Understanding Ferguson

During the Q-and-A portion of a panel discussion Wednesday night on the ongoing social and political unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, one Northeastern law student underscored the paradox framing the fallout from this summer’s events in the St. Louis suburb: The community response, he said, is at once the result of the shooting death of Michael Brown and also about much more than this specific incident.

That idea was a prominent theme throughout the 90-minute conversation between an interdisciplinary panel of Northeastern professors and more than 200 students, faculty, and staff who filled the Curry Student Center Ballroom.

“The fact is that a young man has been killed. The fact is that a community has been thrown into disarray,” said panelist Amy Farrell, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice. “What was so important about Ferguson is that we saw the anger of the community so viscerally. So the conversation really is about this notion of community trust.”

Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer on Aug. 9. The shooting sparked widespread unrest as residents sought answers, which also led to riots, looting, and militarized responses from law enforcement. Numerous investigations into the shooting are currently underway.

Wednesday evening’s event—titled “Profiling, Protest, and Politics: Understanding Ferguson”—represented the seventh installment in Northeastern’s series on civic sustainability. The series—Conflict. Civility. Respect. Peace. Northeastern Reflects—is hosted by Distinguished Professor of Political Science Michael Dukakis in conjunction with the Presidential Council on Inclusion and Diversity. Wednesday night’s event was presented by the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, the School of Law, and the Office of Student Affairs.

Profiling, Protest, and Politics: Understanding Ferguson

Sarah Jackson, an assistant professor of communication studies, speaks during Wednesday night’s “Profiling, Protest, and Politics: Understanding Ferguson” panel event. Photo by Maria Amasanti

The event’s panel comprised Farrell; Roderick Ireland, Distinguished Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice and a former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court; Sarah Jackson, an assistant professor of communication studies; and John Portz, a professor of political science. Ralph Martin, senior vice president and general counsel for Northeastern, moderated the discussion.

The panelists offered their insight into many of the factors that led to and fueled the unrest in Ferguson, including police response, the community’s relationship with law enforcement, and the media’s portrayal of the events.

Ireland said the court system is society’s best option to address situations such as the shooting in Ferguson. “On any issue that raises questions about the denial of civil liberties, a person’s best bet for justice would be a court of law,” Ireland said.

Portz said as tragic as the events are, there may be a window of opportunity for the city and residents to develop meaningful citizen engagement in public governance. “I would like to think of this as an opportunity,” Portz said. “I guess it raises in my mind do we have the political courage across the country to make changes?”

During the Q-and-A, Jackson was asked to elaborate on the concept of “righteous trouble,” a term she used earlier in the evening to describe protests as an important democratic tool. In particular, she was asked to discuss the best practices for people who want to use “righteous trouble” as a tool to make their voices heard without sabotaging its value by provoking violence and looting.

“I think what is important in terms of framing the story for a community that is trying to create change is for them to clearly communicate that the small minority of people who are engaging in unnecessary criminal activity aren’t representative of their goals,” Jackson said.