Culture and Community: Ferguson and Its Importance in Today’s Society

Crystal Blanton —  August 24, 2014 — 22 Comments
National Guard Called In As Unrest Continues In Ferguson

Courtesy of Scott Olson

The small town of Ferguson, Missouri has become a household name over the last week. Following the killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by local police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, the city went into a state of turmoil as local residents responded to the shooting and police responded to the community. The protests of community members sparked a response from local police that displayed a clear picture of the militarization of law enforcement in this country by turning the streets of an average American community into what looks like a war zone.

City Data reports that Ferguson had a population of 21,135 in 2012, and approximately 65% of the residents are Black. This urban area has a documented history of disproportionate arrests and police involvement with people of color from a predominantly Caucasian police force. This pattern contributed to the tension that has fueled the community response to the killing of Michael Brown.

Courtesy of Scott Olson

Courtesy of Scott Olson

While speculation of police corruption and the media’s depiction of the victim have raised some concerns, two issues stand out in discussions about Ferguson: the unjust killing of an unarmed 18 year old Black man and the militarized response of law enforcement towards community members who peacefully protested in response. Tear gas, arrests, military weapons, and tanks on the streets pushed the situation into a full-scale state of emergency and national news material. While some looting activity took place with a small group of people, the mostly peaceful protests were disrupted by police action.

From the killing of Michael Brown to the full-scale response of the local police department, there are more questions than answers coming out of Ferguson. The local authorities’ tactics in withholding the name of the officer involved in the shooting added a lot of fuel to the situation. The local police also released information about an alleged robbery involving Michael Brown at a local store prior to his death, although the police department now admits that officer Wilson was not aware of this incident at the time of the shooting. The continuously changing information, and a recently released private autopsy stating that Brown was shot six times – two in the head – has led to a lot of speculation and national outrage. The media coverage of what is happening in Ferguson has been massive. Footage, articles, and video commentary on social media appear everywhere, adding to the angst felt by many people who are watching this tragedy unfold. CNN and MSNBC are not the only outlets talking about the images on the screen, some which are reminiscent of civil rights demonstrations of the 1960’s. Pagans are talking too.

Author T. Thorn Coyle’s latest piece, Yearning to Be Free, addresses the militarization of police across the United States and the impact that it has on the way human beings are viewed by those in power.

T. Thorn Coyle

T. Thorn Coyle

“And then we (some of us) wonder why a young man or woman seeking help are killed instead of given comfort, medical attention, or access to a phone.

We (some of us) wonder why, yet another young man who was just walking to his grandmother’s house ends up lying dead on the street for four hours. When people are mourning, being taunted by police, and the armored cars, snipers and SWAT teams roll in…we then (some of us) wonder why some windows are broken and some stores are set on fire.

And then we (some of us) wonder why – after our government has toppled small government after small government, instituted a war on drugs that has destabilized whole communities at home, locked up unprecedented numbers, and given greater power to those who make the drugs – the children are massing at our borders.”

T. Thorn Coyle was not the only Pagan to write about this unfolding set of issues in Ferguson. The past week has seemed to bring about more upset, confusion, and anger from people of all types, who found their way to Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and a multitude of blogs to express their thoughts.

Courtney Weber, author and Wiccan priestess, posted a status on her Facebook page describing her feelings around spiritual workings for justice, and the complexity of the situation in Ferguson.

Courtney Weber

Courtney Weber

“ I will not be lighting candles for peace in Ferguson. Peace is what comes when a problem is resolved. Peace does not mean sitting down and being nice. I will be lighting candles to Lady Justice. I can’t go to Ferguson myself and stand with those who lost, but I can call on the Goddess who sees that order and fairness be restored. I heard this morning of a direct manifestation of unjust actions punished in accordance with how they were dealt. I look forward to seeing this unfold in Ferguson. I look forward to seeing this be the first step in rectifying the severe injustices that are seizing our country and killing off our children. I look forward to seeing that those whose businesses were damaged are appropriately compensated and hope that is soon. But I will not light candles for peace as peace is only the reward of rectifying wrong and we have a lot to do before that can be enjoyed. For those who have asked me if I “support the riots,” if that means, saying, “Go, Rioters! Go!” then no, I am not in support of rioting. But if support means not condemning, then perhaps I could be labeled a supporter. My feeling is less “Rioting is Right!” and more “What did we expect?” This riot is not a reaction to one young man’s death.”

In an attempt to explore this further with other Pagans, I asked several people what their impressions were on the current situation and why they felt this was important to Pagans, as well as to everyone else.

Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith

“I think the situation in Ferguson has forced society to see the ugly truths in the mirror it has long worked to ignore. Michael Brown is far from the first young black man to be murdered by police officers but their response has forced his tragic demise into the public eye in a way that should have happened a long time ago. The combination of the increasingly convoluted, deceptive, and unsubstantiated police efforts to justify Officer Darren Wilson’s actions and the level of force used being comparable to occupying armies smashing an uprising showed how systemic these problems are. It isn’t just that a white police officer killed an innocent black man and tried to cover it up; the entire department moved swiftly to smash innocent people because they dared to protest the actions of those whose duty is allegedly “to protect and serve”.

As a Heathen such injustice should not be allowed to stand.  Our lore teaches us to assess based on the merits of another’s words and deeds. The actions of the police are grossly unworthy. The underlying causes spit in the face of honorable conduct, rooted in fear and self-deception.  There are some who have said this is not an issue Heathens should be speaking up on, even in an anti-racist context, as it is not happening in our community. That argument misses the point.  We are part of the world around us and what happens in society impacts us in countless ways. As it says in Havamal 127, “when you come upon misdeeds speak out against them and give your enemies no peace.”  I don’t see anything in there saying that is limited to only those who are closest to us. – Ryan Smith – HUAR Web Admin.

Okay Toya

Okay Toya

“Most definitely what is happening in Ferguson is an important issue. Mike Brown was assassinated for simply being black. The punishment for alleged ‘shoplifting’ is not death by firing squad. It is showing the underbelly of true ugliness. This is what happens when we don’t have an honest and open discussion about White Supremacy and attempt to sweep it all under a carpet in this country. All Black/Brown and Trans/CIS men and women have to deal with this fall out, for trying to survive in a society that doesn’t view us as human beings.

Most of us were not even born when the 60’s civil rights movement was happening. We didn’t have social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Vine to keep us up to date on the latest. The framing on how the MSM portrays this narrative is troubling. Focusing on the violence that ‘supposedly’ happen and not focusing on why we are out there in the first place. A young man was assassinated by Officer Darren Wilson. All the lies, the cover up to protect one of their own. With blatant disregard for this young man’s life.

It is personally important to me being a Black Female living in a country where I am demonized, dehumanize and criminalize all based on my skin color. I want the conversation to happen. I want us to be able to dismantle the “Altar” of White Supremacy once and for all. I am so tired of the Respectability Politics. I want the Old Guard Elder Black community to listen to us, just like they wanted the Old Guard Elder Black community to listen to them during the 60’s. My pagan side of me is split between burn it down, burn it all down and we need to do this constructively with well thought out plans and process. But too many rapid succession of deaths have happen that should not have happen in the past few weeks and my anger level is extremely high.

Linking arms and Chanting We Shall overcome someday hasn’t gotten us very far, if we are still trying to get the world to view us a simple human beings.” – Okay Toya, Priestess and Author

Meredith Bell

Meredith Bell

“I believe it’s very important. I grew up in Florissant, right next door to Ferguson. The schools that have been closed are the ones I went to as a child. I am not surprised to see the obstruction of justice happening at the police and government level. I am surprised at the amount of force that has been allowed on the part of the authorities. It’s very frightening. As a pagan, I believe that we are one human family, and that we all suffer when any of us suffer. But, as a white person originally from North County St. Louis, I also believe that I have suffered differently than my black neighbors. That I can’t know the same fears and rages that they know. As a priestess, I believe it is my job to bear witness to that rage and fear and try to find systemic ways to shift the causes. In addition to retweeting, reposting, spreading the word of the violence that has happened after sunset night after night, I believe we must engage in changing the tone of racist policing and politics in Missouri and throughout the country. Too many have been killed because there is no accountability for killing black men. Too many have been hurt because police have weapons far beyond what is necessary. I believe in the transformative power of spell work and prayer, but I also think real change comes after the extent of the problem is known.” – Meredith Bell, CAYA coven

Connie Jones-Steward

Connie Jones-Steward

“Yes, it’s important. It’s important to show that we still live in a country where racism is not only alive and well, but that it often has deadly consequences. It’s important because the reactions to Michael Brown’s murder and the following unrest brings to the forefront the attitudes and treatment towards young Black males’ not just by the police but by people in general. I have learned a lot about some people based on their reactions. It’s important because it shows Black people what happens when you become complacent towards politics. Maybe after this the people of Ferguson and Black communities around the country will realize the importance in voting and exercising political power when it comes to creating changes and shifts in power. As a Black woman with young Black males in my family this whole situation touches me deeply; however it has no bearing on my beliefs or faith as a Pagan.” – Connie Jones-Steward, Multi-traditional Priestess

Erick DuPree

Erick DuPree

“Six bullets and no accountability is my impression. It’s crucial we not forget that because here we have another case of an unarmed young black man shot by a white police officer, not too dissimilar to Oscar Grant (allegedly committing a crime that witnesses don’t support actually occurred.)

The situation was destined to happen and reaction in some ways needed to happen, but it has become like a pressure cooker. This is because law enforcement has decided that instead of allowing space for the emotion, the pain, the anger, and the call for justice; they instead want to cover it up, in affect putting a lid on what needs to be addressed, which is accountability. Yet there are still six bullets and an officer uncharged. So, what could have been some civil disobedience has turned into a shit show.

What I find most disconcerting is the amount of media about everything but the six bullets that killed an unarmed black man. Specifically the amount of attention to arrested white journalists and white civilians. This issue isn’t about them. It’s about murdering an innocent black man, and that being “ok” in our society. Somewhere in this media frenzy of militarized officers and ‘victimized civilians” the focus has shifted to creating a motive for six bullets and criminalizing an innocent black man. Six bullets and not justice, that is my impression and it is precisely those six bullets that makes this not just important but paramount.” – Erick Dupree, Author

Barry Perlman

Barry Perlman

“The situation in Ferguson, MO, is but one more example illustrating the systemic injustices in how our society enforces the law. In this country, people of color are likelier to be treated poorly at all points of the law-enforcement cycle… from being profiled or stopped without fair cause, to their rougher treatment as suspects during arrest, throughout the entire trial process and into their harsher incarceration penalties, all while facing an increased chance of being harmed or killed at every step.  Ferguson is so important because it draws more widespread attention, beyond just communities predominantly of color, to the way structural racism intrudes upon our collective capacity to apply the law fairly in all cases.  The specifics of how the Ferguson situation has been handled in the aftermath of Brown’s shooting is also important because it forefronts the frightening trend of police militarization, a threat to everyone’s freedoms regardless of race. Thankfully, in this age of social media, we’re able to quickly and widely disseminate images and videos which document this trend, so it’s no longer just a battle of unsubstantiated claims.

Ferguson is important to me personally because I strive to be an ally to those who, due to the quirks of birthright in an unjust society, have not received the same benefits I’ve been afforded. As a spiritually aware person, I feel it’s my duty to speak up whenever I see the effects of racism, with the intent of doing my best to help alleviate the suffering it causes, one interaction at a time.  We all suffer from the effects of racial injustice. If I sit back and do nothing, I’m tacitly signing on as an advocate of the system which promotes it… and my conscience won’t allow that.” – Barry Perlman, Co-Owner of the Sacred Well, astrologer.

After a plethora of resources, blogs, posts and news articles about this incident, I found that the Pagan response is very similar to the response of individuals around the United States. They are all attempting to understand what they are watching on the television. Pictures depicting what looks like war are actually images of a small town in Missouri. Those pictures are shattering perceptions of existing justice and peace, and reminding the world of the complexity of equity.

Once again Pagans are asking themselves some complex questions, finding a balance in the challenges of living in the environment around us. How do we feel that peace and spirituality coincide? Is there a time that justice gets messy and what does that mean to us as a community? What are the correlations between Ferguson and our own struggle to be open to diversity, differences, and equity?

Courtesy of Scott Olson

Courtesy of Scott Olson

I have found that through all of my personal processing of the events of the past two weeks, I have also been asking myself the same questions and evaluating my sense of justice with dual citizenship in the Black community and the Pagan community. The death of Michael Brown, and the unfolding events in Ferguson, Missouri open old and painful wounds for many in this country. I have also witnessed what appears to be a lack of empathy and understanding for the damage of systemic problems and militarization of law enforcement that plague marginalized communities, and dialog in threads, on the news, and in articles that are dismissive of the multi-layered problems that Ferguson is reflective of. Ferguson is one snapshot of an age-old problem within historically oppressed populations, and the flooding responses to this situation sometimes forget that piece of complexity. I have watched threads dissolve into overtly racist dialog that is very harmful, not just for people of color but also for a community in mourning, and a nation in the process of trying to understand the actuality of racial equity.

I think Erick Dupree’s answer to my question of why he feels that what is happening in Ferguson is important to him personally and, as a Pagan, is the most fitting closure for this piece. The complexity of his answer mirrors the myriad of things I am seeing online, hearing in conversation, and feeling internally.

“I really am struggling with this because I want to believe that love is still the law. I want to believe that humankind is better than this savagery that is power, oppression, privilege, and racism. I want to believe that love is stronger than fear, but I can’t help but know that every mother of a brown child lives in fear that her child will be the next Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin or Mike Brown. In times like this I ask how do we as Pagans lead and be vessels for change? How do we become the Goddess’ conduit?

What I do is work magic in private and within small community to bring swift justice and healing. But that magic is more than lighting a candle, it is bringing the circle to the situation through social justice initiatives. Where I live, it was attending a vigil and protest in NYC, standing beside my religious community and social peers and using my voice. By speaking out about those six bullets, and reminding the world that an unarmed black man teenager is dead and that there is need for accountability I hope to manifest change. That may sound flippant, but if the Pagan voice and our actions can add one drop of Love back into the bucket of humanities egregious injustices, then love is still remains the law and change happens.”

 

Crystal Blanton

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Crystal Blanton writes the monthly TWH column "Culture and Community." She is an activist, writer, priestess, mother, wife and social worker in the Bay Area. She has published two books "Bridging the Gap" and "Pain and Faith in a Wiccan World," and was the editor of the anthology "Shades of Faith; Minority Voices in Paganism." She is a writer for the magazine Sage Woman and Patheos' Daughters of Eve blog. She is passionate about the integration of community, spirituality, and healing from our ancestral past, and is an advocate for true diversity and multiculturalism within the Pagan community.