For Professor David Ragland, education, the protests in Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown's killing amplified the ongoing problems of race and structural violence in Ferguson, Mo., greater St. Louis, and in fact the whole country. A St. Louis native, Ragland was home to celebrate family birthdays at the time of the killing and has since been working with colleagues to develop The Truth-Telling Project, a resource for change through dialogue and peace and justice education. In this edition of Bucknell Answers, Ragland explains the issues and ways he and others plan to work to move the conversation forward.
Question: What are the underlying issues affecting what happened in Ferguson?
Answer: The boilerplate issue in St. Louis is Mike Brown — his body lying there for hours. There were people coming by and welling up with anger as they remembered the experience of their own indignities. At the same time, there were folks who were looking for ways to deal with some of these issues. So it happened to be a situation that called for people to do something now. It's got to be now. There are too many things happening that signal that it's time for us to really address who we are, how we live and how we treat other people.
Question: What are some of those signals?
Answer: In St. Louis, there is a huge economic disparity gap, which corresponds with the racial breakdown there. People south of the city's entertainment, restaurant and shopping district, Delmar, are generally white and wealthier than those north of Delmar, who are generally black and more impoverished.
Despite what I think is victim assassination in this process and of many other processes involving black men and women, there's a history in St. Louis of a kind of usury by the police to pay city bills. You see a disproportionate amount of African-American youth stopped by the police. That was my own experience. I've had those conversations with my parents about how to be — how to dress, how to behave in ways so you won't get harassed. We have some seemingly intractable race problems in our country and we just don't want to talk about it. I think part of this is Mike Brown being who he was — a high school graduate with no apparent criminal convictions. He was on his way to college. I think that this generation feels like they've been left behind. We see a few black faces here and there and think that things are better, but there are large communities where people feel hopeless.
Question: Why this protest at this time? What does protesting accomplish?
Answer: Protest in general is important for dramatization of issues. It's important for solidarity, networking, understanding the issues and making yourself part of a public forum. A lot of what I've been doing has been getting into the streets as an older person who has studied peace and civil rights to try to be one of the voices of peace out there. I learned about the sophistication of the protests, but also about this anger that black kids are not allowed to have lest they be deemed violent and a threat. For me, that was profound.
One day, I was out with a number of people in front of the police station and I remember some people cursing at the police, so I started talking to people and talking to police because all of the sudden they had moved forward and picked up their riot gear. We were saying to the police that these are kids and people who have families just like yours. Sometimes, we lose that reality, and the situation looks angrier when it's young black folks who are in the street. Sadly, we just haven't been taught to humanize each other.
Question: How has the media been a factor in public opinion about Ferguson?
Answer: I think the media has sensationalized a lot that's happened. The nature of the media is to be about what's going to excite people. But what excites people also makes people afraid.
Often, media generalizes what's happening and misses out on the complexity of the human experience and what people are doing. There are people with so many different thoughts doing so many different things to try to pierce and crack the wall of the system, but we're so entrenched in it that it's hard to have useful conversations.
Question: What are you doing to use peace and justice to move the conversation forward?
Answer: A colleague who was one of my high school mentors runs a project called the Center for Educational Equity, which facilitates racial justice training in schools. He does diversity training and facilitates conversations about race across the country and he's also well connected to different organizations in St. Louis. We came up with a series of dialogue projects. This lines up with my background in peace education and also truth and reconciliation. We wrote a grant and formed a coalition with the Peace and Justice Studies Association along with some other organizations.
Now we're in the process of trying to get to truth and reconciliation. Truth-telling is so hard. It's hard for people to actually come and share their thoughts and experiences if they haven't been listened to or believed in the past. We're inviting people from all over the country to add their perspectives to the growing chorus that has experienced police violence and what they believe are the underlying root causes. We plan to share the voices of victims with the global community.
We're also piloting a series of living-room conversations, which are structured dialogues in homogenous neighborhoods where community members who are comfortable with each other can express their perspectives on race. At the end, we plan to have different groups come back and have the conversation together. But first, folks have to have the conversations on their own so that they can speak freely and be honest. Part of the goal is to help folks heal. Part is to have structured dialogues that can lead to some real proposals for change.