Discussing Ferguson

I left the ASAs feeling inspired by all the amazing work people in our field are doing. On leaving, I stopped for dinner in a bar in D.C. during my layover. During my dinner, CNN reported another young black man was killed in Ferguson, MO who had wielded a knife against a police officer.

Watching the coverage, a law enforcement agent at the bar began a public conversation about how the unrest in Ferguson is outrageous and uncalled for. He said how based on his experiences, this whole conflict over the Michael Brown murder is about class not race. I vociferously disagreed, yet I was clearly the minority voice (in terms of numbers and my own racial identity) in the conversation.

I was surprised when, in raising the complexities of the Ferguson case such as issues of racial profiling, discrimination in legal processes, militarization of police forces, and systematic economic and spatial inequality, the police officer responded by strongly supporting racial profiling in law enforcement. He immediately dismissed many of the underlying complexities of the situation which I raised. Others supported his position. I left the conversation frustrated by how difficult these issues are to discuss with non-sociologists and in general. I was frustrated with my own inefficacy in explaining the many complexities of the issue which I am acutely aware of due to my background in sociology.

As the semester looms, I wonder how we can draw upon the literature we know about race, protest, and collective uprisings to sociologically unpack this case and discuss it with students and broader audiences in a more effective way.

Yet as the police officer was leaving, he went out of his way to come by and thank me for sharing my opinions. He said he hoped I would not hold his perspective against him.

I left the situation horrified by how nearly everyone in the bar viewed the situation in quite simplistic, and I believed deeply racist, ways yet was encouraged by how this man went out of his way to support raising these issues in public spaces.

As sociologists, educators, and movement scholars, how can we use what we know to open broader conversations and dissect such emotionally fraught, tense, and complex issues in more nuanced and insightful ways—in which people from a wide array of backgrounds can participate in and learn from? Although it is easy to always talk to each other about these issues, we have an important voice to contribute to broader public discussions.

I’ve been thinking of hosting a teach-in at Hamilton College and am lucky to have a department that supports the idea.  I’d love to hear others’ thoughts or insights on this issue.

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