What Ferguson Can Teach Us

On August 9th, Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.   Every major American news network and the internet reported on the following events.  Police responded to peaceful protests by bringing in military grade weapons and tactics.  Tanks rolled down the streets while canisters of tear gas were thrown into crowds of civilians.

This is not a new occurrence in America.  Just in the month of August, white police officers killed four unarmed young black men.  Many more have died before that.  The difference here is that the residents of Ferguson will not allow Brown’s death to be forgotten after a month or so in the news.

We live in a world where walking down the street as a young black man is hazardous.  Brown’s parents stated that they spoke to him about proper behavior around police officers.  In the words of Raymond Codrington, “The assumption was that as a young black man, he would be stopped at some point, so stop and search literacy is needed to defuse the situation and avoid harassment, beating or worst yet death”  (“Ferguson: An American Story”).

As a young white woman, I can safely say that I never needed these lessons nor have my white peers.  The violence against black people, “is hidden violence. Hidden, that is, from those with a bit of privilege” (“The Violence of the Status Quo”).  White people have the privilege to look the other way when events of this kind take place.  It is the rampant racism in American society that caused the events of Ferguson.

While racism caused the death of Michael Brown, a militarized police force escalated the situation.  Daniel Fessler, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, has spoken on how merely walking in synchronized step wearing riot-gear encourages use of excessive force and police violence.  The police force and the military should have very differing mindsets; one revolves around protecting the everyday citizens while one combats “the Other.”.  When training the police to use military grade weapons and tactics, “we run the risk that we’re eliciting an ‘us vs. them’ psychology” (Fessler).

The only way to combat the racial violence in our society is through education.  We must talk about the fact that racism truly still is a large problem in our society and listen to the voices of the minorities.  People with privilege need to realize that they are indeed privileged and even if they do not consider themselves to be racist, they still treat marginalized people differently.  Anthropologists themselves can study the patterns that connect incidents of violence and use this information to come up with ways to bring an end to it.

Sources: “The Violence of the Status Quo” by Pem Davidson Buck

“Ferguson: An American Story” by Raymond Codrington

“Study: Those lockstep riot-police phalanxes make cops more aggressive” by Justin Moyer