We Stand with Ferguson – The Connections of Peace, Justice, Sustainability

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*Image from International Solidarity Day

“Nonviolence does disturb the peace. It disturbs the peace of silent complicity with unjust institutions and actions, even when we believe that they do not directly affect us. It disturbs the ‘peace’ of materialistic self-indulgence and the ‘peace’ of disengagement from the struggle for human liberation. It disturbs the ‘peace’ of false history, and a false sense of racial or class superiority. It even disturbs the ‘peace’ of the oppressed people who seek quiet assimilation into the marginal comforts of the systems that dominate them.” — Ibrahim M. Abdil-Mu’id Ramey, Disturbing the Peace

Aldo Leopold asked humans to expand their community to include the whole ecosystem – or the land, as he called it in A Sand County Almanac. Most of you reading this blog find it pretty easy to agree with that call, even if it’s difficult to live out sometimes. But all too often as environmentalists, we find it easier to affirm other non-human organisms as community than we do the humans who live in different neighborhoods than us, or have different experiences than us, or make different choices than us, or who just look different than us.

The past few weeks, my mind and heart have been full and heavy with the events that have been taking place in Ferguson, MO. I live in St. Louis, less than 20 miles from the unrest following the August 9 fatal shooting by a white police officer of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. I’ve donated supplies and provided childcare for organizers, prayed and discussed and listened. But I’ve struggled to know what to say that hasn’t already been said, that isn’t trite and oversimplifying a very complex situation. I’ve struggled to know how to help our community find both justice and healing. I’ve struggled to communicate how important it is that sustainability-minded people care about and respond to this situation, and situations like this in general, without opportunistically promoting our own agendas.

We want you to know that NWEI cares about the community of Ferguson. We’re not claiming to have anything new to say. But we want you to know that we see the connections, and it matters to us.

Whatever the events that transpired resulting in Michael’s tragic loss of life, the situation has been handled poorly by the police from the beginning:

  • Michael’s body was left to lie in the sweltering heat for 4 hours.
  • Police have used excessive force in dealing with largely peaceful protestors, including riot gear, tear gas, rubber bullets and armored vehicles.
  • Whether intentionally or not, they have suppressed media and arrested journalists.
  • When police finally released the name of Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot Michael, they paired it with a surveillance video from a local convenience store, which seems to show Michael and a friend stealing a pack of cigarillos – even though Officer Wilson knew nothing of Michael being a suspect. This pairing unequivocally implied that Michael somehow deserved to be shot, that he was asking to be killed.

These responses alone are cause for outrage in a community. But there are more underlying issues at the heart of the unrest in Ferguson.* Consider just a few:

  • General underrepresentation of African Americans in Ferguson’s city governance and law enforcement: 67.4% of Ferguson’s citizens are African American but only 6% of Ferguson’s police force and 17% of its City Council is African American.
  • Decades of economic depression and inequality, and exploitation and criminalization of residents by the judicial system: As reported by the ArchCity Defenders, fines and court fees for the year in Ferguson—a city of just 21,000 people – totaled $2,635,400. This large sum made the municipal court the city’s second-biggest source of revenue. Impoverished defendants were frequently ordered to pay fines that were triple their monthly income. Some ended up with no income at all as they sat in jail for weeks, awaiting a hearing.
  • Clear patterns of racial profiling by police: According to an August report by the ArchCity Defenders, although whites comprise 29% of the population of Ferguson, they only comprise 12.7% of vehicle stops. After being stopped in Ferguson, “blacks are almost twice as likely as whites to be searched (12.1% vs. 6.9%) and twice as likely to be arrested (10.4% vs. 5.2%).” Additionally, “searches of black individuals result in discovery of contraband only 21.7% of the time, while similar searches of whites produce contraband 34.0% of the time.”
  • National trends of racism: Rebecca Leber reported for The New Republic that recent social science research shows that, in video simulations, people are more likely to shoot black men than white men, whether armed or unarmed. In 2012, an unarmed black man was killed by authorities on average every 28 hours.

The response after Michael Brown’s death – both by protestors and authorities – brings to light the systemic problems at play here. Michael Brown’s death is tragic, and his family and loved ones will be forever affected by the loss of this individual from their lives. But Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent response are also about so much more than just that afternoon on August 9. Both Brown and Wilson were players in a much larger system, a system that is inequitable and unjust and very complex.

Sometimes it seems like this tragic event has brought every possible issue out of the woodwork, and people are jumping on board, saying “this is about police militarization” or “this is about racism” or “this is about economic inequality.” And it is. It’s about all of these things and more. Because they are all connected, whether we like it or not. And finding peace in this situation doesn’t mean that the protests should simply go away. As Ibrahim M. Abdil-Mu’id Ramey says in his article “Disturbing the Peace,” finding true peace requires that we disturb the false peace of the status quo, the false peace of injustice and inequity.

I don’t think we can say it any better than Deirdre Smith did at 350.org in her call to the climate movement to “stand with Ferguson”:

“Solidarity and allyship is important in and of itself . . . We have a lot of learning to do about how to come together, but we are in [the] process of learning how our fights are bound together at their roots. If we knew everything we needed to know about navigating the climate and ecological crises, we would have done it already. Now is a time to stand with and listen to the wisdom of our allies in movements that are co-creating the world we all want to live in.”

We invite you to join NW Earth Institute in our commitment to listen to and learn from each other. Here are some starting actions we recommend:

  • Build a new relationship. One of the resources we recommend in our Seeing Systems course is a TED Talk by Elizabeth Lesser in which she invites us to “Take ‘the Other’ to Lunch.” Watch her short video, then respond to her invitation by taking a person who has a different perspective than you to lunch.
  • Support the local organizers in Ferguson. MORE (Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment) is an organization that recognizes that social justice, peace and environmental sustainability issues are intricately connected, and they have done much to support the city of Ferguson and their struggle for justice in the past few weeks. Find out more about their work, get involved in their programs, or ask them questions at their website.
  • Find out what’s going on in your own community – What justice issues exist and who is working to address them? How can you get involved? How can you be an ally? Remember that donations of supplies or food, offering to provide childcare or rides,  or offering to set up before a meeting or clean up after can be as essential to a movement as more high profile activism. Find out what a local organization really needs and get involved.

 *If you’d like to learn more about underlying issues, Vox.com has a succinct video on the roots of unrest in Ferguson.

Lacy Cagle, who authored this piece, is the Director of Learning and Engagement at NW Earth Institute. She oversees the development of NWEI’s discussion course books, including Seeing Systems, NWEI’s most recent course on the interconnections of peace, justice and environmental sustainability.

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