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How Did We Get Here: Beacon Authors Respond to Ferguson


FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 14: Demonstrators take part in a rally on West Florissant Avenue to protest the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown by a police officer on August 9.

This week’s firestorm of racial outrage—which had continued to smolder since the July 17 death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York City police officer—seemed as inevitable as it was horrifying. The shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer is only the latest incident in a series of high-profile and unjust deaths of black men and women by law enforcement, or by civilians with a weapon and a stand-your-ground mandate. That the officer in Ferguson remained anonymous for a full week after Brown’s shooting only fueled the unrest.

We asked several Beacon authors for their take on what happened in Missouri this week. Their responses were as varied as the contributing factors that compelled this incident to boil over: the shock of a small, Midwestern suburb confronting unjust violence; the deployment of an over-militarized police force; the arrest of journalists and public observers; the close lens of social media. As Jeanne Theoharis says at the end of this piece, and as the photographs this week from Ferguson made clear, the struggle for civil rights seems far from over.


Amy Alexander

AmyalexanderThe shooting death of an eighteen-year-old black high school graduate by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer last Saturday set off another national conversation about race and the law. It is not unexpected that social media channels, notably Twitter, swiftly carried bulletins from Missourians close to the scene, as well as distant pundits who tend to hyperventilate about any indication of officials behaving badly.

Yet as the weekend wore on, and growing calls for more information about the death of Michael Brown arose from Ferguson residents, the story took a familiar turn, one that was both helped and hurt (in my view) by the ubiquity of “citizen journalists” in Missouri—and by the hyper-attentiveness of millions who use Twitter and other micro-blogging platforms to “monitor” breaking developments.

The use of social media by journalists, including former Boston Globe reporter Wesley Lowery, is laudable and a natural extension of the reporter’s historic tools: a pen and paper. That Lowery, who now reports for The Washington Post, had the presence of mind to keep the camera in his mobile phone trained on the law enforcement officers who rousted Lowery and a Huffington Post colleague from a fast food eatery on Tuesday night proves the value of these new reporting tools. Yet in the distance, as I watched “wall-to-wall” coverage of a peaceful citizen protest in Ferguson on Tuesday night escalate to a chaotic war-like event, it occurred to me that social media had infected developments in a way that was less positive: The law enforcement agencies in Ferguson clearly were “concerned” that media on the scene were capturing the officers’ attempts to “contain” the Ferguson residents protests; the protesters, in turn, many of whom held mobile phones aloft with cameras trained on the police, appeared to be emboldened by their “reporting tools”—hand held cameras from which they could instantly publish to the world what was going on around them.

I have covered large street actions where protesters and police clashed; I make no value judgment about the protesters in Ferguson: They are absolutely within their rights (legally and morally) to seek transparency and answers from the law enforcement agencies that ostensibly are there to “protect and serve” them. The Ferguson Police Department’s refusal to release the name of the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown is the equivalent of fanning a gasoline fire—one that the department itself ignited by the unnamed officer’s apparently impulsive decision to shoot an unarmed black youth.

But I do have concerns about the omnipresence of social media, namely, that its ease of use can give citizens in these tense and volatile situations a sense of “cover” even in the face of potentially lethal opponents. In this case, municipal law enforcement officers who are heavily armed. When I covered the Los Angeles Riots in 1992, there was no such thing as a “citizen journalist,” although those of us from the Fourth Estate who covered that week-long, race-related conflagration most surely are citizens. The difference is that we had been trained (however informally) to keep a safe distance from the volatility, and to never, ever get between the cops and protesters.

I do not have the answers for how to remedy these dynamics—the ongoing, seemingly Groundhog’s Day of instances in which American cities are torn apart by law enforcement agencies that kill residents of color with impunity, or the recklessness of citizens who correctly understand that recording the police presence is their right but who do not seem to appreciate the fact that if they are harmed in the midst of the upheaval, there will be no news organization on hand to bail them out, or, worse, financially or legally support them should they experience physical harm.

Amy Alexander is an award-winning contributor to the Miami Herald, Boston Globe, Village Voice, Washington Post, Salon, The Root, the Nation, and others. Her four books include Uncovering Race and Lay My Burden Down, coauthored with Alvin Poussaint, MD.


Sheryll Cashin

Cashin, Sheryll by Adam AuelA sharp shooter in camouflage aims an assault rifle at an unarmed crowd of black protesters who want justice for the death of another native son. How did we get here? Social psychology studies show that most people harbor negative stereotypes about black people in their heads. Place or racial segregation exacerbates these tendencies. The hysterical response of the Ferguson police to mostly peaceful but justifiably angry black crowds probably reflects implicit and explicit bias borne of a lack of familiarity more than hatred. Captain Ronald S. Johnson, an African-American, responds to the crowd with love, not fear, because he knows them, lives and grew up there. Most likely, the Ferguson police, which has only three black officers among its overwhelmingly white force, do not live anywhere near the neighborhoods they terrorized over the past few days. Studies suggest that the people who live farthest apart from African-Americans have the least realistic and most fearful views about us. Meanwhile other research suggest that those with intimate contacts with African Americans are less likely to be biased. Place matters, racial integration helps, and, no, we are not post-racial.

Sheryll Cashin is a professor of law at Georgetown University and author most recently of Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America.


Noliwe M. Rooks

Rooks, NoliweWhat is reality, and what is political theatre? It’s getting harder and harder to tell. In regard to the events unfolding in Ferguson, just recently, our President made a statement about the clashes between the overwhelmingly black residents of Ferguson who were exercising their rights to assembly and free speech, and the heavily militarized, overwhelmingly white police force who do not appear to support the free and unobstructed exercise of those rights. In weighing in, President Obama, said something along the lines of there never being an excuse for excessive violence directed toward the police. The problem is, much of the more disturbing behavior we have seen and heard about has involved excessively violent overreaction by the police and directed toward journalists, elected officials, citizens of Ferguson.

While many are convinced that the President seems to have forgotten the basics of the constitutional law he once taught (the whole free speech / right to assembly / free press thing) and that he is showing his true colors by siding with the police, I have a hard time believing that is all there is to the story. Could our Attorney General, Eric Holder, have gotten involved in Ferguson so quickly without POTUS’s involvement at some level? And now the Governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, is taking a strong stand against police overreaction. What’s theatre and what’s real? Of course, this is detracting from our finding answers to all the questions surrounding Michael Brown’s death. This is a fact and, as such, the most troubling performance of them all. 

Noliwe M. Rooks is the author of three books, including White Money/Black Power. She is an associate professor and interim director of graduate studies in Cornell University’s Africana Studies department.


Jeanne Theoharis

Theoharis, Jeanne-by_Tom_Martinez

There are no adequate words. For an eighteen-year-old young man shot dead by police and then left by the same police on the pavement for hours, the community standing vigil to shield and honor the body. For a police force that protects the identity of the officer and not the sanctity of a young man’s life or even his corpse. For a town that suits up for a military invasion when black people take to the streets. For a police force that criminalizes journalists and teargases citizens who dare to talk back and record what is happening in Ferguson. For the fact that these police killings occur over and over from New York to California, Michigan to Missouri. For the message this sends about society’s estimation of the worth of young black life.

Diallo, Baez, Bell, Golden, Jones, Nevarez, Stewart, Grant, Garner, Boyd, Dorismond, Gray, Graham, Ford, Davis—all young men and women of color killed by police. According to a study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, every 28 hours a black man is killed by police or other law-enforcement related personnel in the US. Hundreds of thousands of black and brown young people stopped and frisked in New York City alone.

These numbers twist us. They make us reach for ways to testify to the young person’s worth—to say he was a good, well-behaving young man—and thus demonstrate the scope of the injustice. About to go to college. On the way from his grandmother’s house. Unarmed. Hands up.

Michael Brown did not deserve this. Not because he was on his way to college. Not because his hands were up. He did not deserve this if he’d been smoking weed on the street. He did not deserve this if he’d had a knife tucked in his pocket or ‘thug’ tattooed on his neck. He did not deserve this if he’d been tagging walls or mouthing off at the police.

The role of law enforcement is to protect life not to take it—to serve not to menace. These discourses of respectability are costly. The more we hold up his goodness to demonstrate the injustice, the more we keep open the question that young people of color must prove their worth for humane treatment.

The role of law enforcement must be to protect life. Three hundred and fifty years of American history demonstrate otherwise. This must be our demand. The role of law enforcement must be to protect all life, all black and brown life. No special pleadings. No added explanations. To paraphrase Ella Baker: “Until the life of a black mother’s child becomes as important to the rest of the country as the life of a white mother’s child, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

Jeanne Theoharis is the author or coauthor of four books and articles on the black freedom struggle and the contemporary politics of race in the United States, including, most recently,
 The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.