Last Thursday, College faculty members Leslie Brown, associate professor of history, Reginold Royston, C3 Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Africana Studies and Vincent Schleitwiler, assistant professor of English, led members of the College community in a discussion on this summer’s events in Ferguson, Mo. The conversation explored the history of racialized violence in the United States.
“These are events that affect all of us, and they affect our Williams Community,” President Falk said in his opening address. “There is no one right way to feel about what happened.” Falk explained that the point of the panel was to help students “sort through feelings” provoked by the events in Ferguson.
Brown, the first panel member to speak, approached the events in Ferguson from a historical perspective. “There is a very long and deep history of white on black violence in the United States,” Brown said. According to Brown, the law enforcement officers in these cases of racialized violence have been complicit whether by “arresting the wrong person, letting someone go free who committed the crime, or participating in the crime.”
Brown displayed various images of lynching throughout history for the audience. In these cases, according to Brown, “the person who did the beating was considered justified.”
“I argue that we have a national history of authoritative acts of violence against African Americans,” Brown said. “I imagine [the murder of Michael Brown] is about the kind of assumptions that were the same kind of assumptions made in lynching.” According to Brown, these assumptions are ritualistic, and can involve an individual of color being in “the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Nobody wants to talk about race,” Brown added. “It’s so full of the past and tension, and people run from these types of conversations about a society engaged with violence; violence as a way to control.”
Next, Schleitwiler added his voice to the conversation. He challenged what he considers a common perception that the United States is one of the freest societies in the world.
How do you reconcile the idea that this is a free society with the fact that the police have tanks?” Schleitwiler asked the audience. According to Schleitwiler, the perception of freedom in American society comes from being on the “safe” side of the tank. However, according to Schleitwiler, “your own perception that you’re free becomes dependent on the other person, the person who the tank is pointed at.”
“The murder of Michael Brown should be understood as an injustice, but not as a mistake,” Shleitwiler said. He explained that “the murder of Michael Brown is a consequence of a collection of decisions about policing” including the increasing militarization of police forces in the United States.
Royston, the final panel member to speak, addressed the best ways to make sense of digital information, specifically in the case of Michael Brown’s death. According to Royston, in the digital world, “images stream at us in uncontrollable ways.” When the news of Brown’s death went viral, Royston said that he “kind of did what most people do” and turned off his web browser due to the overwhelming nature of the images and stories that were circulating in the cyber-world.
“The equation that has desensitized me [to these images and stories] is this relation of being black to violence,” Royston said. According to Royston, this relationship has become “the norm, and image culture directly contributes to this.”
“There is a focus of media attention on black men and violence,” Royston said. Royston explained that Native American men on reservations are killed at higher rates than black men, but for some reason, the media has become fixated on racialized violence involving black men in the United States. “I think we need to think about why this narrative of blackness and violence permeates.”
But, according to Royston, “Michael Brown’s death was a tragedy, an outrage, and a chance for a new generation of young people to think of racialized police violence.”
Following Brown’s death, many people reacted by posting on social media sites. “What justice has Twitter brought for Michael Brown?” Royston asked the audience. According to Royston, Twitter erupted with powerful images and hashtags calling for justice for Brown, which he believed raised consciousness of the problem.
However, Royston explained that social media can only accomplish so much. “Are we satisfied with these memes, with these images of injustice?” Royston asked. “We might need to go back to our hometowns and prevent a local Michael Brown from being murdered.”