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Understanding Ferguson

Understanding Ferguson panel

Wednesday evening’s event—titled “Pro­filing, Protest, and Politics: Understanding Ferguson”—represented the sev­enth install­ment in Northeastern’s series on civic sus­tain­ability.

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.

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.

-By Joe O’Connell

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