death, education, internet, police, race, society, teaching, twitter

On Ferguson

Along with much of the country, I’ve followed the aftermath of police officer Darren Wilson’s killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri for the past few months. Through this, I became more aware of institutionalized racism in the US, particularly where it overlaps with police brutality and the militarization of police forces. I was already aware of these issues to an extent, but really had no clue how often the injustices lead to death, specifically the death of Black men. The Guardian article comparing lynchings of years past to police killings today was one of many that opened my eyes.

As is usually true when I turn my attention toward death, I’ve felt helpless as I’ve watched the scene in Ferguson unfold and learned more about similar incidents happening all over the United States. I’ve wondered what I could do. Thanks to twitter, I found three concrete things:

1. Donate to the Ferguson Library.

I learned about the Ferguson Municipal Public Library fundraising effort via Ashley Ford. The Ferguson Library’s website has a donation button in the upper right corner of the front page. They received around $300,000 in donations last week, which exceeds their yearly budget. They might hire a second full-time librarian as a result. They stayed open when the local public schools closed as a result of unrest and they host many community events. Although I did not have very much money to give, I felt good supporting this community institution. I believe in the transformative power of reading and writing, and donating to a library is a way to translate that belief into action.

2. Talk about Ferguson in my classroom.

I learned about #FergusonSyllabus via David M. Perry, who wrote an article calling upon academics to use the lenses of their disciplines to analyze Ferguson-related texts such as Darren Wilson’s testimony in the classroom. Next semester I am teaching a composition course focused on rhetorical analysis of public campaigns so this will fit in perfectly. I originally wanted to use local social issues as examples in the class so I might choose a police brutality case from Florida to focus in on instead, but the conversation will be similar and I can easily relate it to the Mike Brown killing as well.

The challenge here will be approaching this as objectively as possible. Clearly I have strong opinions on police brutality in the US right now–I will not share them outright in the classroom and I don’t want them to become immediately obvious to my students through the structure of my lessons. The purpose will be for them to think critically about the rhetoric used by all of the involved parties, engage in dialogue about it, and draw their own conclusions, which could very well end up being different than my own. Maybe I will share what I come up with on this blog as I develop course objectives and create my lesson plans.

3. Start conversations with people. Write a blog post.

I follow many writers on twitter and several of them wrote about Ferguson. I am often awed by Roxane Gay’s writings on current events, and her response to Ferguson was no exception. She is consistently eloquent and moving, putting forth honest, raw emotion that only bolsters her often strong and logical arguments. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article on Obama’s official response to the Darren Wilson non-indictment is another one that got me thinking more deeply about the issue.

At first I hesitated to write about Ferguson. It’s a blatantly racially-charged situation and I’m White. Also, I don’t have a journalism background or regularly write about current events. I worried I’d mess it all up and look both racist and stupid (or, perhaps worse, faux-enlightened and arrogant). Then I realized that allowing my self-conscious fears to determine my action (or inaction) would be the ultimate selfish, ego-driven act. This tragic event–one of many in a nationwide pattern of similar events–is not about me.

We currently live in a society where White police kill Black citizens once every few days and face few or no repercussions. It isn’t okay. It is systemic, institutionalized violence and murder. To recognize that and remain silent is to assent to this system of injustice. Although my initial responses to Ferguson were sadness and helplessness, I will not allow those to lead to complacency or inaction. The three things I’m doing about this issue might be small, but they are the actions available to me.