Lessons From Ferguson About Rights, Race and Place

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September 8, 2014Lessons from Ferguson panel

A panel discussion at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Wilson Library brought together experts from a variety of academic disciplines to explore the recent violence in Ferguson, Missouri.

“Lessons From Ferguson About Rights, Race and Place” was co-sponsored by The Center for Urban & Regional Studies and the Institute of African American Research.  The panelists offered brief remarks on the key underlying factors that led to the events in Ferguson and suggested actions to decrease the likelihood of similar incidents happening in other places, including North Carolina.

Frank Baumgartner, Richard J. Richardson distinguished professor of political science at UNC, discussed his study of racial disparities in North Carolina traffic stops.  Professor Baumgartner’s research indicates a growing gap when it comes to the likelihood of a pulled over car being searched, depending on if the driver is white, Latino or black.  He identified a vicious cycle whereby people stopped are increasingly resentful of police behavior, while at the same time police officers are becoming more and more convinced that interventions are needed.  Professor Baumgartner noted that Durham is considering a policy that requires police officers to get written consent before conducting a search.  It’s a policy that has, he says, significantly reduced the overall number of car searches in Fayetteville, North Carolina.  (click for audio of presentation)

UNC associate professor of city and regional planning Mai Nguyen addressed the impact of the economic downturn on poor suburbs like Ferguson, and the resulting reduction in police services. Professor Nguyen discussed the increased militarization of local police forces since September 11, 2001 and how the distinctions between local police and the military may be blurred.  She also cited an erosion of police trust among immigrants in certain municipalities who fear being reported as undocumented.  Professor Nguyen referenced an “us versus them” mentality she says is pervasive among many marginalized populations when it comes to how they view the police.  (click for audio of presentation)

Blair Kelley, associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, first heard about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on Twitter.  Professor Kelley was intrigued by the mobilization of what she thought could be a movement for social change around policing.  Her next thoughts were of Dred Scott, who lived in Missouri when he sued to try to gain his freedom, and the subsequent Supreme Court case that decided blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  Professor Kelley asked herself if Michael Brown had rights that the police were bound to respect.  Next, she provided a long view of the alienation between young people and the police forces meant to protect them.  Her remarks concluded with references to the historical role of police in lynchings, and examples of militaristic responses to protests organized by African-Americans.  (click for audio of presentation)

Donna Marie Winn is a research scientist and clinical psychologist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.  Dr. Winn used powerful statistics to describe life in a place like Ferguson – a place where arrest warrants abound, and police officers have powerful incentives to give tickets to town residents who can rarely afford them.  Winn discussed the trauma associated with police forces and judicial systems whose very existences are, she says, “based upon catching you doing something wrong.”  Dr. Winn notes that some of these policies are being re-examined, and she says the admission that these experiences are “traumatic” is an important step in addressing these problems. She is heartened to see diverse community members coming together in Ferguson and building coalitions to combat this kind of trauma.  (click for audio of presentation)

Theodore Shaw, Julius L. Chambers distinguished professor of law and director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, began his remarks by reading an excerpt from a book published in 1926 calling for the employment of black police officers in black communities to reduce crime and racial friction.  Professor Shaw referenced historical instances of racial violence perpetrated by white people against black people that, he says, are not well known by Americans.  He went on to say that people are very aware of the history of riots or urban rebellions in poor black communities, which, he points out, were almost always the result of police killing a black man.  He lamented the lack of judicial recourse in most of these killings.  Dr. Shaw also discussed the war on drugs and the unfair enforcement of drug laws that leads to disproportionate incarceration of people of color.  (click for audio of presentation)

Following the initial remarks, the panelists commented on the differences between organizing protests now versus a generation or two ago.  Audience members were then invited to join the spirited conversation.  One participant asked about the political consequences of voter disenfranchisement, which led to a conversation about the importance of local elections and officials.  A self-identified policy student asked the panel if any municipalities exist that have successfully built police forces reflecting the communities they serve, or have implemented other policies that reduce police misconduct.  One panelist discussed the challenges faced within the Los Angeles police department, and mentioned Houston as a city that has made some gains.

Another audience member prompted a conversation about white flight.  One panelist referred to the way people talk about Durham, for example, as a place not to live, and noted the “subtle scripts” that we share with each other that indicate “good” and “bad.”  Another panelist commented that we now let ourselves tell each other that color doesn’t matter.  But, she said, that can be harmful because it doesn’t allow a person to be seen as all they are: “We’ve gone from color blind… to color matters.”