Sunday, August 31, 2014

What really happened in Ferguson, Missouri?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 31 August 2014

I’m not teaching any class this semester that lends itself to using Ferguson, Mo, as a way to teach sociology or to demonstrate how sociology can help cut through the immense clutter that corporate and activist news and the Internet create for us. 

I can, however, after 30 years of doing so, imagine how such a discussion might go.

Student: “Professor Steiger, what do you think really happened in Ferguson?”

Steiger: “Are you asking me what I know or what I believe happened?”

Student: “What’s the difference?”

Steiger: “What if I told you I believe that the entire thing is a fabrication. That there was no shooting, Michael Brown is not dead, but that it was all necessary to protect Mr. Brown because he has now gone into witness protection?”

Silence on the part of the student.

Steiger: “Well?”

Student: “Professor Steiger, that seems far-fetched?”

Steiger: “Why, I bet you can find someone on the Internet who has already put together such a scenario complete with ‘facts’ to back it up.”

Student: “Is that really what you believe?”

Steiger: “What do you think?”

Student: “You say it in a very convincing way.”

Steiger: “Are you now considering it as a possibility?”

Student: “Maybe, I hadn’t thought it before.”

Steiger: “Anyone else in class now considering it?” A few nods among the students.

Steiger: “OK, let me ask the class a question. How many here have really not drawn any conclusion about the events in Ferguson? That you are still undecided and waiting for more facts to come out?” A couple raise their hands, I ask them what they are waiting for. Their answer is “what happened in Ferguson.”

“So, am I correct? Everyone here has already come to a conclusion about what happened there?” Most everyone is nodding their heads yes.

Steiger: “How many of you basically see it this way: One person is good, the other is bad.” About three quarters of the class raise their hands. “And for those of you who see it that way, have you changed your mind any about who is good and who is bad since you have been following events there?” About three quarters of people raise their hand. “And who do we know more about since the shooting? Mr. Brown or Officer Wilson? Hands up for Mr. Brown.” About half. “For Officer Wilson?” The other half. “OK, now, think about it, as you read information about Mr. Brown or Officer Wilson, were you reading to confirm their good guy or bad guy status in your basic understanding of what happened? In other words, to confirm the story you have put together in your head? How many of you have read something about your characters, the good guy and the bad guy, that didn’t fit your story and just dismissed it?” About half of the students raise their hands.

Steiger: “How many of you here actually worry that you might get accidently shot by a police officer?” Four students raise their hands. None of them are white.

Student: “Professor Steiger, are you going to tell us what you think happened in Ferguson?”

Steiger: “ I know that a young African American male was shot and killed. He isn’t much different than many of you except most of you probably don’t see graduating high school as much of an accomplishment. It was for him because, for whatever reasons, there is a lot of hopelessness and fatalism in the community he grew up in.

“Why he died remains shrouded in mystery. I would feel better about the official process if there was a different prosecutor because the local prosecutor works so closely with the police, it’s hard to imagine, especially when the prosecutor is elected and needs the support of law enforcement in a political campaign, that there will be the appearance of favoritism toward the police. It matters little whether he does a perfect job or not, appearances are important and add to it that his father was a police officer shot and killed by an African American. Well, let’s just say, there is no way he would ever serve on a jury judging Officer Wilson.

“I believe it unlikely that Officer Wilson will be charged with anything. And if he is, even less likely he will be convicted. I believe this based on the past history of such events, which are more frequent than any of us want to believe. I also do not believe that ‘justice’ is always the outcome.”

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