After weeks of nationwide coverage of the turmoil in Ferguson, Mo. over the controversial shooting of Michael Brown, the University’s Community Organization Learning Community along with the Community Action and Social Change minor program hosted about 90 students and faculty Wednesday to discuss race relations in light of the protests.
Students gathered for the interactive forum and were given the chance to exchange thoughts, concerns and discuss possible ways forward from Brown’s death.
Brown, a Black teenager, was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who is white, on Aug. 9. The details of the incident are still under investigation. However, Brown was unarmed, allegedly, and in response Ferguson residents took to the streets to protest violent police practices Black citizens.
Protests continued after a portion of the demonstrators looted a local convenience store. Ferguson police employed riot gear and armored vehicles to contain the protests. The situation has sparked national discussion on the use of excessive force by police officers and systemic prejudice against young Black men.
Wednesday’s forum began with faculty members sharing their reactions to the incident. Among the speakers was Desmond Patton, an assistant professor of social work and assistant professor of information, who discussed his recent visit to Ferguson. While he did witness the protests in the street, he also saw the other areas of the neighborhood living peacefully, offering him a unique perspective on the town.
“What I saw was not what you all see on the news,” Patton said. “After I came back I knew we had to have a discussion in the School of Social Work. We need to be talking about this incident. I hope that we think deeply about the experience of Black people, of Black men and that Black lives do matter.”
Social Work student Loren Cahill, a resident of St. Louis, also shared her experience as one of the first protesters in Ferguson after the incident.
“We began with a group of only 20 people,” Cahill said. “This effort that began as a small but dedicated crowd has become a larger mobilization effort that has touched the hearts of thousands.”
After the speakers finished, the audience broke into small groups. They were asked to discuss their initial reactions, as well as consider changes that could be made to improve race relations in the future.
Many students discussed how the race-fueled turmoil in Ferguson resonates nationwide.
“This is an event that could happen anywhere,” said Social Work student Sarah Emeritz. “It goes along with the idea that a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. While it may be something going on in a different part of the U.S., or in another country, it’s something that affects people and the way we interact with each other.”
Some students thought that police reform and demilitarization would help minimize extreme reactions in the future.
“I don’t want violence to be the first response,” said Social Work student Bobby Raham. “We have to have a real conversation about how police should behave with their constituents. They need to understand the community and culture they work with.”
“There was an unacceptable and excessive force by the police, and they should be held accountable for this,” Cahill said.
Students also discussed their feelings that police violence against Black men has become the norm.
“I was upset because I wasn’t surprised,” said Social Work student Chloe Jean. “They’ve really taken the shock out of it. We’re fighting for human rights all over the world when we can’t even give human rights to our citizens in America.”
Overall, the audience shared a dedication to fixing the persistent issue of racial injustice but lamented that they feel little has been accomplished despite the hard work that has been done.
One student could be overheard reflecting on a similar forum she attended for the Trayvon Martin case last year. Another student replied, “No one would be surprised if we’re here again next year.”