Ferguson as Classic Teachable Moment

The Ferguson protests represent an extraordinary opportunity – a classic teachable moment – for how to address continuing problems of racial inequality and discrimination. Sadly, many people are willfully blind to this point, in large part due to the failure of education in the United States.

I’ve personally found it difficult to interpret the specific details surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown in light of the many conflicting reports and testimony. If one thing seems clear to me, however, it’s that the most extreme accounts on each side are unlikely to be accurate. On the side of those criticizing police officer Darren Wilson (who shot Brown in a physical altercation in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson this last August), witnesses have provided a number of confusing and contradictory points. If one believes all of this testimony, it would suggest that Brown was essentially executed with multiple gun shots to the head, while shouting “I give up” to the police officer, and while on his knees with his hands up. Another eyewitness version of events depicts Wilson as executing Brown by shooting him in the back while he was fleeing. These versions of events have a number of holes, since they are inherently contradictory (was Brown shot in the back while running away or shot while surrendering, facing Wilson?). Most specifically, I wonder why Wilson would need to fire at Brown (and 12 times at that) if he was never in any sort of danger. I also doubt that there was an execution that occurred along the specific lines described above. Wilson had no history of murdering black residents in the Ferguson or greater St. Louis area. It is unlikely that he simply decided one day to “go rogue” and blatantly execute Brown, without facing any sort of perceived threat, for a reason that no one has ever bothered to supply (perhaps mental illness, or a history of physical aggression?).

On the other hand, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to accept as plausible most of Wilson’s own testimony. Hearing his version of events, one would get the impression that he’s a true American hero, keeping this country safe from the wild, animalistic threat that is the African American hoard. According to his testimony, Wilson performed defensively and prudently throughout the entire altercation. Brown was the aggressor in every instance, reaching for the officer’s gun, physically assaulting Wilson without provocation, and finally charging at him (while grunting) in a belligerent act that essentially forced Wilson to kill Brown in total self-defense, case closed.

The problems with this narrative are numerous. First, this account neglects reporting that Wilson himself may have begun the altercation via verbally abusive and aggressive comments he made while driving past Brown (and his friend Dorian Johnson), yelling “get the fuck on the sidewalk” or “get the fuck out of the street” (language that Wilson denies using, but Johnson insists was used). Add to this Johnson’s testimony that Wilson backed up his patrol vehicle, almost hitting them, and one could easily get the impression that this officer was acting quite aggressively. It wouldn’t be the first time that police officers have behaved too aggressively and escalated a confrontation, unnecessarily.

What concerns me most is not the alleged confrontational words from Wilson (although they do appear troubling for someone claiming to be an “officer of the peace”). What is more disturbing is the shooting of an unarmed person (Brown), at what Wilson describes as a close quarter conflict, in which the first altercation occurred at the window of his vehicle, and the second happened within 8-10 feet distance between the two. In the altercation, Wilson reports that he shot Brown numerous times, as Brown was facing Wilson, and charging at him in full force (again grunting). If this version of events is true, it’s hard for me to conclude that Wilson isn’t potentially guilty of excessive force or manslaughter, or perhaps murder. Why does a police officer need 12 shots at close range, and six hits to Brown (in addition to two head shots) to take down someone who is unarmed?   Add to these details the reality that Wilson is a classic “self-interested” witness who has every incentive to make himself look like a hero, rather than a villain, in order to avoid a murder or manslaughter conviction and to avoid prison time, and there are sufficient grounds to question or reject the “official” police version of events promoted by Wilson.

I should confess that despite ongoing controversy over the facts of the case, I’m far less concerned with figuring out the exact details of how the Brown shooting played out than I am with the broader significance of Ferguson. Answers to exactly what happened are elusive, and will probably never be understood with high confidence or certainty. The dispute over the exact facts in this case, however, is probably beside the point. Americans have become fixated on the minutiae of the Ferguson shooting, in a desperate effort to either exonerate Wilson or prove that he was responsible for the murder of Michael Brown. By focusing on this narrative of personal responsibility, we lose track of the larger themes and lessons that can be learned from Ferguson.

One problem in all the fallout from Wilson’s grand jury non-indictment that appears obvious to me is the refusal of many Americans (particularly white Americans) to question the official version of events. Many Americans have a tendency to simply side with police over alleged victims of police brutality, and much of the reluctance to even consider police brutality stems from racist stereotypes that endure in the minds of citizens. These are some of the problems – deference to authority figures and the endurance of racial stereotyping and animosity – that I am most concerned with moving forward after Wilson’s non-indictment. I am also concerned with the complete lack of critical understanding of the problems in cities like Ferguson (as compared to the St. Louis metropolitan area), which symbolize broader power imbalances between the rich and poor. These inequalities are not recognized by much of America, sadly, and they have been almost completely erased from the discussion of the Ferguson protests.

Ferguson is a classic teachable moment because the real foundations of the protests and riots are about far more than a single shooting. Many problems have been festering under the surface in minority poor communities in the United States, and an event like Michael Brown’s shooting is simply a catalyst setting into motion public protest against far deeper social and economic grievances. These problems, in the case of Ferguson and other poor communities include:

* Anger at government metropolitan policies that blatantly favor subsidizing affluent and wealthy communities over poor, minority communities.

* Anger at a history of racial profiling, abuse, and discrimination on the part of law enforcement, that has been documented in great detail by sociologists, political scientists, and those in the field of criminal justice through observational and statistical analyses of community and highway arrest rates by race (particularly as related to drug searches).

* Anger over the worsening economic state of poor communities, as seen in growing poverty and unemployment rates, and overall growth in economic depression in American cities.

Looking more broadly at the St. Louis metropolitan area, the issue of economic neglect is blatant and should be placed center stage. Ferguson, like other poor areas in the metro region, suffers from structural underemployment and poverty. The area has been in economic decline since the early 1980s, when it began its transformation from a formerly white suburb to a primarily black community due to white flight to outlying (“exurban”) metropolitan suburbs. Unemployment and poverty rates for African American residents of the St. Louis metro area stand at 18 percent and 25 percent respectively, three to four times higher than that of whites in the region. Ferguson itself has seen deteriorating economic health in light of the decline of well-paying, blue collar jobs, and struggling (underfunded schools) in recent decades.

The St. Louis metropolitan region has also suffered from infrastructure decay. The area’s transportation system has long been under-funded, but state residents across Missouri voted this year against an additional $6 billion in funds to shore up transportation throughout the metro area.   Compare the economic decline in poorer, minority-based suburbs in St. Louis to the tremendous wealth that has been dedicated to and concentrated in the downtown, in an effort to cater to regional elites and tourism dollars, and one sees just how lopsided government spending priorities are. Consider for example some of the recent spending projects in the last decade that have received state and local funding:

* A historic tax credit (began in 1998), in which nearly $2 billion was allocated between 1998 and 2012 to restoring older buildings in downtown St. Louis. This tax credit has caused a recent boom in economic and urban development in the downtown for high-priced residential and business properties.

* Sizable state and local public funding for the construction of the Cardinal’s Busch Stadium, of which $47 million was dedicated in the 2000s.

* A billion in funding for a renovation and expansion of the Lambert-St. Louis airport in the 2000s, in an effort to make the city a more competitive, desirable transportation location for tourists and other travelers.

* $27 million in beautification spending for the St. Louis arch in the last few years alone, raised through a combination of state, local, and private funding.

Spending on these kinds of items certainly makes downtown St. Louis more desirable for tourists and others seeking a “downtown” experience, and is no doubt favored by the city’s business elites. However, the funding of these programs, at the expense of inner city neighborhoods, is a classic example of the warped priorities of state and local government in the age of neoliberalism. This is an old story, really. The prioritization of downtown redevelopment, at the expense of poorer minority neighborhoods, has happened throughout most all American cities in the last few decades.   The poor have been left to fend for themselves through the “virtues” of “free markets” and “personal responsibility” while the public coffers are raided to the tune of billions of dollars to subsidize downtown business elites and oligarchs.

One of the most disturbing developments related to Ferguson is the complete lack of a broader political and economic understanding that I’ve observed among so many Americans. As a resident of central Illinois (just over an hour away from St. Louis), I’ve had the displeasure of enduring numerous right-wing, reactionary, and racist screeds employing predictable stereotypes against the Ferguson protestors. Just to give one recent example, pulled from the all-to-often noxious snakepit known as “Facebook”: “Hey Ferguson! The entire country is sick of your shit. Sick of the lawlessness, sick of the riots, sick of the threats and demands. The only thing you’ve managed to accomplish in all of this is to live up to ghetto stereotypes. Congratulations.”   Those despicable comments have been accompanied by a chorus of other complaints about the “entitled ghetto culture” of “blacks who are lazy and don’t want to work,” are “mentally imbalanced and in need of Prozac,” and who simply “hate whitey” because of “their culture.” These nasty depictions at the local level are echoed by national commentary at Fox News, which complains about “local criminals” (a.k.a. protestors in Ferguson) operating according to a “lynch mob” mentality.

The racist backlash against the Ferguson protests is directly related to a failure of education in the United States at all levels. Reading political science American government textbooks (in middle school, high school, and college) is the equivalent of receiving a full frontal lobotomy, intellectually speaking. They consist of nothing more than “key terms,” with zero commitment to promoting critical thought or discussing pressing social, political, and economic issues such as racism, inequality, racial profiling, and business elite power over the American political process. The publishers of these books bend students over a barrel with exorbitant costs (often $80 to $100 a pop or more per book), while contributing nothing to the development of critical thought. These publishers could take advantage of an opportunity to educate Americans about the realities of politics and power in America. Instead, they avoid controversies, scrubbing and sanitizing politics and history in the name of selling more books and making greater profits.

Most teachers have done little to nothing to counter public ignorance. Rather, they are part of the problem, since they endorse these mindless textbooks and avoid critical thought and analysis in the classroom for fear of being labeled “biased” by students and parents. The outcome is predictable: mindless, spineless teachers produce mindless, ignorant students. Those students then become adults who lack any basic level of critical thought or intellectual capacity to challenge official dogmas and propaganda.

The central problem is that, if professors and teachers are not promoting critical thought, how will these students understand the broader political, economic, and social contexts underlying events like the Ferguson protests? The simple answer is that they won’t. In our national media environment, journalists and pundits shamelessly stereotype African Americans and Hispanic males as violent criminal thugs by portraying them as perpetrators of violent crime at far greater rates than actually occur in reality. Without the knowledge and information to challenge these stereotypes, citizens can’t recognize the broader inequality and injustices that exist in metropolitan regions and across the country. Americans will fall back on primitive, mind-numbing racist stereotypes in their efforts to “understand” the significance of the Ferguson protests. As educators, we can blame ourselves for this failure of critical thought.

Anthony DiMaggio holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago.  He has taught U.S. and global politics at numerous colleges and universities, and written numerous books, including Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2009), When Media Goes to War (2010), Crashing the Tea Party (2011), and The Rise of the Tea Party (2011).  He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.