On Freedom of Speech, Restraint and Remembrance of Michael Brown

Author: Dr. Maria Tenorio and Dr. Cornel Pewewardy

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Ferguson Vigil at the PSU Native American Student Community Center. Photo credit: Melissa Bennett, M.Div

In light of the recent troubling decision by a Missouri grand jury not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, the DAC would like to remind our campus community of the importance of being vigilant against racism in all its forms. After three months of deliberations, a St. Louis County, Missouri, grand jury determined that no probable cause exists to file any charges against Officer Darren Wilson, a white 28-year-old Ferguson police officer, over the August 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man. The decision, announced Monday night by prosecutors, was quickly followed by appeals from Missouri’s Governor to allay unrest from the local community and avoid violent protests as he declared a state of emergency before the grand jury announcement. Yet, violence occurred: businesses were looted, buildings were burned and St. Louis Police Chief described it the “worst night” of violence seen since the shooting death of Brown.

Whether you believe the grand jury erred, whether you read the version of events provided to the grand jury by witness Darren Wilson, whether you are alarmed by the impact on the community and young children on the import of hundreds of National Guardsmen to the city to ensure “The violence we saw…last night cannot be repeated,” there remain—in our society today– so many underlying issues even more urgent than the indictment or conviction of Darren Wilson. What, for example, is it like to be a young black man in Ferguson, in St. Louis, in the United States today when deep and enduring institutional racism, racial profiling, and excessive militarization of local police forces are an everyday part of life for so many of our citizens? Why is it that the reaction to the announcement by the community of color–which has for years endured racial injustice and excessive policing–exploited on national media (see Ferguson smolders day after jury declines to indict – CNN.com, November 25, 2014), while the rioting and destruction at Kenne State College’s 2014 Pumpkin Fest and the fires, vandalizing of polices cars, and 40 arrests following the 2014 Baseball World Series are barely reported and/or seen as youthful exuberance? For many of us, the issue remains racial justice: did the local police engage successfully and thoughtfully with local community groups who worked 24/7 for peaceful, non-violent protests, or were they categorized as a threat? Could some of the anger and distrust felt by the local community been defused if the police officers had been directed by their superiors to leave their military tactical gear at the police station? And, importantly, why are young African American men denied agency and often seen as a threat just by virtue of their skin color?

Our own campus has recently begun conversations addressing similar issues as public forums are held to consider the arming of campus security. Student services offices and counselors, such as the Student Health and Counseling Center (SHAC), are available as inclusive spaces for discussions of the questions that national and local events stir within our selves and our campus community. We hope that as you prepare to return to family and friends during the two-day Thanksgiving holiday break, you will speak to your family members and neighbors about some of the questions that may still be on your mind so that Michael Brown’s death will not have run its course in news coverage. For on this happy occasion when we are relaxed and joyful to be home again surrounded by those whom we love, in one house, in Ferguson, Missouri, a family sits down to give thanks on a day that marks the first time they will no longer have their son, their relative to laugh, and eat, and, yes, pray with them.

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