Why Protest? And What’s Next: Truth-Telling and Reconciliation for Ferguson and Beyond


Ferguson protest

Credit: Creative Commons / Wikipedia

We stood there on South Florissant in Ferguson almost two weeks ago. As a friend and I walked through the crowds gathered there, all waiting for the grand jury outcome, the feeling was beyond tense. We heard voices, some declaring there would be no indictment and others hoping that the right thing would be done and there would be a trial. Then a path opened through the crowd and Michael Brown’s mother appeared a few feet away from me making her way past us, escorted by family members. They guided her to a podium set up in the street in front of what seemed like waves of people between her and the Ferguson police station. She briefly paused and glanced over to the police station as if to make sure they would hear her words and said, “…they don’t care…they think it’s a joke…” She stood there, hurt and visibly angry, tears streaming down her face.
That moment when we learned of the non-indictment, the reasons why we protest became solidified in my mind and heart in a way they had not before. The protests reflect a community disenchanted with the status quo of (in)justice in the U.S. with what seems like the frequent inability to see black and brown people as worthy of the dignity of which all humans are equally deserving.
The protest chants, many created by young people from Ferguson and beyond make visible deep knowledge that is often hidden to many who do not face the daily indignities that young African Americans endure. We often chant “Black Lives Matter” and “the Whole Damn System is Guilty as Hell.” We affirm what we know when we chant: that the dignity of our lives that grounds and sustains us is too often undermined and assaulted by a deep system of inequality. Yet, the fact that the words “Black Lives Matter” have to be said reflects a social, cultural, and political system that is either largely blind or in deep denial, yet complicit in a multi-generational process of structural racism that is violent toward People of Color.
The far-reaching impacts of this inequality were not necessarily recounted in detail that night when Michael Brown’s mother spoke to us. The truth is there is too much to tell in a single night but the lives of many people bear an often hidden testimonial in this country that lies just beneath the surface. I believe there is something healing in openly expressing this righteous indignation in response to injustice in the presence of others, in making what is hidden seen with national and international support. I know this first hand since I grew up in Baden in North St. Louis, less than five miles from Ferguson. I was taught to be fearful of police because of experiences that shaped my life and the lives of my family and friends. I grew up knowing my uncle was badly beaten by police because he was wrongly accused of stealing a jar of jam. That was a sign of things to come as my entire life I navigated through Ferguson and areas like it with a foreboding sense that the absurd was possible because of my color, that whether I lived or died could be decided without any sense of justice or accountability.
Many African American youth of this generation are rightly angered by this situation and we need to listen to them if we are going to find a lasting solution to these problems. Political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal describes a kind of psychic energy expressed in music that often conveys a sense of little hope:

“the music arises from a generation that feels, with some justice, that they have been betrayed by those who have come before them. That they are, at best, tolerated in schools, feared on the streets and almost inevitably destined for the hell holes of prison.”

While it is important to acknowledge the anger and paralyzing numbness that comes from this relentless institutional oppression, the fact that so many young people are expressing themselves and demanding that the system be changed shows how deeply people do care and opens up pathways for change.

A New Generation

The protests in response to murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and many others and the inability to indict the police that killed them, offers an opportunity to understand where we are in history. Youth, already aware of their conditions, are proclaiming their humanity and their commitment to changing the status quo through protest and in so doing are challenging us to think through each of our contributions as well. This truth-telling as heard in the protest chants excavates the shared knowledge of past movements for liberation, not in a nostalgic sense but with a fierce urgency to shed light on the devastating effects of structural racism today. The protests engage us in the conflict, removing the comfortable moral high ground that too often obscures our complicity. This is powerful work as this sustained direct action–faith in action–reveals and dramatizes the injustice that is too often portrayed as normal outside of the escalated conflict’s context. As a result, it makes us all uncomfortable and pushes us to consider how we can make a higher-level commitment to racial and economic justice in our work and in our lives.

Truth, Justice and Reconciliation

Let’s head back to Ferguson on the night of the grand jury announcement. Within minutes of the news of the non-indictment, police donned in expensive new riot gear appeared and pushed forward trying to disperse the crowd. That night as we came to grips with the decision, we lacked a supportive space for mourning or reflection on the part of the authorities. Instead we were met with a fear of protestors and a hunger amongst the media for some broken windows and destruction of property to report. They missed the importance of creating spaces for people to grieve and be heard, and the need for deeper conversation about justice and accountability.

Ferguson police responding to unrest

Credit: Creative Commons / Wikipedia

As the police closed in, the words of a chant that has inspired this movement from the beginning, clearly cut through the cold air that night, “the whole damn system is guilty as hell.” I believe this chant voices the knowledge that spans generations: the experience of a militarized response to protests is not just a product of this moment, but of a inherited system that seeks to silence truth telling about inequality through the use of violent force. It is important that we do not miss this opportunity for sustained truth telling, to see that the protests are not simply blaming or trying to displace responsibility, but acknowledging work that needs to be done while the world is listening. What we see now is a shift from moments of resistance to a movement working to change systems that create this inequity. The broader picture of disproportionate imprisonment and inequitable education leading many to the criminalization, underemployment, and criminal mistreatment that Black people (and People of Color) in this country face is a stark reminder that we do not have the same moral values as white Americans. This statement does not invalidate the suffering many Whites living in poverty experience or that so many people in this country face oppression, but instead reinforces the need to demand structural change for the American system of procedural justice whenever it fails to address the dignity of all of its citizens.

What’s next?

There is urgent need for a transparent, democratic, and peaceful process that invites the American community more widely to begin sharing their stories and listening to the experiences of others within a Truth-Telling Process. In a context in which the formal legal system so often fails the most vulnerable and where exploitation is woven into the social and economic structure of the nation, community-lead truth-telling processes provides a foundation for greater justice. Truth and reconciliation emphasize radical listening and acting with victims in finding solutions to these problems. Truth and Reconciliation processes do not have to be lead by outside experts and can take a variety of forms depending on the needs and capacity of each community.
While listening is an important component of these processes it is not by itself enough and these processes need to be grounded in a core commitment to identify forms of action that restore and rebuild whenever harm has been done. This process must address the recent murders of Michael Brown, John Crawford, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Vonderrick Myers, Kajieme Powell, Tamir Rice and the continuous onslaught of police shootings of black and brown people that have resulted in wide-spread disenchantment with the militarized police and official response to protests and their supporting institutions and communities. While there have been many attempts to separate each of the murders suggesting that they are isolated and not connected to race and class, there is a broader picture of disproportionate criminalization and educational and economic discrimination that corresponds with the police violence that we need sustained commitment to transforming.
This is why we are emphasizing that reconciliation requires justice, both in the narrow sense of accountability for officers and departments that are engaged in discriminatory practices and violence and in addressing the wider conditions that often rob people of dignity and opportunities to thrive. At this point in the movement many of us are asking how might we move toward a break from this cycle of direct and structural violence in a way that supports communities in taking the lead on this long-term work?
The Center for Educational Equity with the Peace and Justice Studies Association and many other local organizations are calling for a nation-wide process of Truth-telling. This process uses a truth and reconciliation framework to call on victims of police violence, their families and communities to document their perspective as evidence for structural change characterized by community initiated programs, and having local legislation adopt international human rights standards so local police become subject to standards that require them to recognize and respect the human dignity of the residents they serve.
In St. Louis the Center for Educational Equity with the Peace and Justice Studies Association are using a truth and reconciliation framework to begin a truth-telling process. The project involves the following:
1. Building interest for process through editorials, living room conversations, structured intragroup dialogue and video experiences on thetruthtellingproject.org
2. Coalition building with local and national organizations
3. Begin Truth-Telling in early 2015 using international human right testimony/deposition where local victims share and others are invited to St. Louis to testify, as well as other communities simultaneously holding independent non-government truth-telling hearings
4. Giving voice to histories and experiences of police violence, examining their structural causes and developing legislation and community programs based on these knowledge garnered from these processes.
5. A reconciliation process that involves national conversations on racism and police violence once structural change is underway
This is an exciting moment of awakening and the protests are a sign of the impending necessity for our entire society to embrace a creative solution that involves the acknowledgement of our equal moral value and worth. We learned from the civil rights movement that racism and hate couldn’t be legislated out of the hearts and minds of people. The education and human connection that truth-telling and reconciliation inspires has that possibility to deepen changes in attitudes and beliefs about the necessity for greater social and economic equality and to connect the personal and the political in communities across this country.

David Ragland, PhD is a North St. Louis Native and Visiting Professor of Education at Bucknell University. He is on the national board of the Peace and Justice Studies Association and is the United Nations Representative for the International Peace Research Association.
Arthur Romano, PhD is an Assistant Professor at the School of Conflict Resolution and Analysis at George Mason University. He is a scholar-practitioner whose research and applied interests include youth social justice leadership, global educational movements and educational responses to transforming violence and poverty.


One thought on “Why Protest? And What’s Next: Truth-Telling and Reconciliation for Ferguson and Beyond

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful and present engagement. I am torn about Truth and Reconciliation as a framework for moving forward. The theory and psychological truths about moving past harm and rebuilding community seem right to me as do the restorative/transformative justice frameworks as our answer to the over-incarceration industry.
    That being said, absent transformation of power structures, truth and reconciliation practices all to often seem to mimic neo-colonialism more than they approach justice. There is a larger conversation about the limits of progress even in South Africa where a mostly white-owned economy remains and there is reason to wonder whether truth and reconciliation (as transformative as the experience seems to have been for many individuals) mainly on a social level served as clever means to bring Black Africans to accept the abiding poverty in contrast to the aspirations of the Freedom Charter.
    In Oakland, a number of foundation-sponsored non-profits, called for restorative justice circles after Oscar Grant was murdered. No police officers or leadership participated as far as any reports tell so it was mainly away to “feel the pain” of justifiably angry young Black and Latino youth and divert them from street confrontations.

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