On August 9, 2014, a white police officer shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, six times and then left his body in the street for four hours. This atrocity has become known as “Ferguson”, which describes the shooting itself and the subsequent media coverage, protests, trial, and unrest it gave rise to. In response to the events in Ferguson, the Swarthmore African-American Student Society held an internal community meeting with students, faculty, and other community members during the first few weeks of fall semester to discuss our feelings, reactions, and responses to the situation. Initial reactions included feelings of sadness, weariness, and despair, yet community members seemed hopeful that justice would be served in a case which dealt with a seemingly obvious abuse of power.
However, when the Grand Jury announced that officer Darren Wilson would face no disciplinary measures whatsoever for the murder of Michael Brown our hopes for justice were squandered. The community met and had a moment of silence followed by grieving and the expression of feelings of helplessness, dehumanization, and a lack of basic rights and security. Yet, also present in a significant portion of the black community was a feeling of desensitization; at that moment some of us felt only the continued anger and rage of blacks who, after generations of toil and struggle, have yet to see justice.
It was, however, incumbent upon us not only as Black people but also as moral agents to respond and attempt to ensure that our “unalienable rights” would never again be so blatantly disregarded. To that end, we went to Philadelphia to protest police brutality and the dehumanization that black and brown people experience all across the country, along with the practices of “stop and-frisk” and systems of mass incarceration among other issues. In addition, we participated in a protest on the Main Line between our Tri-Co sibling campuses to bring the issue to a broader audience.
As we enter Black History Month, it is also important to understand these events in the context of American history. As a people who’ve historically endured countless miscarriages of justice, many of us are not surprised about the Ferguson verdict. What was surprising, however, was the enormous media coverage the events and others that followed garnered.
“I’m struggling to be articulate, loquacious, positive, constructive, but for the first time in so long, I have lost control of my emotions. Rage, Frustration, Anguish, Despondency, Fatigue, Bitterness, Animosity, Exasperation, Sadness. Emotions once suppressed, emotions once channeled, now are let loose. Why? Not Guilty…Not Shocked.” This was Cory Booker’s response after the Rodney King Beating in 1992 and it bears immense resemblance to sentiments regarding the Mike Brown non-indictment. However, in the Rodney King case the police officers who brutalized him were indicted and eventually brought to justice. Are we going backwards? It is so easy to feel helpless in times like these but we have decided to take action and to channel our emotions towards ensuring that a generation from now, no American regardless of the color of their skin, has to question whether “liberty and justice for all” applies to them.
As the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, a quarter century before, in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, “loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook… Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash” (11). Some people see these issues as distant in both time and space but we need to understand our constant place in history.
Finally, we must understand that while our actions provide us with an invaluable expressive release and sense of agency, our actions alone will not elicit change. Change will not come from protests of the oppressed shouting out against the status quo. Rather change will come when we all converse with and educate one another. For this reason in every corner of the community we must discuss how we allow racist, homophobic, ableist, and so-on sentiments to persist around us and in the world we will go on to exercise significant control over. To that end we will be advocating for campus wide diversity trainings and putting together conversations to bring the police, public safety, faculty, students, and community members into discussion on how we can use our power to achieve love. As Dr. King said, “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love” (37).
Please check the BCC website for coming opportunites to engage in the study of these issues during Black History Month http://www.swarthmore.edu/black-cultural-center.