Tuesday, August 19, 2014
FERGUSON AS A MICROCOSM
A “TEACHABLE” MOMENT?
One of the overlooked faces in the turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri
TAGS: FERGUSON, MISSOURI, MICHAEL BROWN SHOOTING, RACIAL TENSION,
SOCIAL INFLUENCES, CULTURAL TRENDS, FADS, LONG HISTORY OF
PUBLIC DISTRUST OF POLICE AND GOVERNMENT,
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED BY EXAMPLE
(Tuesday, August 19, 2014, Ferguson, MO) With so many story lines coming out of the events in this small community of approximately 21,000 residents wedged between Interstates 70 and 270, it is difficult to discern facts as each night since the August 9th death of an unarmed 18 year old, Michael Brown who was fatally shot by a White Ferguson Police Officer, 28 year old Darren Wilson. Aside from the typical controversy that follows the death of an unarmed African American by a White member of a Law Enforcement Agency (LEA) or in their custody, sometimes with puzzling cause, there are other undercurrents at play in this particular part of the country and in the metropolitan St. Louis area specifically. There is a long and nasty history of distrust of the LEA’s in this community and county among the majority Black populace. The local power structure is dominated by White officials, administrators and other government entities including the 53 member Ferguson Police Department that employs three Black Officers. But the story here is not unique; it has played out and remains a reality in many cities and urbanized areas throughout the Midwest. Speaking over the phone with a St. Louis County Officer who only wanted to be identified by his first name, Wes, who is African American, born and raised in St. Louis commented that, “Folks out on the East coast probably have a certain picture in their heads of the “Midwest”. They might think of farms and fields and nice White folks all getting’ along. Well, that is certainly not an accurate picture. Some of the cities in the Midwest remain the most segregated and the prejudice here is hidden just behind the smiles of the White folks”. Wes is not alone in his description of the racial undertows that have been laid bare for all to see in the daily peaceful protests and demonstrations that seem to take on a sinister, violent tone once the sun sets. The cover of darkness allows a certain degree of anonymity that some of the “provocateurs” exploit as they engage in a far different type of demonstrating than what is seen during the day. The differences between non-violent civil disobedience championed by Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King in the Deep South of the 1950’s and 1960’s and the more volatile brand of social discord beamed into TV sets all across the country are hardly even related. One is the bastard child of the other but it is that child that overshadows those honest citizens seeking answers about Mr. Brown’s death and justice.
THE NEW SOCIETAL, CULTURAL TABLEAU
It seems that every so many years in America an incident such as that where Mr. Brown lost his life occurs somewhere and by now there is a predictability to the aftermath that is disturbing and counterproductive to say the least. Yes, occasionally there are blatant incidences of Police misconduct, brutality and overly heavy-handed tactics, but they are few and far between given the fact that there were approximately 90 million arrests in the United States last year. Our per capita national crime, arrest and incarceration rates are the highest in the “Western World”, a dubious distinction that is contrary to the founding principles as laid out in our Constitution. But, we are, after all, a violent society. We enjoy our violence in controlled ways usually as spectators rather than participants but there can be no denying that violence is a large component of our cultural milieu and our society.
The pace of our society permits the rapid transmission of styles and trends, behaviors and new “norms” that were simply not possible in the “pre-digital” age; an age that ended within the last 20 years or so. Now social media is the currency our youth trade in and an individual’s location is no longer a hindrance to being exposed to new ideas and fads. One of the many unintended consequences of our technical advancement and the degree to which it has infiltrated our youth is that regional boundaries – boundaries of all types – have been eliminated by the fiber optic lines and cellular devices that now constitute the very fabric of our cultural and social tapestry. Despite all the incalculable benefits of this new mind numbing speed of transmissions and hyper-connectedness, there are inherent perils. There always are. Technological advancement has always come with unintended consequences some of which time ironed out, others of which have persistently thrived like metastatic malignancies feeding off the underbelly of our society at large. The technology used by our youth today permits the spread of trends and fads that typically emerge on the East and west coast urban centers and make them accessible to the vast span of the country between the coasts. Much of today’s youth culture is of African American origin. A certain style of dress, the popularity of certain genres of music breeds an attitudinal posture adopted and embraced by youth everywhere in America. But, there is a disconnect; when you see White teens in Omaha or St. Paul wearing saggy jeans with their underwear exposed, caps cocked to the side, arms covered in tattoos listening to gang banging rap music their entire persona seems more like a ridiculous costume than an original local fad.
One might question what all of this has to do with the situation in Ferguson. The short answer is that all of the worst of society’s ills most prevalent in the largest cities are now present everywhere. The glorification if not the glamorization of “thug” life and “gang culture” is not a home grown local phenomenon but rather an insidious import from the coasts. Some will argue that it is a positive sign of a “post-racial” age that our White youth in the heartland have so easily adopted Black cultural influences. Reality appears to smash that argument to bits.
MY GENERATION, THEIR GENERATION
Every generation of youth has some element of uniqueness about it and it has always been that way. The Baby Boomers certainly appeared alien to their parents as they grew their hair long, burned bras and draft cards and had recreational sex while experimenting with illicit drugs. The 1960’s where arguably the most tumultuous times in recent American history with the thorny matters of desegregation, civil rights, and opposition to an unpopular war in Vietnam challenging all the formal institutions of society. Riots erupted all across America and as the 60’s gave way to the 70’s, those coming of age at that time were also making their own way in our cultural stew. And on it goes. But there seems to be an ill-defined belligerence, a certain “in your face” and fuck you aggressiveness in teenagers today. For example, the “ghetto chic” style of dress so popular with our teens and young men today sends a message that is difficult for adults to understand.
There is also a distinct lack of respect for authority of any kind among our youth be they Black, White, Latino or any other ethnicity. Outside the home the most visible authority figures are the members of Law Enforcement and, as such, they bear the brunt of the hostility and frustration that appears to infect so many young people today. Public school teachers particularly in urban centers also must contend daily with the myriad obstacles that find so many students simply dropping out. Without a high school diploma a youngsters chances of finding a job are awful. And the cycle is exacerbated by the high rates of unemployment that ensue. Without attending school and no prospects for employment there is a significant segment of the young population who aimlessly wander through the days, loitering and lingering on stoops and street corners, around convenience and liquor stores often presenting an intimidating gauntlet for others to navigate.
These are just some observations and, in a way, generalizations but that does not deny their existence and influence in neighborhoods from Brooklyn, NY to Oakland, California and countless locales in between. What we are witnessing today in Ferguson, Missouri is a microcosm of the confluence and collision of the facts of reality of all the societal ills we are all very familiar with.
WHAT CAN’T BE TAUGHT
How do we teach our youth about the concept of respect? How do we impart in them the sense of self-worth, self-esteem and responsibility and accountability? Cleary it cannot be done in the schools but our public education system has an important role to play. These concepts can only truly be taught by example, the kind of examples that are in evidence in the home. Parents bear the ultimate responsibility for who their children will grow up to be. Developmental psychology has proven just how tender an age it is that our children begin to be molded into the adults they will someday be. Yes, it is all about the children, our children; they are our future and we owe them all the positive influences we can provide. When young children hear their siblings or parents referring to each other as "nigga”; calling women “bitches” and “hos”, they will absorb that quickly. Children are like sponges continuously taking in all they are exposed to and mimicking all of those stimuli. This is no profound revelation or novel idea. It is simply the way of nature and nurture with the environment being the most important element of nurture. Parenting is quite a responsibility and should not be undertaken carelessly or casually.
Today there are many lessons for all of us to watch and to teach; even out of the most troubling times something positive can emerge. What is transpiring in Ferguson today can be a “teachable” moment for parents of all colors, and creeds to use in a prosocial manner to teach their children. Children need to be taught right from wrong just as much as they need food, clothing, shelter and love. Our children all need to feel safe in their homes and, hopefully, in the neighborhoods where they live and play. There is no grand theme or overarching solution to the problems millions of our fellow citizens face today. These are very difficult times and our society seems to be sliding backwards regarding some aspects of race relations and social order.
What happened to Michael Brown was a tragedy. Could it have been avoided, who knows? The entire story has yet to be revealed even though a grand jury will be empaneled tomorrow. There remains all these days later so much that is unknown and much of the social unrest is the result of not releasing even the most basic of information from that fatal encounter between Mr. Brown and Officer Wilson. Withholding such information has only reinforced the inherent distrust of the Law Enforcement Agencies among the residents of Ferguson and beyond.
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