College Holds Ferguson Talks

By Lily Sawyer

On Wednesday, Sept. 17, the College’s Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) held a Teach-In to discuss the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The room was packed to standing room, as students and faculty listened to the panel and engaged in discussion. 

Roberto Lint Sagarena, Director of the CCSRE, began the teach-in with a brief chronology of the events that transpired in Ferguson on the day of the shooting and days thereafter.

 In addition to his basic timeline of events, Sagarena addressed the differences between the police and witness reports surrounding the circumstances regarding Brown’s death, as well as the pure chaos that erupted in the community following the shooting, including the issues surrounding the media. 

Sagarena closed with the results of a Pew Research Poll of 1,000 adults that was conducted in the middle of the protests. There were stark racial and political divisions in the reactions to the shooting, as 80 percent of African Americans surveyed said that the shooting “raised important issues about race” while 47 percent of whites said that the issue of race “was getting more attention than it deserves.” Similarly, 68 percent of Democrats thought that the incident raised important issues of race compared to 40 percent of Independents and 22 percent of Republicans. 

Associate Professor of History William Hart addressed the issue of historical precedent – more specifically, the history of violence between police and black civilians. He drew upon a study conducted by Stanford professor and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Jennifer Eberhardt, in which she determined that “the blacker a defendant looks, the more likely it was that the defendant would receive the death penalty if the victim was white,” and concluded that “it’s almost as if people are thinking of blackness as a crime.” 

Hart explained that throughout American history, there is evidence to support the preconditioning towards blackness versus whiteness. If whiteness is viewed as law and privilege,

“The converse would be blackness as crime,” he explained. 

He looked back as far as the colonial era, in which laws were meant for white colonists, not for those of color. Progressing throughout history, he explained that police officers either facilitated, or did not hinder, the lynching of African American men and women. Hart then asserted that many urban uprisings in the 20th century were due to police violence, concluding that historically, relations between the black community and the law have been uneasy at best. 

Dean of Faculty Development and Research and Rehnquist Professor of American History James Ralph picked up where Hart left off, discussing various attempts by the African American community throughout history to organize in order to address economic, civil, and social injustices. He used the creation of the National Negro Congress in the 1930s as well as the Black Panther Party in the 1960s as examples of efforts to combat oppression and protect African American interests. 

Ralph then examined the role of law enforcement during these times, explaining that in the South especially, the police had directly supported segregation. Ralph encouraged us to think of the implications Ferguson may have on the future, suggesting we ask what will come of the Ferguson protests and unrest. 

“Is this the beginning of a mass mobilization?” he asked, adding that it has attracted not only national but also international attention. 

Assistant Professor of Sociology Rebecca Tiger was last to speak. She first addressed the issue of focusing on the militarization of the police force.

“The militarization of police is significant, but not necessarily for the reasons we have been hearing about,” Tiger said.

Tiger asserted that a large part of the militarization of the police is asset forfeiture. As a part of a 1984 crime control bill, Tiger explained if someone is stopped because they are suspected to have committed a crime, their on-person assets can be seized and not returned to them even if they are not charged or found guilty of a crime. Any money they have can be confiscated, and it is not going to be returned to them even if no crime was committed unless they start judicial proceedings, which are very expensive.

The seized assets, which are supposed to go to schools, end up going to police departments and help fund this militarization of the police. Ultimately, Tiger explained, the Ferguson residents are paying for the police to use militarized equipment on them. 

Tiger urged the audience to think of the militarization of the police force as a part of “mundane routines of degradation that happen in the criminal justice system,” warning us that focusing on the militarization of police may result in missing the broader issue. 

“We have to start having some serious questions about the police,” Tiger declared. “What role do the police have? Fundamental questions about what their function is. Not questions about how they can be better or more responsive to the community.” 

“[We need to] start thinking a little more carefully and critically about what it is that we are actually protesting,” Tiger said. “Because when we take these things all together, you can see that this is the end result of policies and criminal justice practices that have led to this…dispossession of certain segments of the population.” 

The floor then opened for questions and discussion. Students and faculty engaged the speakers and each other in dialogue, addressing issues ranging from Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to the GoFundMe page in support of Officer Wilson that raised over $430,000. 

“Do we have the same sort of deep, dense networks of organizations working together…to help put pressure on the political actors in the country so that there can be ongoing sustained work that brings about social change?” Ralph asked. 

Hart explained that Ferguson is a relatively new predominantly black community and hasn’t yet had time to establish these networks.