(Portions of this essay, “The Meanings of Ferguson,” appeared on August 20, 2014 in Diary of a Heartland Radical).
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, sickness, depression, and death 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 crisis that unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri.
Ferguson, Missouri 2014
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, and threatening street protestors with military vehicles and loaded rifles. The images on television screens nationwide were 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 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 experienced a qualitative economic decline over the decade before the shooting. The city’s unemployment rate increased from 5 percent in 2000 to 13 percent by 2010. Earnings of community members declined by one-third. One-fourth of the population was living in poverty.
Kneebone indicated that poverty rates have doubled in suburban neighborhoods surrounding the 100 largest cities in the United States. “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 has been almost all white. At the time of the shooting of Michael Brown, five of six city council members were white, the Mayor was white, and six of seven school board members were white. And fifty of 53 police officers were 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 shortly after the shooting: “That’s one of the great advances of Anglo-American civilization, that we do not have politicized trials. We let the justice system work it out.” The mayor of Ferguson declared that his community was free of racism.
Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, police and politicians 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 perpetrated by outside agitators from New York, Chicago, and California. The fact that young African Americans left their houses at their own risk could not, the frame implies, engender outrage.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 2016
And in August, 2016 Milwaukee, by many measures the most segregated and racist big city in the United States, experienced the police shooting of Sylville K. Smith followed by two days of frustrated rebellion by some residents of the Sherman Park neighborhood. State violence, poverty, and racial segregation have created a tinderbox of frustration and anger in that city. According to a 2015 NPR report, the state of Wisconsin invests more in prisons than education, incarcerating a higher percentage of Black men than anywhere in the country. “…in Milwaukee County more than half of all Black men in their 30s and 40s have served time.” In one zip code alone 62 percent of Black men have been incarcerated for some time by the age of 34. The prison population of the state has tripled since 1990.
NPR also quoted a study finding that Milwaukee has the second highest black poverty rate in the country with an unemployment rate four times higher than whites (Kenay Downs, “Why is Milwaukee So Bad for Black People?” NPR, March 5, 2015). A Madison, Wisconsin group, the Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition, after defining the idea of a “neighborhood,” found that 31 of Wisconsin’s 56 Black neighborhoods are jails and an additional 21 neighborhoods are apartment complexes or section 8 housing or both. Prisons and poverty dominate the life of Black communities (YGB, “31 of Wisconsin’s 56 Black Neighborhoods are Jails,”
Summing up the situation in Milwaukee, Alderman Khalif Rainey said: “The Black people of Milwaukee are tired. They’re tired of living under this oppression. This is their life.” (Tanzina Vega, “Milwaukee’s Staggering Black-White Economic Divide,” CNN Money, August 17, 2016, money cnn.com).
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, suggest 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, Milwaukee and all around the United States.
Black Lives Matter
But between Ferguson and Milwaukee a new social movement has emerged, Black Lives Matter, led by young women and men representing over 60 organizations around the country. Recently they issued a powerful programmatic statement “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice, The Movement for Black Lives (POLICY.M4BL.org). It presented six demands, each with detailed recommendations:
-End the War on Black People
These demands represent African Americans, Women, Workers, and all oppressed peoples. They address direct violence—Stop the Killing—and structural violence—Redistribute Wealth and Income, Political Power, and Opportunity for Human Development for All. The struggles continue.