Monday, December 29, 2014

Listening and Learning After the Ferguson Moment

This past fall, I watched from afar as friends and colleagues around the country joined in protests, chanting and displaying now familiar slogans -- Black Lives Matter! Hands Up Don't Shoot! -- and after the failure of Staten Island grand jury to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death of Eric Garner -- I Can't Breathe. In Ann Arbor, my graduate school stomping ground, protests over the Mike Brown case also picked up outrage over an event shockingly close to home, the shooting death of Ann Arbor-resident Aura Rosser.

I read tweets and facebook posts, newspaper coverage and blog posts. Like so many other Americans, I set to work on the #Fergusonsyllabus. The events of the past fall have produced an overwhelming amount of writing from experts and observers, activists and pundits, all analyzing and reassessing what we think we know about race and justice in America in 2014.

Then I was invited to participate in a panel organized by the USD Law School on The Ferguson Moment (on which part of this post is based). Where to begin? What stories to tell, what framework to provide to begin to chip away at the complexity that produced Ferguson October?

Like so many Americans, I was surprised by what the Mike Brown shooting, the months of protests, and ongoing and contentious media coverage revealed about our racially divided America. I thought I understood. I thought my training as a historian had provided me with the context and the frameworks I needed to understand race in 2014. But there is always more that we don't understand. 

These cases and the mounting examples of black deaths at the hands of police officers seemed to suggest that there was something about our moment that many of us were missing. What structural context could help me explain these events and the outpouring of grief and anger in response? What could help me explain Why Mike Brown? Why did this case become our national reckoning? What could I learn now so that this coming semester, when I stand in front of my US history survey to tell the story of the so-called American century, I will have stronger, clearer narratives to help make the politics of our moment more comprehensible?