photo credit: St. Louis public radio

by Evan Myers | political section head

The news of a Ferguson, MO police officer shooting 18 year old Michael Brown shook the nation, and the massive civil disobedience that followed in the city ignited a wildfire of political debates across the country. The attorneys and juries struggled with the details of the case as the definite facts of the event are still scarce and uncertain; Ferguson police maintain that the officer was physically assaulted and that Brown attempted to disarm him, while the prosecuting party as well as a number of eyewitnesses insist that Brown had his hands up in surrender before being shot several times in the body and the head. Despite the uncertainty of the case, there were cries out for justice, criticisms of police brutality and a continued discussion between leaders, public figures and people in the media on race relations in the nation. Several Purdue Students hold their own opinions on the continued riots and violence that occurred in the aftermath of the Brown shooting.

“I think the whole situation has proved that Americans are still willing to gather and protest to stick up for what they believe in,” said Kevin Graber, a freshman studying law and society. “However, The violence and the damage to public property is the breaking point, and it has to stop. If you want to protest, you should not be destructive about it. As for some of the members of the media who have been arrested for being on private property, I believe the media should be there to record and document what’s going on. I don’t think that they should try and spin the story one way or the other; this should not be made into a race issue, it should just be presented as an American issue. ”

Some African American citizens disagree and feel as though the Ferguson incident is yet another example of tragedy that ultimately stems from the separatism between different people of different classes, races, and/or socio-economic status in the country. Jessica Birch, a former Purdue grad student and American studies and African American studies instructor, gave some personal insight about the difference between whites and blacks and their perception of police officers.

“Insisting that what happened in Ferguson had nothing to do with race is refusing to acknowledge the fact–and it is a fact–that poor people and black people are far more likely to be shot by the police than wealthier people or white people, not to mention the negative racial views expressed in the interim by various members of the Ferguson police force,” Birch said. “I live in an area that is primarily people of color (black and Hispanic), and when I called the police because someone was trying to break into my garage, it took them 80 minutes to send an officer over. I live literally one mile from the main police station. When the officer did show up, he took a cursory look around and didn’t write down my description of the guy who had run off, because ‘just about everyone living around here is the kind of person we’d expect to break into a garage–it won’t help much for us to try to chase down one of them. If you live around here, that’s what you have to learn to expect.’

“In contrast, when my partner, who is white, called to ask for a VIN check on a motorcycle he’d just purchased, the officer appeared in less than five minutes, signed the form without even running the VIN, and chatted about motorcycles for a few minutes before leaving. This might begin to explain why we have different feelings about police officers, you know what I mean?”

On September 22, a board of Police officers, academics and community leaders gathered in Stewart Center to have a public discussion called Unpacking Ferguson, a critical analysis of people’s relationship with police officers and how we as a community can learn from the events in Ferguson. At the conference, Chief Richard A.J. Hite of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department said that in his experience, events like those in Ferguson happen gradually over a series of events, not all at once.

“Having been in three riots, two of which I had to put down, I can tell you this is what I’ve learned from Ferguson: Number one you can’t solve a crisis within a crisis. And number two, no singular incident starts a crisis,” Hite said. “We need to learn to establish communication and relationships with our communities, that’s the first step.”

However, some students that attended Unpacking Ferguson felt as though most of the discourse was mostly superfluity, and that the real topics that needed to be discussed were generally avoided. Tyrell Connor, a grad student studying sociology, felt strongly about pursuing justice upon first hearing about Brown’s shooting.

“Frankly, it enraged me,” Connor said. “It’s not the first time it’s happened in this country, and it’s going to keep happening unless we take action.”

Connor also expressed he was disappointed on the discourse that occurred during Unpacking Ferguson. “I came here to get informed, but I feel like they didn’t say much, to be honest ,” Connor continued. “There was a lot of fluff, and not a lot of directive language on how we can address these issues or how we can handle incidents of racial profiling in the future. I teach Criminology here at Purdue and I can tell you first hand that there is not a lot of accountability as far as crimes on Purdue’s campus go, many crimes and incidents of violence go unreported to the West Lafayette Police Department.”

Dr. Steven Hillis, professor of Sociology at Purdue, noted that the race factor is but one of many topics that can be viewed from a macro-perspective when observing the Ferguson case, making it difficult to pinpoint any single causation. “Part of the problem is that you’re tapping into everything from social movements, to the study of riots, to race relations, to the study of police and police brutality,” Hillis said. “There are too many angles.”

Hillis cited one of his personal concerns when he mentioned that the overwhelming response from the Ferguson police force after the riots that ensued was a clear example of the gradual militarization of domestic police forces, and how today local cops have access to an alarming amount of military-style equipment.

“There is a huge debate within law enforcement and in wide society about the militarization of the police,” Dr. Hillis said. “Many critics have observed that domestic police forces have too much firepower, too much military hardware, and too much training that is associated with combat rather than law enforcement. One of the funniest things that I’ve seen is police officers running around a city wearing camouflage fatigues, which would have made perfect sense if they were in the jungle or the forest, but they were in an urban setting. You take two steps back and it makes you wonder how that kind of gear, that kind of uniform, and that kind of training; how does that affect their mindset and their overall attitude when dealing with regular citizens?”

Amber Johnson, a second year grad student of computer science at Purdue voiced her views and stressed that our nation’s focus should balance out toward a peaceful solution rather than gravitate toward violence as the citizens of Ferguson have. “It reminds me of what Trayvon Martin’s mother said after his case,” Brown said. “Just like Dr. Martin Luther King, she said she didn’t want violence. She got in front of news cameras, she protested, she walked, she talked with celebrities, but she constantly stressed that violence wouldn’t bring her son back, it would not remedy the situation or anything, she just wanted justice… I believe that a lot of Americans hear stories like what’s happening in Ferguson and they want to just look the other way and worry about what’s going on in their own lives. For the people in Ferguson, when [the violence] really hit home for them, that’s the moment when they decided to take a stand. Well I don’t think it should work that way; I think that we all should take a stand, together.”

We value our readers’ thoughts and opinions. Do you think Ferguson was a race issue? Are citizens on Ferguson handling the situation correctly by protesting? Leave your comments below and let us know.