AU Table Talk: Discussing Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, MO

On the September 3, 2014 Michael Brown was supposed to start classes and be on college campus just like students across America, but he never got the chance. A large part of the students are just experiencing the first days of their freshman year. Moving-in days are over and the dormitories are filled with an air of nervousness, as students bustle around getting settled in. New friendships and bonds for life are about to be formed.

Michael Brown just graduated from High School in early August. He had future plans and was about to start his freshman year at Vatterott College to study to become an electrician. But he never made it to his first day of college. He never experienced the pride of walking through the hallways with his ID-badge and he and his family will never have the opportunity to encounter this or any future milestone of life. Instead, Michael’s parents had to attend his funeral.
Michael Brown was an 18-year old African American from Ferguson, Missouri. On the 29 of August he was shot and killed by the white police officer Darren Wilson. Brown was unarmed. This tragedy renewed the discussion about racism in America and resulted in riots and looting in Ferguson and in other parts of the nation, raising awareness of racial discrimination and police brutality against the black community.

It is early September at the Kay Spiritual Life Center, one week after the official start of classes at American University, when five panelists sat in front of the crowd on a forum called Ferguson, Mo: At The Intersection of Race, Media and Police Militarization to discuss Brown’s story and racism. “I want people to raise their hand if they know these names: Joan Little, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown, Eric Garner.” Brenda V. Smith, Professor of Law, Washington College of Law called the attention of the fully occupied rows by reading out the names of victims of police brutality and racism. On top of the list Professor Smith added her own daughter, who is a sophomore at the University of Texas. She defined this police behavior as “not only systematic but also personal”. Furthermore, she raised the question of how to get America as a community to face the reality of its history, both past and current.

This was also highlighted by Celine-Marie Pascale, Professor at the Department of Sociology. “The tragedy of his murder goes way beyond his own life and speaks for the history of segregation and racism”, said Pascale. Moreover, she also criticized the media portrayal of his death, as it did not reflect its magnitude and gave the people numerous reasons to look the other way, claiming that his death mattered less. John Watson, Associate Professor at the School of Communication who is the author of Journalism Ethics also shared a critical view of the media’s role in Ferguson and claimed that “democracy cannot function if we don’t have all the information we need”.

Brian Forst, Professor of Justice, Law & Criminology, School of public affairs, cited an article written by Jelani Cobb published in the New Yorker on September 1, 2014 about the police behavior in Ferguson in which he emphasized the importance of police training efficiency as well as police sensitivity training towards the community. The problem in Ferguson did not happen overnight and this makes it even more important to get politically involved. “We not only need to raise our hands but we need to raise our participation”, Clarence Lusane, Professor at School of International Service pointed out. The forum ended with a Q&A and all throughout the event people had the chance to participate in the discussion using the Twitter hashtag #Autabletalk, not just for day but for the days ahead.
“If there is a time to get politically involved, it is now,” said Lusane. However, he also made clear that “political involvement goes way beyond registering to vote.”