Understanding Ferguson

The fire in Ferguson, Missouri continues to burn. More than a week after an unarmed black teenager was fatally shot in the street by a white police officer, the situation in the suburban St. Louis community remains tense.

Attempts to mourn the passing of Michael Brown and protest his death have been complicated by looters and the presence of a militarized police force, outfitted with tear gas and rubber bullets. Local law enforcement has been supplanted by state troopers; early Monday morning, Gov. Jay Nixon called in the Missouri National Guard, even as the Justice Department and the FBI moved in to further investigate the shooting. By day’s end, President Obama had weighed in, and dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder to the scene.

If Ferguson has become the epicenter of debate over police use of deadly force and its impact on race relations in America, it is hardly an isolated case. In Los Angeles, police shot and killed an unarmed man named Ezell Ford. In the Dayton, Ohio suburb of Beavercreek, John Crawford III was fatally shot by police at a Wal-Mart. And in Staten Island, New York, Eric Garner was killed during a confrontation with police who, according to the coroner’s office, used an illegal procedure—a chokehold—to subdue him.

There has been a great deal of heat, but not enough light, as the country absorbs the lessons of these tragedies. Understanding the root causes of these crises is the first step toward preventing them. Toward that end, I offer the following resources to help inform constructive and ongoing public discourse about this nation’s long and arduous journey toward racial justice.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. This is a poetically beautiful account of the Great Migration, in which thousands of black citizens trekked from their homes in the South to cities in the North—some fleeing for their lives—in the years between about 1910 and 1970. Wilkerson conducted years of research about the factors that contributed to the exodus of black people from the South—persecution and terrorism at the hands of angry whites, lack of economic opportunity, and exclusion from quality education experiences. Wilkerson then shares those findings in the stories of the people who fled—some of which bear marked similarity to the stories of young black men like Michael Brown today.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. This is a searing examination and critique of the American criminal justice system, powerfully written by a civil rights lawyer, advocate, and law school professor. Her bewilderment and anger are palpable as she methodically documents with irrefutable data the way the criminal justice system continues to marginalize and criminalize black people. She forces us to take stock of the nation’s progress—and lack thereof—in its treatment of African-Americans from slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the present day, when people of color are incarcerated in numbers disproportionate to their white counterparts. She thoroughly examines the impact those prison terms have on the people locked up, their families and their communities as a whole, exposing the economic incentives to allowing racism to fester and boil over.

Simple Justice by Richard Kluger. In this comprehensive tome, Kluger, a master storyteller, weaves together the squares of the quilt that is Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling banning racial segregation in schools. He shares in great detail the lives of those impacted by the “separate but equal” policy in place before the ruling—and paints vivid portraits of the key players in tearing that doctrine down, from famous figures like Thurgood Marshall to lesser-known change agents such as the Rev. Joseph DeLaine. Kluger lays bare the system of white supremacy that touched every facet of life for all of those involved in Brown and invites the reader to draw the painful and obvious parallels to society today.

America in the King Years by Taylor Branch. Beginning in 1954, where Simple Justice leaves off, Taylor Branch provides a deep and introspective look at the building blocks of a movement, including the man who was eventually at the center of it all, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Using Dr. King as his vehicle, Branch explores the nooks and crannies of American society that contributed to the need for a civil rights movement and that came together to build that movement. This powerful trilogy—Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge—details a system of oppression that kept black people in a position of economic servitude and marginalized them socially. Partnerships formed across faith, geographical location, professions, and race to combat such oppression. The stories of the people who formed the civil rights movement, and the way they navigated currents that threatened to pull them under, help form a roadmap for moving forward today.

At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle McGuire. For centuries, black women in this country have been subjected to sexual violence at the hands of white men. McGuire tells the story of how that sexual violence gave rise to the civil rights movement—and how Rosa Parks, a champion of black women and an investigator for the NAACP, used the stories she knew, of women who were victimized as they went about trying to do their jobs, to galvanize a movement.

The Children by David Halberstam. Halberstam chronicles the experiences of Rev. James Lawson to bring the non-violent, civil unrest teachings of Gandhi to the United States—and specifically to young black people, who became the driving force of the civil rights movement. When children were beaten, hosed, and attacked by dogs, the nation paid attention. When children peaceably sat a lunch counter and were threatened and assaulted, the nation was horrified. When children spoke, the nation listened. As Halberstam carefully documents, many of those children became the legendary leaders we revere today.

Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling by Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer. Michelle Alexander opens the foreword of this book with a warning to readers: “Do not underestimate the power of the book you are holding in your hands.” She speaks truth. Marc Mauer’s classic work has been reimagined as a graphic novel, with artist Sabrina Jones’ powerful illustrations helping to make important arguments about the criminal justice system’s excesses more accessible to young audiences. While the format has changed, the message remains constant: this is a revealing narrative about the history of mass incarceration in the United States—and the political, economic, and social ramifications of society’s decision to over-incarcerate on communities of color.

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Rather than literature, I would recommend your connecting with Dr. Imani Perry of Princeton University. Phenomenal scholar. Research and instructional areas of interest are equity and race.

Great voices, particularly the New Jim Crow.
Ferguson does not allow denial any more, but beyond the New Jim Crow, Ferguson illustrates that over-reliance on cops, courts and corrections and at a planetary level the exaggerated use of military style force and hyper-incarceration do not stop violence. In 2014, the US has more knowledge about what does stop violence, much of this on the web site of Eric Holder´s department, but it does not use this knowledge to prevent violence or provide hope for young men in the zip codes of high violence and incarceration (and no votes).
It is time to get Smarter about Crime Control and use that knowledge to save lives (particularly of poor young, black men) and avoid wasted taxes. My book on Smarter Crime Control turns that knowledge into plain English for policy makers so that they can cut violence in half and save billions in taxes - http://bit.ly/1av9GHF

Thank you, Allison. I agree with your point on understanding root causes, and think there's much to be learned from history. How do we find a way forward? This documentary, Every Mother's Son, may provide insight:

EVERY MOTHER'S SON is a portrait of three women who have paid the ultimate price for the aggressive, "zero tolerance" policing practices that swept through American cities during the 1990's - each lost an unarmed child at the hands of the law. Over the course of seven years Tami Gold and Kelly Anderson followed Iris Baez, Kadiatou Diallo and Doris Busch Boskey as they negotiated the difficult journey from individual trauma to collective action. Dealing with the repercussions of their children's deaths upon their lives, they come together and learn how to organize within their communities and speak out about the need to rethink and reform policing.

The film can be streamed here: http://newday.iriseducation.org/Every-Mother-s-Son.html

This is a terrific reading list, thank you. To it, I would add Angela Davis, who has several books on the history of prisons and capital punishment in America as it relates to race and class that address the ways the current prison industrial complex is part of a global economy. Her books include Are Prisons Obsolete?, Abolition Democracy, and The Meaning of Freedom. I think it's important to add a global dimension since the prison-industrial complex as we see it now came into existence alongside the erosion of factory labor unions with the rise of off-shoring, outsourcing, export-processing zones (which are like labor camps), etc., and my impression is that Angela Davis's work has begun to move from a focus on only American history to a broader more global sense of such insidious interconnections.

Also, a question for you, I wonder if any work has been done on the gun lobby's effect. Speaking just speculatively, what I see in Ferguson are police with a lot of expensive equipment but not a lot of real training, so what this suggests to me is that the gun lobby has convinced states to buy a lot of dangerous toys instead of investing in human capital and social infrastructure.

Might such be related to the totalitarian behaviour of police and other security forces, everywhere, not only in the US?

But what do I know... I only know that among many countries I travelled US police acts quite rude and unfriendly, starting with immigration, traffic. I talk about the little differences in communication, then every police has regulative duties, which isn't always easy to execute with some strange laws to be enforced which discredit police per se.

But 'c'est le ton qui fait la musique', and I assume that the rude, inquisitional style of police forces are nurtured by a wrong understanding of authority. Doesn't police serves citizens, every citizen is a person of respect and every policemen is a citizen?

But now 'les jeux sont fait' and to some extend forces are on war on society, not only in the US, and the weakest get the damage. Reminds me on darkest chapters of CE history I have read about... or future coming: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Give_Me_Liberty

Let us all understand that policing is designed to maintain order in society and protect members of the community from those who would cause harm. Only problem is that black men are deemed to possess an inherent tendency to be harm-causing agents to the larger white protectorate. Even middle class black communities are patrolled and monitored for evidences of incipient criminality against this protectorate's safety and their free enjoyment of life.
Unfortunately a reading list of 1000 well-written and researched books won't change the fundamental prime directive of police agencies: which is to suppress the potential rebelliousness and revolt of the have-nots against the privileged members of the ruling class. So, this intention requires the constant surveillance and harassment (interdiction, stop and frisk) of black men becaused it is feared they will eventually erupt in a violent storm of anger and bloodlust against their oppressors, unless they are thwarted from organizing the requisites of rebellion or amassing the resources and resolve to resist subordinate status in the social framework of an intentionally inequitable society.
I suggest adding descriptions of the brutal put downs of slave insurrections to this reading list as a balancing measure in concert with our expanding literacy on the topic of domestic policing. By so doing, we are likely to be less hopeful about reforming the police and more committed to radical transformations of their oppositional stance against the legitimate longing for freedom, dignity, and liberty among America's people of color.

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