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Demonstrators and police officers faced off late outside the headquarters of the Ferguson Police Department on November 19, 2014. (Photo: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty)

Wrong Priorities in Ferguson and Beyond: We Must Invest in Communities, Not Violence

David Ragland

In the lead-up to the grand jury outcome in the Michael Brown murder the St. Louis and Ferguson-area police have ramped up their preparation with stockpiles of more weapons and rhetoric that contributes to the public frenzy. 

While I understand the need for security, does the narrow-minded focus on military and weapons actually make us more secure?  Human security and peace economists understand that increased weaponization makes us more insecure.

Researchers for some time now have been able to understand how freedom from violence and the threat of violence, community-based economic development, authentic democratic processes and transparency increase human security. Violence and security have often been linked; human security research suggests they are mutually exclusive. Choosing violence to attain security precludes that very security for anyone who critiques violence, as thousands have learned in Ferguson. Clanging claims that we live in a great democracy that protects everyone’s rights sound awfully hollow to an unarmed protestor who has just been injured and arrested by a jack-up cop strapped with an official lethal sidearm and a legal system that affords him every benefit of every doubt.

Democracy is not just a system of voting but an approach to governing that recognizes obstacles to participation and development and listens, trying to hear what communities need. It is not ever envisioned as a system where the majority can vote itself immunity and vote the minority vulnerable to brutality committed by agents of the state. That sort of system is a false democracy. We want a real one.

Communities don’t want handouts—people want to work to determine their own futures. But many young people question the very concept of future. In the immediate aftermath of the murder of unarmed Michael Brown last August, St. Louis City police gunned down another African American youth, Kejeme Powell across the street from my parents’ home. He had a little knife and was simply depressed and told the police, “Shoot me.” They were exceedingly unprofessional and lacking even a whit of compassion as they did just that—at least six shots each. Where is the hope?

The current state of affairs concerning the outcome of the grand jury is extremely disconcerting, contributing to an increased sense of insecurity. Governor Nixon needs to appoint an independent prosecutor to avoid the perception of injustice.  A real involvement of the community in plans for any grand jury outcome as hands up united suggested, or focusing on all of the positive efforts the community in Ferguson and Beyond are doing to teach nonviolence would be actions that ease the air of panic of the entire region.

People of color in the US, in general, don’t trust the legal system to bring justice. Fixing that might seem like a daunting task, but democratic theorists point out that even the smallest communities must have their needs addressed if we as a society are to maintain the promise of democracy. 

The lack of real understanding of the protestors, beyond the sense that they are a nuisance, is part of the continuing failure of local and national officials. Their response continues to point out the deep racial divide and necessity of deep conversation and action. For instance, there was a demonstration for second amendment rights in downtown St. Louis in October where demonstrators carried guns openly.  Some had three or four weapons including automatic assault weapons. This gathering of an all white crowd was not met with riot gear, but only a few police with luminescent vests. In San Franciso, exuberant Giants fans set fires broke windows and destroyed property. While police arrested some- where was the rethoric around violent whites or even the call for the national guard?  Fans were excited, expressing joy, although a bit much, but Whites are allowed to be angry, express emotions. But don’t protestors, who are rightly angered over police killings of Blacks, have the same humanity to express their frustration?

I reiterate the need for dialogue, for listening to people’s truth so they can move forward. This is not just desirable, but actually required for reconciliation. If that is not what our society is about, then there needs to be a conversation about who we really are as Americans.  But as it stands, the assertion by our elected leadership is that this is a democratic nation concerned with all of its citizens. My message to government officials is that all of the preparation for the violence following the grand jury; the cost of increased overtime for police, money spent on weapons and security with the threat of violence does not provide authentic security, but instead exacerbates the root causes of the protests- the inattention to the dignity of already marginalized.  Governor Nixon, you and Ferguson area officials are bracing for a storm you helped to create.


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David Ragland

David Ragland, writing for PeaceVoice, is a visiting Assistant Professor of education at Bucknell University, board member for the Peace and Justice Association and United Nations representative for the International Peace Research Association.

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