The core issues of Ferguson

Matthew Merchant

The decision

Gathered together in The Nest on Nov. 24, students watched the news out of Ferguson, Missouri. The students, members of Black United Students, sat silently.

Huddled around a table, leaned back in the blue and beige chairs of the Student Center, and lounging on the oversized beanbag chairs scattered around the floor, their faces showed anxiety as the anchors spoke about the grand jury’s choice. The decision had been made.


Silence and the feeling that there was no air in the room. No angry outbursts. No rioting.

Just a slight, painful-sounding cry from one woman. Then another from across the room.

Marvin Logan, executive director of Kent State’s Undergraduate Student Government, stood and held a classmate, comforting her. His eyes were red, his cheeks tear-stained as his arms reached around her.

“Now is not a good time,” he said. “We need time before we talk.”

The pain on the faces of those students was a tangible sign of the inner turmoil that probably filled them.

After a few moments, they stood. Clasping hands together, they gathered into a circle, encompassing the entire room. Then they began to pray.

They prayed about forgiveness and not seeking vengeance. 

Take hate out of everyone’s hearts, one said. Help fix the broken, unjust system. Trust God to watch over everyone in life and in death. They prayed about justice, about peace, about remaining calm and trusting God in times of uncertainty and doubt.

The case

When the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri chose not to indict Darren Wilson on Nov. 24 for the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a flurry of mixed reactions followed from individuals and groups both directly and indirectly involved.

Wilson, a white male police officer, shot and killed Brown, an unarmed black man, and he will not face any criminal charges or further investigation. To some, this is a gross injustice, both morally and legally, while to others it is simply a process of the legal system of the United States following the book of law.

Conversation in the national media since has followed similar paths of conversation. Was Wilson acting on use of force

training or was he acting on racial prejudice? Why did he use his firearm instead of a non-lethal weapon like a taser? Is the U.S. legal system flawed? Demonstrations broke out in streets, on campuses and in shopping malls across the nation to protest the grand jury’s decision. From the riots on the streets of Ferguson to the march members of Kent State’s Black United Students organized last Tuesday, people came together to vocalize their thoughts, their emotions and their opinions on the institutionalized racism that underlies American society, as well as the judicial system of the U.S.

The issue: Race relations and black threat

Marcus Donaldson, chief of staff for USG and a junior public relations major, was in The Nest with BUS the night of the decision. 

Donaldson, who was monitoring his personal social media accounts that night, said the focus on Twitter was on the death of Michael Brown. But it wasn’t necessarily the actual death of the individual; the focus, he said, was on the potential for riots to break out and the police protecting property in response to the decision.

That message — Brown isn’t important but property is — is being touted by law enforcement and the media, which Donaldson said doesn’t help foster healthy communication, but deepens the notion that members of the black community aren’t as important as members of the white community.

Renee Romano, professor of history, African studies and comparative American studies at Oberlin College and author of four books on racial issues in the U.S., said it has become commonplace in American society for the media to criminalize the victim while upholding the innocence of the perpetrator especially when the victim is black.

“On the one hand, I think the demonizing of Michael Brown, as he was big and black and whatever, is very, very common because that is what you see in the case of the victim. Even young black men, teenagers, are turned into some stereotypical threat. And then the rallying around Darren Wilson, well that’s typical to, well he didn’t do anything wrong, he thought he was in danger, we shouldn’t blame him,” Romano said. “But that doesn’t get at the real question. How is race structuring the way in which policing is done in this country, and why do black people have such a different perception of police than whites?”

Questions of how communities and police departments interact with each other is key to any conversation about the death of Michael Brown, Romano said. Perceptions are subjective, she said, but hard evidence of how race affects public policies and individual officer decisions is not. 

Romano said members of the black community typically view police as threatening to them, not protecting. And police typically view black people as threatening, just by the color of their skin.

“How do these ideas of race, these ideologies of race, affect our police departments more generally?” she asked. “How are police acting in general, what license have we as a society given our law enforcement to use to kill people with very little provocation because they felt some threat?”

The issue: Police violence

Wilson’s position as a police officer has taken a prominent role in the media coverage and subsequent conversation on the decision. Romano said American society has given it’s police force a huge amount of leeway in how it enforces the law, including permission to use lethal force.

From the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida to the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the core issue in most police shootings is the perceived threat the victim posed to the perpetrator.

“This perception that black men are a threat and then the sense that we have that, or the ability of the police to essentially justify their action by saying they felt there was a threat,” Romano said. “So it becomes, if the legal issue is this is a white police officer, or any police officer, feel there was a threat, then yes, they are justified to use deadly force. And in our society, race is one of those things that determine how threatening a person is perceived to be.”

The issue: Legal system flaws

Institutionalized injustice in the legal system marginalizes blacks and minorities, an aspect of the way in which the system was originally designed to work, according to the Hampton Institute.

“The law actually worked, I think, as it was meant to here,” Romano said. “It’s just the way the law is set up is really narrow and really problematic. We don’t define what Darren Wilson did as a crime. That’s what that decision told us. This is not defined as a crime.”

Donaldson said the American legal system has never worked in favor of minorities.

“Law hasn’t been something that’s been a defense for our community. I’d like to still be hopeful of legislation,” he said, referring to laws that would make police wear body cameras — like the proposed Michael Brown camera law — that could possibly eliminate discrepancies in investigations.

What’s next?

“I think some kind of political or social movement to challenge the underlying issues that structure our society is probably the fundamental next step,” Romano said. 

Potential solutions to the problem of race relations exist, she said, and starting with addressing the practices of police departments, from crisis response to use of force trainings, is the practical first step.

Romano said that looking at a different model of policing, like getting officers more involved in the communities they work in, is important. Knowing what the issues are on the street level typically helps when it comes to addressing the deeper issues in society.

Other options include individual body cameras, as well as 1960s style community review boards that have authority over the police departments. Looking at media images of stereotypes and implicit biases is also important for constructive conversation, both Donaldson and Romano said, as well as looking at the deeper issues instead of focusing on the riots.

“The core issue to me is that we live in a society that has criminalized black men, that doesn’t value black life equally to lives of others and where whites seem to have a failure of imagination or empathy to put themselves in the shoes of people like Michael Brown’s mother or Michael Brown himself, or folks who have to live in a society where they become targets…because of the color of their skin,” Romano said. “I think that’s the core issue, that black life is not equally valued and that black men particularly have been targeted and criminalized as threatening.”

Contact Matthew Merchant at [email protected].