more readily in our every day lives.

alesnick's picture

I appreciate the idea of

I appreciate the idea of collectivizing prayers, sharing witness. Could this also be a way to become stronger in values, and in hope, to continue to fight and work for healing, despite the tall odds?

Anne Dalke's picture

"spatial justice"

My son went to law school @ Washingon University in St. Louis, so I’ve had recent three years’ experience of visiting the city, learning to walk long distances to get around (because we couldn’t walk through) the gated communities there, learning along the way about some of the history of racism and segregation in that particular conjunction of South-and-Midwest.

I’m writing here now, though, to say less about the particularities of that geographical location than about a more general phenomenon of “paranoid space.” This concept comes from a 1994 pamphlet by Steven Flusty, Building Paranoia: the Proliferation of Interdictory Space and the Erosion of Spatial Justice, which looks @ all the exclusionary design strategies that we have used to create public-but-protected-and-policed spaces he calls “stealthy” (camouflaged), “slippery” (can’t be reached), “crusty” (can’t be accessed), “prickly” (can’t be occupied), and “jittery” (can’t be used unobserved…). Flusty reviews the various forms of “interdictory space” we now incorporate into our urban and suburban environments, including pocket ghettos, and “strongpoints of sale” (like secured malls, where members of the public are redefined as public enemies…)

This is my current context for thinking about the report that Darren Wilson stopped Michael Brown and his friend “because they were walking down the street blocking traffic.” It’s an account of spaces of daily life under proprietary control—replaced now by all the images of public protest and assault.

I’m struck by the contrast of these images with what Serendip offers here: a site (several commentators thank Alice for “creating space for this conversation”--) where traffic is not “blocked,” but exchange encouraged.  How to make our streets into more “open forums” like this one? How to make forums like this one more engaged, like the streets of Ferguson? Less an arsenal of exclusion?

alesnick's picture

Thank you for suggesting the

Thank you for suggesting the parallel between streetscape and webscape, Anne. I feel as if the paranoia you write of has led to a great deal of fear of openness in our world - but openness is vital. How to deal with the fear?

Ariana Hall's picture

Thank you Alice for this

Thank you Alice for this space, i believe it is crucial to talk about these issues, no matter what race because they affect us all. It is sad to think and see how history is repeating itself, but sadly i am not surprised. As angered and sadnened as I am by this it was not a surprise because the execution of black men and women and people of color has been going on forever in America in countless states where poor and Black and Brown people live. Last summer I worked as an intern at Community Change Inc., in Boston, a non-profit organization devoted to anti-racist work, with a focus on examining white-privelge ( website here: . While there the Trayvon Martin murder occurred and I wrote this blog:

I wrote it in a response to an article that was giving advice to young Black males on how to avoid racial profiling, which I thought was a sort of victim blaming. Why is it the responsibility of Black men to adjust their ways to stay safe when they were never doing anything wrong in the first place. I say in this blog that it is the cops, and systems of oppression that need to change and be fixed, not those being oppressed.

alesnick's picture

The insight that "systems of

The insight that "systems of oppression need to change and be fixed, not those being oppressed" is so vital.  Thank ou, Ariana, for writing here, and also for sharing the powerful blog post you wrote last year on these issues.  I appreciate your work so much, and also believe it is very important to document and archive -- as well as continue to introduce into public discourse -- your writings, our writings on these devastating matters.  In a way parallel to Grace's post above, you show deep connections between victim-blaming people sometimes don't connect (ie, racial profiling and slut shaming).  

My question is this: how can our systems of education, community, and public discourse be strong enough to get the gaze off blaming the victim or fixing the victim, and get working on transforming the oppressive systems?  Where do you see spaces for solidarity and support?  Would you like to work on this via Africana Studies this year, for example?

Grace's picture

Thank you for creating space

Thank you for creating space for this conversation, Alice.

As your final paragraph points out, part of the harm is that these stories persist in painting Black communities as deficient. It is angering to see the media attempt to portray Mike Brown as a criminal, and it is angering to see other sources attempt to portray him as an exception to the rule. It does not matter what kind of person he was; he surrendered, and he was shot. If our collective response to the tape of the convenience store robbery is to say, "Well, this explains everything" -- which, it seems, is how the media expects us to respond -- then we have no right to claim to live in a democracy.

The first Facebook comment brings to mind something that has been itching at me for several days. India's Independence Day was August 15th, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a speech. In it, he described the recent spate of sexual assaults as a "national shame" and, unlike many Indian politicians in the past, he placed the blame squarely on perpetrators of assaults, not the victims. He urged parents of sons to take responsibility for teaching them right from wrong. Many Indian feminists applauded him for his speech, but others remain skeptical. At the beginning of this summer, anti-rape protestors in Kerala were arrested for "indecent exposure" when they wrapped themselves in banners with slogans speaking out against the lynching of two teenage low-caste girls in Uttar Pradesh. The genocidal brutality directed at low-caste and Dalit bodies is never broadcast in the international media, but it happens every day -- we just have to pay attention. The party that Modi represents is both directly and indirectly implicated in the torture, rape, and murder of non-Hindu bodies, from the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 to the Gujarat riots in 2002 to the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. The rise of Hindutva can be traced back to British colonial re-fashioning of Hinduism as a religion with inflexible rules so that a legal system could be built upon it; additionally, the media portrayal of interreligious conflict in South Asia as a fateful clash between equal aggregators is also a reflection of the ways in which British officials painted non-Christian religions as instigators of violence and a consequence of the ways in which colonialism set communities up to fail.

It is absolutely the same scenario in the U.S. Mike Brown's murder is part of a larger historical pattern of genocidal violence that targets Black bodies, families, and communities. I urge people who are responding to the onslaught of posts about Ferguson in their feeds with accusations of internet "slacktivism" to rethink their criticism. If it weren't for social media, this case wouldn't even be scratching the front page of "legitimate" media, which it is barely managing to do anyway. If hearing news about Mike Brown or Ferguson annoys us, then we aren't really hearing the news at all. Now is the time to turn up the volume and tune into what's being said.

alesnick's picture

thinking with patterns

Re-reading Grace's post helped me focus on the value of pattern discernment in critically engaging with stories.  I am envisioning a kind of meshwork of patterns and a program of sorts to look for places where they intersect with generative potential for intervention/change.

alesnick's picture

Comment from Esteniolla Maitre, BMC '15

I appreciate that you are doing this Alice. News about Michael Brown reached me all the way in Haiti. While I haven't calmed down enough about the incident to write about it, it makes me really happy that you have created a space to engage in dialogue about it. Thank you. I am considering writing.

I wish more white "allies" provided these spaces. And I hope to see them on campus in September.


admin's picture

open forum here

I too appreciate that you wanted to start this dialogue, Alice. I believe there are many white allies who are waiting to be asked to do something or say something. And no, we shouldn't need to be asked, or want to be asked.


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