Ferguson – Your Questions, My Answers

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There has been a lot of discussion in the last year over social justice issues. We thought it might be a creative way to write the first Diversity Matters Article. Our editor compiled questions from community discussions and sent them to me. The result is what follows. All of the answers are my own opinion.

Why did Ferguson receive so much attention?

Ferguson is a very complex issue that a few paragraphs will not do justice to. That being said, it is a good commentary on why it is so important for cities to acknowledge and address challenges in government and city services as communities evolve and change.

In my opinion, Ferguson received so much attention because of three general issues – the media, the lack of effective conversations on race, and unethical police conduct. During 2014, there were several other protests in the United States. I believe the only one that made the nightly news was PumpkinFest in Keene, New Hampshire.1 One of the differences, besides the reason for the riot and protests, is that the main participants in Ferguson were Black and the main participants in the other riots were White.

The lack of conversation on race also played into the frenzy around the protests in Ferguson. For most White people and most of the media, the Ferguson protests were about Michael Brown’s death and the lack of charges for the officer involved. In reality, the protests were about concerns with representation and equity within the Ferguson community; some of which have been documented for many years. Michael Brown’s death was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back – it was not the main reason. Since the United States does not want to talk about race or is afraid of talking about race, prejudice, and discrimination the media focused on the rioters. It didn’t matter that there were, at times, 500+ peaceful protesters throughout the weeks following Michael Brown’s death and even on the evening of grand jury announcement. Rather, the media focused on the rioters, numbering fewer than 100. This kind of media attention fuels the negative stereotypes that become easy to talk about; that absolve the nation, as a whole, to work toward meaningful change in our justice and social systems.

Then we look to the policing system within Ferguson itself. Why did they feel the need to call in the National Guard weeks before the Grand Jury Decision was read? Was purchasing more rounds of tear gas, ammunition, and armored vehicles really needed? No, it was not. It was another way to remind a class of people that they will be dealt with if they voice their opinion. In the weeks leading up to the grand jury announcement, that really was what it was – peaceful protests trying to take action against decades of illegal and unethical behavior by law enforcement. It was meant to be a reminder to the African-American community that they had their boundaries and those boundaries shouldn’t be crossed.

The actions happening in Ferguson have harmed local small business owners, including many who are not White. If lack of economic opportunity is a significant barrier to success for many of these poor Black youth, is this reaction further harming their future? And, what response do you believe would have been appropriate?

This question, in and of itself, is exactly what I’ve addressed above. Rather than address the positive work that the 500+ peaceful protesters accomplished in Ferguson, the focus is on the relatively small number of rioters that caused damage in the community.

The peaceful protesters have worked very hard to cooperate with Ferguson city government and Ferguson police department to bring about meaningful change.

  1.  The creation of St. Louis Positive Change – independent and diverse group that will study the underlying social and economic conditions underscored by the unrest in the wake of the death of Michael Brown.
  2. Community meetings to address and tackle initiatives to address the lack of African-American involvement in city government.

Have we seen any national news segments on the steps that have been gained because of the protests? No. That doesn’t bring drama. That doesn’t bring sales for their publications. The lack of this type of reporting also doesn’t bring healing.

The Milwaukee Police Chief Flynn questioned the response to Ferguson, asking where is the outrage to the large numbers of homicides in Milwaukee and other urban areas.  He specifically cited Milwaukee stats as 80% of homicides are committed by Black individuals, as are 80% of homicide victims.  He said “This city is at risk all right — but it’s not because men and women in blue risk their lives protecting it”.  Can you respond?

Perception is reality.

The sense of safety may not be regarding police actually killing Black males; rather, it may be due to a lack of accountability within the police department and justice system.

Throughout the United States, very few charges are brought against police officers involved in shootings. From 2005-2011, police departments reported 2,600 justifiable homicides to the F.B.I. During this same time period, only 41 officers faced murder charges. I have no idea the race of any of the officers doing the shooting or any of the citizens being shot – the statistic simply characterizes the fact that police officers often do not have to plead their case in front of a jury of citizens.

Rather than requiring police officers to go before a jury and plead their case, we allow the police departments themselves or grand jury’s to decide their fate. Both of these situations create conflict of interest issues.

One of the roles that Internal Affairs Divisions play within the police department is to make sure there is transparency and accountability to the community to which they serve. The intention is to encourage a positive relationship and foster confidence and trust between the community and the law enforcement. Yet, the legal system would choose to do the opposite in using a grand jury when an officer is involved in a citizen death. There is no judge or defense attorney in a grand jury. The intent of a grand jury is that the prosecuting attorney brings into court evidence against the perpetrator of a crime. The grand jury is to determine if there is enough evidence to bring charges against the perpetrator. When the grand jury is seated for a death caused by police, the perpetrator is the police officer. It is a conflict of interest to expect the prosecutor to bring evidence against an office or police department that he or she will need to rely on to get help on other criminal cases in the future. We have seen this in the interaction between the New York City Mayor and the New York City Police Department.

Combine all of this with the FBI statistic of the great difference between arrests of Black individuals and non-Black individuals and there is a sense of mistrust and unsafe conditions within minority communities.

Perception is reality.

Some have argued that the Ferguson and New York events are isolated incidents, that police officers operate in some of the most challenging and unsafe environments in which tragic outcomes are just a reality.  That this sort of event doesn’t happen more is testament to how skilled and professional the police forces are.  Are these isolated incidents?  Do you believe the way police interact with the public, in general, needs to change?

I would agree that being a police officer is difficult and dangerous. The majority of officers are ethical and operate according to high standards. However, as in all things, there are some officers that do not operate at such a level. The current system of using a Grand Jury hearing allows the system to shield those officers that should answer for unethical behavior and does not make departments take ownership of additional training or changing of police practices.

One of the commonalities between Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, and the other men that the media has brought to our attention is the fact that all were unarmed at the time of their death. The polarization of the nation with Whites on one side and the minority communities on the other hand are the results of institutional or systemic racism. Yes, some of the men I mentioned made bad choices. However, the fact still remains that all were unarmed.

As I said before, it is my opinion that the majority of police officers are ethical and operate according to high standards. Similarly, the Black men that I know are not violent, have not been arrested, and are not involved in criminal activity – in essence, the majority of Black men I know are ethical and operate according to high standards.

Yet, we have stereotypes of Black youth, Black male youth especially, who are violent and will eventually land in prison. We, the White community in Oshkosh, allow this picture to be painted. Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a 2014 MacArther Genius Award winner, has researched brain activity when people see images of Black males. Her research demonstrates how we – all of us in the nation – have been conditioned to associate crime, danger, and criminality with Black males. We have learned to think this way – not by one single organization or person. It is a systemic process.

This is what we see on the nightly news and in social entertainment. We do not see Black males as principals in our schools, as city councilmen, as police officers, as teachers, as corporate presidents and vice-presidents. We don’t see Black males in a leader role in society. Have you ever asked why? Have you ever asked anyone in leadership why we are not hiring Black youths? Have you ever asked anyone in leadership why it is not a priority. All of these cases we have seen this year are just as much about White America as they are about Black America, we choose to accept the stereotypes and we choose to accept the lack of color in leadership.

These are events in other parts of the country.  Why should someone in Oshkosh care?

The November 19, 2014, USAToday story, “Racial gap in U.S. arrest rates: ‘Staggering disparity’, lists arrest statistics for blacks and non-blacks in communities throughout the U.S.2 According to this searchable database, in 2011-2012, Oshkosh Police Department arrested blacks at a rate of 780.1/1,000 residents and non-blacks at a rate of 146.9/1,000 residents. With a population of 2,400 Black residents and 64,000 non-black residents, these statistics are alarming.

Combine this with the fact that we have fewer than 5 Black people in city leadership, school administration, business leadership, and police and fire department positions.

Many minority residents of Oshkosh complain that there is no room for them at leadership tables. Anytime leadership discussions and decisions leave out anyone, they are not going to be representative of everyone. With the disparate arrest records and the lack of diversity within city government and leadership, there is no wonder that there is frustration.

On top of the frustration, many Whites seem to be oblivious to the issues. Instead of seeing that there needs to be change in Oshkosh, the White community seems to be content in leaving Oshkosh the way it is. With the built up frustration and the seemingly unwillingness to change, Oshkosh has the potential of being a Ferguson without much provocation.

So, what can we do? First, you can get involved. If you are White, educate yourself about the obstacles minorities face in Oshkosh and become comfortable talking about race. A suggestion is to seek out a Fit Oshkosh class in Oshkosh. Fit Oshkosh is a non-profit organization aimed at teaching racial literacy. Racial literacy will go a long way in helping to have real and meaningful conversations on race.

If you are African-American, seek out Black Citizens of Oshkosh to get your voice heard. This is a newly formed group in Oshkosh that is dedicated to talking about and addressing issues within Oshkosh’s Black community. The group is open to both African-American and allies of the African-American community. Topics of mentoring, law enforcement, equal housing, and community support will be tackled in the next year.

Contact Tracey Robertson at traceyrobertson@att.net for both Fit Oshkosh and Black Citizens of Oshkosh.

1 http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/21/living/keene-pumpkinfest-riot-ferguson/index.html

2 http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/11/18/ferguson-black-arrest-rates/19043207/

Picture: Clergy joined peaceful but noise protests in Ferguson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 30, 2014.

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About Author

Janine Wright

Janine Wright and her husband, Artemas, and their four children have made Oshkosh home for 27 years. She believes diversity makes a community stronger and encourages everyone to get to know someone who is different from themselves. Check out her blog, People on Common Ground.

4 Comments

  1. Tracey Robertson on

    Excellent article. Well-written and researched. Thank you for being a much-needed voice on this topic which is close to my heart and personal experience. Well done.

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