(Photo: Loavesofbread, via Wikimedia Commons)
Many people believe that violence is “caught” or “imported” into the United States’ borders from problems that start somewhere else—a phenomenon that I sometimes call contagion theory. To the contrary, our nation’s history shows that violence is embedded within our own legal, political and, yes, educational systems. This must end.
Many Americans just witnessed this in the militarized response to the mostly nonviolent protests of the killing of an unarmed young black man in Ferguson, Mo.
It’s important to understand two key historical forces that have converged to produce the horrifying sights of tear gas and armored military vehicles in a small U.S. town, used against people—including journalists—exercising the most important right any of us have as American citizens.
Certainly, the violence directed at law enforcement is not acceptable and cannot be condoned. Especially disturbing is the presence of instigators from reportedly as far as New York and California who have directed violence at the police and at nonviolent demonstrators. Yet we must reckon honestly with the reality that there wouldn’t be protests or riots of any kind, day or night, had an officer of the law not shot and killed an unarmed civilian.
Our country has a long history of state violence directed against persons of color. Because portions of generations of Americans have viewed black Americans as not quite citizens but rather as violent and unproductive individuals, state and other violence against them continues to be rationalized as necessary. This is evidenced by the autopsy report that showed Michael Brown was shot six times.
This narrative about black Americans must be transformed through dialogue, peace education, and especially the empowerment of young black voices so they can present themselves as they wish to be seen.
Addressing harmful historical narratives of black Americans was brilliantly done, for example, in the #iftheygunmedown Twitter campaign, which featured young black men and women posting opposing pictures of themselves. One photo might be of them at school or work; the other would be of them with a cigarette mugging tough for the camera. The suggestion being that the media would always choose the more threatening or “criminal seeming” picture, again, supporting this skewed view of certain citizens.
Further, all this occurred in a post-Sept. 11 America. The 9/11 era has seen a shocking build-up of the security state. The presence of military-grade weapons alone was enough to escalate the violence in Missouri. Due to massive military spending, surplus equipment, by law, must be given to local police departments—a move unknown to many Americans.
In the wake of the terror of 9/11, we vowed to ourselves that we would not be victims again. In many ways our very national identity became centered around the trauma of those attacks. One’s loyalty to the country can still be questioned if an American suggests that our role in the world might have played a part in causing the attacks.
Too many Americans continue to view violence as a solution to political problems; violence is never the answer. This may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to de-escalate a conflict is to increase, not decrease, your opponent’s sense of security. Several possible steps for resolution exist.
Firstly, I continue to call for peace education—education that teaches nonviolent ways to resolve conflict—in every classroom, workplace and, yes, police department across the nation.
Secondly, the investigation of Brown’s death must be taken out of the hands of the Ferguson Police Department and placed into hands both sides can view as credible.
Thirdly, professional conflict resolution facilitators can be used to help start and continue dialogues over the long term that address historical grievances. This will foster not just de-escalation of the present violence, but help to prevent conflict in the future as well.