The final installment of the panel series “Ferguson: A Call for Understanding and Action” examined the disenfranchisement of the black community, the demise of the social contract, police response and perception and a call to action relating to Ferguson incidents Tuesday at the College of Law.
Matt Pearce, a national reporter for the Los Angeles Times, was sent to report at Ferguson, Missouri two days after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by officer Darren Wilson last August.
“You talk to people and you see how angry (they are) at the situation,” Pearce, one of the panelists, said.
“A lot of this is bundled up into just an eruption of people protesting not just the crime, not just St. Louis county, but essentially the condition of being a black person in the United States, which is a conversation a lot of people have been having especially over the last couple months.”
Ferguson became a situation that started affecting citizens regionally, since the city is one out of the 90 municipalities in St. Louis county.
Police response to the protests, riots and demonstrations following the shooting started coming from different agencies and municipalities.
“I got the sense that there were definitely different responses to the situation depending on what agency was responding,” Pearce said.
While the St. Louis County police was intimidating, the Missouri Highway Patrol’s response more mellow.
“There was really no political force that was really strong enough to channel the situation into something more productive,” Pearce said.
Pearce said the police’s way of evaluating their own response to the situations was different than the way the local community was dealing with them.
“It’s not just about how protestors are being treated, it’s not just about protecting property, but it’s also about officers,” Pearce said.
Police have internal pressure from their own police officers and unions to keep the situation as safe as possible for themselves, Pearce said.
“Internal politics dealing with that was not visible to the media,” he said. “That may have been part the problem with public perception of the police.”
Another topic emphasized in the panel was the breakdown of the social contract, which is the hypothetical or actual agreement that members of an organized community and their authority have that defines and limits the rights of each, according to Merriam-Webster.
Pearce said he felt he witnessed part of the social contract breaking down while reporting in Ferguson.
“You would go to civic meeting with local leaders and people wouldn’t let them talk,” he said. “They were just so mad that they just shouted and they weren’t going to listen to the governor of the state, that was how low the level of trust was in the community.”
Michael O’Connor, panelist and visiting assistant professor of law, said that because there are more warrants than there are people in Ferguson, that does not make the people the outlaws.
“The system is what needs to be fixed and I think the social contract is broken,” O’Connor said.
Pearce said if people are not going to benefit from the system, then they will create one that benefits them or turn violent.
“History tells us that we will get violence, and it’s not just Ferguson…it’s around the world,” O’Connor said. “When people feel there is not justice being done and they’re not being protected they will resort to violence.”
Currently Ferguson is in the middle of a city council election, with eight candidates running for one of the three spots open for the six-seat council.
In a city where nearly 70 percent of the population is African-American, only one member in the current city council and three police officers out of 53 are black.
Candidates say they are inspired to make a change following the Michael Brown shooting, starting with adding more diversity to the racial configuration of city council.
“You would think there would be some kind of activism (in the black community),” said Charles Doskow, dean emeritus and professor of law.
“Even in the plight of what really went on, where you don’t have that movement, you don’t have that organization, you don’t have people coming forward organizing registration, then you see how difficult it is. We’d like to see that happen but no one seems to be moving in that direction.”
A general feeling circulating among onlookers of Ferguson is that the tensions in the city would be healed if the disenfranchised community simply made the effort to vote.
Krystal Lyons, director of external relations, said even registering to vote is a “nightmare” in a rural town, especially a city like Ferguson, as opposed to a metropolitan area.
“Folks don’t trust the system, so why bother?” said Marisol Morales, director of civic and community engagement.
“It’s gonna be the same folks who get in office, it’s gonna be the same disenfranchisement that happens — if you don’t trust, why are you going to invest? This is the mindset that folks have.”
Morales said that even if there is a more diverse council, they still “act like the establishment” — running for office is very expensive and that eliminates the poor voting population.
“You still have the smallest pool of folks making the decisions that affect policy,” she said.
O’Connor criticized the grand jury’s decision for Wilson, who ultimately walked away without indictment.
“I have read every page of the grand jury proceeding in Ferguson and I think it’s a travesty,” he said. “I think they went there with the decision on what they wanted out of that grand jury, and they got what they wanted – no indictment.”
O’Connor suggested that if the grand jury proceeding was public and was reported by the media, there would be “greater pressure to do the right thing.”
The Ferguson teach-in panel series was presented by the College of Law and the American Constitutional Society.