Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Meanings of Ferguson

            Harry Targ

In addressing violence, researchers, educators, journalists and religious leaders have usually concentrated on its most visible forms: murder and war. The central features of such violence include physical assault and killing. In our own day terrorism has joined war as the most popular common subject for study.

Over the years, peace educators have developed intellectual tools to uncover more diverse meanings of violence, their differences and their connections. Structural violence has been distinguished from direct violence. Researchers continue to analyze direct violence, physical assault and killing, but also study structural violence, the various forms of human suffering that take more time, impose pain and suffering on populations, and are perpetuated by leading institutions and relationships in society. Structural violence includes economic inequality, low wages and poverty, inadequate access to health care and education, and the psychological damage that economic suffering causes. These injustices, the concept of structural violence suggests, are embedded in economic, social, and political institutions.

It is possible to disaggregate further the structural violence that is embedded in institutions. Institutional violence refers to unequal distribution of power and influence in major societal institutions: political, criminal justice, and educational, for example.

Finally, cultural violence refers to the images, symbols, and educational materials that value some population groups over others. Culture refers to the public consciousness of history, traditions, and popular narratives that describe people. Stereotypes are short-hand representations of a culture.

In total then violence is direct, structural, institutional, and cultural. These kinds of violence may occur separately but in most cases are inextricably connected. It is this fourfold conception of violence that is relevant to the current crisis in Ferguson, Missouri.      

The tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri came to national attention because of direct violence. A Ferguson policeman shot and killed an unarmed young African American male. In response to the collective expression of community outrage that followed, the local police initiated a multi-day barrage of tear gas, strong-arm arrests, threatening street protestors with military vehicles and loaded rifles. The images on television screens nationwide have been of a people under assault, parallel to Israeli bombings in Gaza and United States targeted air strikes in Iraq. The fear that young African American males in Ferguson have historically felt every time they stepped into the streets of their city have escalated since the killing of Michael Brown.

Beyond the threat of direct violence in Ferguson is structural violence, less visible but as important. Brookings Institute researcher Elizabeth Kneebone (“Ferguson, Mo. Emblematic of Growing Suburban Poverty,” brookings@edu, August 15, 2014) reported that the community of Ferguson has experienced a qualitative economic decline over the last decade. The city’s unemployment rate increased from 5 percent in 2000 to 13 percent by 2010. Average earnings of community members have declined by one-third. One-fourth of the population lives in poverty.

Kneebone indicated that poverty rates have doubled in suburban neighborhoods surrounding the 100 largest cities. “By 2008-2012, 38 percent of poor residents lived in the neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or higher. For poor black residents in those communities, the figure was 53 percent.” Of course, poverty is highly related to declining schools, inadequate access to health care, lessened prospects for jobs, and large-scale youth unemployment.

Institutional violence is reflected in a 300-year history of slavery and racism. Professor Clarissa Hayward, Washington University, said: “The St. Louis metropolitan area has been an extreme example of racial segregation for 100 years.” She pointed out that St. Louis geographically was at the nexus of the South, the Midwest, and the West and added: “The practices and politics of St. Louis created the problems that underlie the tension that boiled out in Ferguson this week.” (Puneet Kollipara, “Wonkbook: The Social and Economic Story Behind the Unrest in Ferguson,” Wonkblog, The Washington Post, August 18, 2014).

In terms of the Ferguson political system, two-thirds of the community is Black and the local government is almost all white. Five of six city council members are white, the Mayor is white, and six of seven school board members are white. Fifty of 53 police are white.

Finally, cultural violence addresses the issue of ideology, consciousness, images of the other, and additional ways in which whites see African-Americans. Racist culture socializes the dominant class and race to reflect its superiority. For example, Missouri Lt. Governor Peter Kinder said: “That’s one of the great advances of Anglo-American civilization, is that we do not have politicized trials. We let the justice system work it out.” The mayor of Ferguson recently declared that his community was free of racism.

Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, police and politicians have organized a campaign to demonize the victim of the police killing. The tall young man, an African-American, was a robber, a drug consumer, and violence-prone. Also, the days of protest in Ferguson were framed to privilege the peaceful, religious, mourning adults and to explain night-time violence (not as police violence) but violence by outside agitators from New York, Chicago, and California. The fact that young African Americans leave their houses at their own risk could not, the frame implies, engender outrage.

So from police violence--killing, gassing, beating--to economic despair, to lack of political representation to cultural rationales for state violence, the basic characteristics of American society are uncovered. And once again, the victimization of people of color, as well as workers, and women, lead to the following conclusions:

--the root cause of exploitation, racism, and sexism is structural violence (capitalism).
--physical violence is used to crush rebellion against class exploitation and racism.
--unrepresentative political institutions are dominated by the wealthy and powerful.
--dominant cultural stereotypes and specific narratives about society reinforce the economic system, the political system, and justify the police violence in the St. Louis area.

In sum, in addressing violence, its multiple forms should be taken into consideration.