Race, Riots, and Righteous Anger in Ferguson: World’s Eyes on the U.S.


BOLOGNA — One of us is dead. It’s not a member of the SAIS community or anyone I knew personally, but that doesn’t change the fact that Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department in August. Beyond that, the details of the case become murky as to what did or didn’t happen that day. What I do know is that Brown’s death was just one more chapter in the story of racism in America that has been with us ever since Europeans started traveling across the Atlantic in search of treasure and conquest. In the context of the United States, that racism was institutionalized and caused the oppression of millions of people forced into slavery by birth or abduction. The same current of race flows through the history of the U.S. to the present day, where the predominantly-white Ferguson Police Department is supposed to enforce the law in predominantly-black Ferguson, MO.

There is a great deal of righteous anger in Ferguson, where ongoing racial tension and alleged discrimination by police officers serves as a daily reminder that though all of the city’s residents are subject to the same laws, they aren’t all treated the same under the law. Last Monday’s announcement that the grand jury convened to determine whether or not there was sufficient evidence to make a case against Wilson for the death of Brown fanned the flames further and sparked — again — an outpouring of righteous outrage. Anger is a powerful motivating force for political action, but the divergent responses to the announcement of the grand jury’s decision weaken the movement for reform. Whether or not a crime was committed and whether or not the grand jury’s decision was correct, this provides an opportunity to reshape our society.

After the announcement, Brown’s family released a statement that called for peaceful protest of the decision, and a campaign to require police officers around the country to wear body cameras. We are a nation of laws, and on the path to making that nation a more equitable, more accountable, and freer society we need to capture the moral high ground. The reforms imagined by a campaign requiring police to wear body cameras would be a real step toward greater protection of civil rights and civil liberties for all Americans by holding police accountable for their actions. Riots in Missouri strengthen the police argument for needing more powerful weapons, vehicles, and larger budgets that has led to an unprecedented militarization of police forces in the United States that is at least a contributing factor to the chaos in Ferguson right now. If the police are held accountable and forced to operate as members of local communities, they will find a way. If, as has happened since 2001, police are given advanced military technology and given free rein to use it, they will find a way.

Peaceful protest has been used to great effect by some of the greatest reformers and activists of the past century. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi both understood that nonviolent resistance is the most effective weapon someone can use against oppression. Violence begets violence. Where it is an easy route and can sometimes achieve immediate results, it always leaves behind bitter resentment and sows the seeds of future conflict. Peaceful and nonviolent resistance is extremely difficult — the followers of King and Gandhi had to be trained in how to respond to violence and force so when they were confronted with it, they didn’t lash out — but it cuts to the very heart of the authority being used to justify the violence against the protesters and questions its very legitimacy.

It’s time to choose the narrative that we write for ourselves going forward. End the violence, end the riots, and channel that passion toward reforming our society so that no more of us need to die. The world’s eyes are on the United States, and we need to show them that we are striving to be the best that we can be.

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