fergusonoctober.com

MetzgerMolly Metzger, PhD, Assistant Professor, Brown School

I have been disappointed by the mainstream media coverage of the protests demanding justice for Mike Brown and an end to policy brutality. Too often – in news outlets such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – protesters are portrayed as violent cartoons. This portrayal adds to the racial and class divisions within our region and does nothing to further compassion or understanding.

As just one example, the night after VonDerrit Myers Jr. was killed in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis City, the Post-Dispatch reported this story: “Violence Erupts After Vigil at Shaw Shooting Scene in St. Louis.”

According to the Post-Dispatch, the protesters were essentially violent and disorganized, failing to meet the clear and reasonable demands of the police. But there was a crucial detail left out of that story.

There was a turning point that happened at the intersection of Grand Boulevard and Arsenal Street a little after 10 p.m. Up until that point, the police had kept their distance from the protesters; the night before, that strategy had worked incredibly well. But a little after 10 p.m. that Thursday evening, two police officers started walking into the tail of the protest. They were not trying to talk to protesters, they were just walking east on the sidewalk on Arsenal. It was an odd sight. It may be hard for some to imagine police officers walking down the sidewalk as an “odd sight,” but my own personal reaction as soon as I saw those officers passively entering the crowd was that it didn’t look right.

The encroaching officers drew a lot of attention from the protestors very quickly. People swarmed around them and started yelling in their faces, which I’m sure was terrifying. These officers were exposed, being separated – for some unknown reason – from the rest of the police presence.

That moment seemed like it could get out of control and it soon did, as dozens of police rushed in, pepper spraying and clubbing people, tackling some to the ground, and establishing lines in riot gear. A very small number of people tried to fight back in that moment, though I personally didn’t observe any bricks or other weapons on the protesters’ side, as the Post-Dispatch had reported.

Obviously, I’m not saying that any violence or destruction of property was justified. It was scary to see windows being broken, particularly since we were just a couple blocks north of my home. And personally, it scares me when protesters scream directly in officers’ faces. There are moments when I fear that the officers will “crack” and start shooting us.

But I think that it is strange that the Post-Dispatch story did not mention the awkward incursion by those two officers that then resulted in violence.

My observations from that night are certainly incomplete. Maybe a protester did hit a cop with a brick – or engaged in some other kind of violence – before the pepper spray and billy clubs and riot gear came out. I didn’t see anything like that, but it certainly could have happened. But the fact that the more nuanced dynamics of that march (and many other events that I have attended) were left out of the headline news story makes me deeply skeptical of mainstream news coverage at this time.

I am glad that I have participated in Ferguson October and I look forward to continuing to support the growing movement. It makes me proud of our region to see the quickly growing organization for justice. And I urge others to see the story for themselves and to participate directly, rather than relying on the news.

If you are not the protest type, or if you have other important issues keeping you away, I encourage you to follow the ways in which the movement is reporting its own news. The youth at the heart of this movement are increasingly organized and tech-savvy. We should all be proud of them and follow their lead. One place to start for news and calls to action is fergusonoctober.com.

There is too much hand-wringing about “marginalized” and “disconnected” youth. We now have a clear opportunity to stand up and show these youth our love. Let’s not waste it.

  • Cheryl Phillips

    Molly, I also work at Wash U and I live in Ferguson, two blocks from the police station. What planet do you live on where you think it isd OK for people to start screaming in the faces of police officers who are just trying to do their job; a job, I remind you , that includes not only respecting the rights of protesters to protest, but protecting the property of local business people and the rights on non-involved pedestrians and vehicular traffic to use public thoroughfares? Just because there is a protest doesn’t give the protesters the right to usurp the rights of everyone else in the world. It certainly doesn’t give people the right to violate curfews and noise ordinances without possibllity of arrest. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since August. Why don’t you move yourself and your family up here, and see how well you fare with helicopters buzzing every night until midnight, and angry shouting drifting through your bedroom window? Why don’t you subject your family to the possibility that they will come home and find their possessions gone, their home ransacked, their pets killed, which is a very real possibility once the ‘peaceful protesters’ don’t get what they want and explode into an angry mob? Maybe I have lived longer than you and lived through this same thing before, but I do know that the life and safety of my family is NOT worth a young man who died because he took offense at the way a cop told him (rather than asked him) to get out of the street. Do you live here? More importantly, do you DRIVE here? Maybe you should try it. You would discover this was not an innocent ‘jaywalking’ incident, as the press tends to whitewash it. How often have you had a young black man intentionally step in front of your car? How many times have you had a group of young black men surround your car when you were alone, in an attempt to intimidate you? How many times have YOU had to face the terrible possibility that you might have to run over another human being with your car in order to protect your own life? THAT is what happens on the North side, even in North county. Do you understand NOW why this was not ‘jaywalking’? I am a liberal too, and I fought for civil rights for many years. I was part of a group in Tennessee who did not rest until Byron De La Beckwith was brought to justice. I ‘get’ white priviledge. But to stick your head in the sand and pretend that there are not SERIOUS issues on both sides in St. Louis will not help this community move forward at all.

    • John Reynolds

      Cheryl, it could not have been said any better…

    • Will

      Perhaps we read slightly different articles…

      >What planet do you live on where you think it isd OK for people to start
      screaming in the faces of police officers who are just trying to do
      their job

      Well, first off, she didn’t say that. Second, she specifically sympathized with the police for having to go through that. Third, she also specified that she was against such behavior because it made things more dangerous.

      > I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since August.

      You should see a doctor. I spent years deployed to the middle east and slept like a baby. I sincerely doubt that anyone has fired mortars or RPGs at you between August and now. If you’re so thoroughly terrified and/or disrupted by the protests, talk to your doctor and help yourself out.

      > I do know that the life and safety of my family is NOT worth a young
      man who died because he took offense at the way a cop told him (rather
      than asked him) to get out of the street.

      This statement comes apropos of nothing. No one is advocating for putting your family at risk…

      >How often have you had a young black man intentionally step in front of
      your car? How many times have you had a group of young black men
      surround your car when you were alone, in an attempt to intimidate you?

      Literally never once in the decade I’ve lived here. Never happened to my friends either, AFAIK. I don’t really understand the threat to you, if I’m being honest. You have a *car.* They’re on foot. You’ve won the “confrontation” before it’s even begun.

      >to stick your head in the sand and pretend that there are not SERIOUS
      issues on both sides in St. Louis will not help this community move
      forward at all.

      I really, really don’t know where you’re coming from with this. This article has a specific point, addressed in the headline: the media’s portrayal of the protestors as instigating all of the violence is wrong. Full stop. As far as I can tell, that’s correct. That says nothing whatsoever about the bad things people associated with the protestors HAVE done. She’s saying that the idea that the protestors are always at fault is wrong, and she’s correct.

    • Tracy Collins

      Conflating protestors with law-breakers is a fallacy.

      100 protestors assembled on the street are no different than 100 softball players in a park, 100 shoppers in a mall or 100 people sitting in a church pew. Citizens have the constitutional right to assemble lawfully.

      It is the essential function of a police officer to be able to discern between law-abiding citizens and lawbreakers. That is their job.

      Protestors are not breaking the law any more than shoppers are breaking the law. If a few people shoplift while visiting the Galleria should the police arrest everyone in the mall, or treat every shopper as if they were the criminals?

      Identify perpetrators based or behavior or evidence. The rest of us—including those exercising their right to assembly and protest—are innocent.

      • Cheryl Phillips

        Tracy, I don’t think the police have an issue with this. But when protestors break the law by blocking traffic (including an ambulance) or thowing projectiles, or breaking curfews or noise ordinances, then the terminology changes from peaceful protest to civil disobedience. The difference is that with the latter, the intent is to elicit arrest in order to raise awareness. No one is advocating arresting all the protesters, only the protesters that escalate to CD and are now breaking the law.
        Can I ask you a question? Do you sleep? Would it bother you if I stood in front of your house every day while you are trying to sleep, and shouted through a bullhorn? I have every right to do so, unless I am breaking a noise ordinance. But it would be rude and inconsiderate of me to do so. Perhaps you are protesting at the Ferguson police station, but there are families in that neighborhood who are trying to sleep. There are children who have to go to school and pass tests the next day, who are being kept awake by the circling helicopters and the bullhorns, and the beating drums. The point is, the protests went beyond raising awareness a long time ago. Now all you are doing is making enemies. And
        I think that is probably the exact opposite of what you were trying to do in the first place.

        • Tracy Collins

          Your situation sounds awful, and I’m sorry that you’re having to deal with it. I mean it. But I’m trying very hard to also be sympathetic to a group of people who have endured generations of systematic oppression. Being quiet and waiting for equality hasn’t accomplished much for them. If I were in their shoes, I’d be angry too. And if I were in your shoes, I’d be very tired and ready for this to be over. I hope that everyone eventually gets what they are hoping for. Be well.

          • Two things: 1) Cheryl is absolutely correct. Peaceful protest does not include throwing incendiary devices at Police or threatening to kill them and their families. No way. It’s absolutely disgusting the way some of the “protestors” have been treating our officers as well as their neighbors.
            2) “Being quiet and waiting for equality.” Really? Really??? Some of the wealthiest and most successful Americans today are Black, and they didn’t get that way sitting around and waiting for something. THEY WORKED HARD and OVERCAME any obstacles in their path which is the foundation of the American Dream REGARDLESS of the color of your skin or nationality. The very basis of that laughably absurd comment is racist, Tracy. The very people who depend on “systematic oppression” to continue are the race baiters like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who NEED their base to remain victims. It really is a demeaning worldview. It’s a demeaning way to look at people.
            And yet, at the same time, people like you are out demanding that we have a colorblind
            society. The last thing in the world Sharpton et al would ever permit is a colorblind
            society. There is one particular minority group that “quietly” goes about overcoming obstacles and, culturally, expect success in spite of being a minority: Asians. They WORK HARD and don’t waste their time “waiting for equality”. If of Japanese descent, their lineage doesn’t go around holding a grudge for 70 years that, as American CITIZENS, they were thrown into internment camps on American soil during World War II. No. They put that behind them and now are among the most successful physicians, lawyers, scientists, business executives, and entrepreneurs in our society. The Black community must REJECT the perpetual victim status perpetrated upon them by members of their own race. They must EXPECT greatness from their children instead of expecting another generation of dependents AS WE ALL SHOULD!

          • Tracy Collins

            1) Of course “peaceful protest” and committing violence are mutually exclusive. Nobody would argue differently. But that is the problem. Many people ARE conflating peaceful protestors with law-breakers. You are doing it yourself by putting quotation marks around “protestors” (It’s absolutely disgusting the way some of the “protestors” have been treating our officers as well as their neighbors.) Their behavior is reprehensible, but not because they are protestors. Let’s not tar everyone with the same brush.

            2) I wish what you were saying were the case–that if people simply worked hard enough anyone could succeed. We all want that to be true; that notion of social mobility is baked into the American dream, right?

            But the fact is, it isn’t true. The statistics simply don’t suggest that it is possible to simply work one’s way out of intergenerational poverty. The average net worth of black households in the U.S. is about $6,000. That compares to the net worth of white households at $110,000. That disparity is greater than it was for blacks under apartheid in South Africa. Net worth for black families is now lower than it was for them 30 years ago. It’s not possible to look at disparity like that and not think that there’s something terribly wrong with the structural systems that make up the American dream. I don’t like labeling people as “victims” either–but if people are being victimized, it doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend it doesn’t exist.

            How can wealth disparity like that not be shocking? It cannot simply be that black people don’t work hard enough. To believe that, you’d have to convince yourself that the average white person works 20 TIMES harder than the average black person? Really?

            Maybe it has something to do with the way public education is funded. Maybe it has something to do with the way poor people, regardless of color, are segregated into ghettos. Maybe it has something to do with racially biased incarceration rates.

            I don’t claim to have the answers. But I’m doing a lot of listening lately. And I don’t think that pretending that there aren’t systematic problems that make it infinitely harder for black people to succeed is helpful. We can only fix problems if we first admit that they exist.

            I didn’t create the system–and neither did you. But we live in it, and if we are white (I am) we are benefitting from it through nothing more than luck of birth. If the system isn’t fair, and I don’t believe it is, it is counter-productive to just tell black people to work harder. They cannot win at a rigged game.

          • Joshua Taylor

            Sir/Mam I dare you too open your eyes to the world and see that blacks are still systematically oppressed in this country.Yes, there are successful African-Americans. I come from a family of educated african americans. But what you fail to realize is that outside of my family there are these pockets of black communities where blacks are killing each other the schools are failing most of the prisons are filled with black people and most importantly our black men are not going to college and the ones that do too many of them are leaving . I attend a HBCU where the ratio of the incoming freshman class was 22-1(female to male). Too many people in the black community think that the fight is over we still have a long way to go.The slightly conscious African-American in this country has the right to be furious about the state of his or her people.To stick to the topic of this thread, protesters should start thinking about action and solving problems. The whole country knows about ferguson now what are they going to do with that awareness. Protesting does not accomplish anything but awareness.

  • Molly Metzger

    I am just seeing these comments now.

    Cheryl Phillips: I live on the same planet as you do. I feel personally attacked here and this is the last I will post on this website, but I would be willing to meet you for a coffee to have a real conversation. If I can find your email address I will write you with a proposed time/place for you to ask any of these questions to my face and hear my earnest responses, if you like.

    Will: Thank you very much for your thoughtful response to Cheryl. Your comments were very much appreciated.

    Take care, all,

    Molly