On Ferguson | Perception Institute (2024)

By Isaac Butler

Some links, quotes and thoughts about Ferguson:

First, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the grand jury process was deliberately structured in such a way as to make getting an indictment very hard. To better explain this, here’s ThinkProgress with a video interview with two experienced attorneys explaining the peculiarities of the grand jury process. Jamlle Bouie at Slate discusses how slim the likelihood that Darren Wilson would ever have been indicted was.

Over at The Toast, Roxane Gay is also sharply critical of the grand jury process, and wonders what it means to be a writer, a person who deals primarily in words, in the face of such injustice:

How do we talk about race? How do we see one another as human, as having lives that matter, as people deserving of inalienable rights? These conversations are always so tense, so painful. People are defensive. We want to believe we are good. To face the racisms and prejudices we carry forces us to recognize the ways in which we are imperfect. We have to be willing to accept our imperfections and we have to be willing to accept the imperfections of others. Is that possible on the scale required for change?

How do we move forward? How do we survive this egregious legacy we all inherited? I have words, but today they come mostly in the form of questions. I have no idea what to say. Words are failing me. I am not surprised by the grand jury’s decision but I am stunned and heartbroken. I am worried because there will be a next time and a next time, and words will still be inadequate.

Also at the Toast, Ezekiel Kweku writes about the failure of Respectability Politics to address Ferguson.

That respectability politics is the narrative of the oppressor digested and regurgitated by the oppressed is obvious. But we shouldn’t dismiss it without understanding its allure and durability: it reframes the terms of power, restoring agency into black hands. For the black upper class, it is the parable that allows them to rationalize their privilege as a sign of their own worthiness, while simultaneously giving them cover to righteously withdraw concern from the plight of the less fortunate of their race. It’s no coincidence that the black people advocating for blacks to somehow be cleansed of their blackness by bathing in the waters of post-racial healing are many of the same complaining that “we” don’t pay attention to “black on black crime”.

For Politico, Sarah Kendzior writes that:

Nothing has changed in St. Louis since August—not the tear gas or the riot gear and especially not the fear. Nothing has changed except any remaining pretense that Brown’s killer would face consequences. Instead, Wilson is the recipient of a financial windfall, made possible through donations of supporters, as the region he swore to serve and protect burns…

Prior to McCulloch’s announcement, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon spoke about how the death of Michael Brown had divided St. Louis. But these divisions were in place long before Brown was killed. They are everywhere—in unequal access to good schools, functional infrastructure, job opportunities, and the right to simply live without the possibility of sanctioned murder. Nixon talked of protecting property and lives, but in St. Louis it has always been some property, some lives, while others are viewed as inherent threats.

For the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb files a report from the streets of Ferguson with a powerful piece about the inevitability of last night:

From the outset, the great difficulty has been discerning whether the authorities are driven by malevolence or incompetence. The Ferguson police let Brown’s body lie in the street for four and a half hours, an act that either reflected callous disregard for him as a human being or an inability to manage the situation. The release of Darren Wilson’s name was paired with the release of a video purportedly showing Brown stealing a box of cigarillos from a convenience store, although Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson later admitted that Wilson was unaware of the incident when he confronted the young man. (McCullough contradicted this in his statement on the non-indictment.) Last night, McCullough made the inscrutable call to announce the grand jury’s decision after darkness had fallen and the crowds had amassed in the streets, factors that many felt could only increase the risk of violence. Despite the sizable police presence, few officers were positioned on the stretch of West Florissant Avenue where Brown was killed. The result was that damage to the area around the police station was sporadic and short-lived, but Brown’s neighborhood burned. This was either bad strategy or further confirmation of the unimportance of that community in the eyes of Ferguson’s authorities.

Coincidentally, our Director of Research Rachel D. Godsil was a guest on the podcast Point of Inquiry yesterday. At the beginning of the interview, she discusses some relevant findings about causes of police brutality. Many of the protest signs featured in the news bore quotes from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. The full text of that essay can be found here.

In closing, I just wanted to bring it back to something our Executive Director Alexis McGill Johnson wrote in an op-ed for MSNBC.

Our challenge as activists is to overcome the implicit biases and racial anxieties that interact to diminish opportunities to expand public empathy. Our protests can no longer ignore what we know about how our brains operate. I am not suggesting that we avoid truths to make white people feel comfortable about race, but instead, that we use this information to be strategic about how we tell our truths.

I have to believe that the protests in Ferguson are not in vain. They have provided an important vehicle for a silenced community to voice its grief and anger. They have shown a spotlight on a tangled thicket of problems, including racial profiling and the militarization of America’s police forces, that cry out for reform. Leaders like the Organization for Black Struggle have articulated a list of values and demands in the wake of Ferguson that rightfully call for putting our sense of outrage at the service of positive change. Yet while the protests to date have galvanized those who already agree on the issues at stake, polls show that they have not solved the problem of polarization, and they have not moved the needle on public opinion. Continuing on this path will almost certainly reinforce racial polarization.

Avoiding this paralysis is exactly what the civil rights movement understood, and this is why that movement was so brilliantly effective. Children endured police dogs and fire hoses to show a larger truth and to catalyze a national response from the broader society. We have been trying to follow in the civil rights movement’s footsteps by copying their tactics. We must instead adopt that movement’s values, values that put strategy and long-term goals above all else.

The challenge remains the same today. The challenge would’ve remained the same had Darren Wilson been indicted. While there is still some chance that Darren Wilson could face consequences for killing Michael Brown, it is just as likely that he won’t. That we will have to shoulder this injustice together. But even if Darren Wilson had been indicted, convicted, and sent to prison for years, we would still be shouldering injustice together, and the work ahead would remain largely the same, finding ways to convince a majority of voters and represented to support the reforms our society needs to be a more perfect union.

On Ferguson | Perception Institute (2024)
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