by Linda Bowen posted 12/9/2015 11:40:55 AM
Actors: Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, John Crawford III, Michael Brown. George Zimmerman, Darryl Wilson, unnamed local police officers. A host of others to be named.

Setting: African American community, anywhere USA.

Act One
Black man/boy engaging in life. White policeman notices. Black boy comes in proximity of white policeman. White policeman shoots gun. Black boy falls dead to ground.

Witnesses take note and smart phone videos. Police appear. Crime scene roped off. Black boy’s body covered or left uncovered. Crowds gather. Policemen order them back. Body is taken away.

Act Two

Media appear; pictures are taken; witnesses spoken to. Parents/friends/relatives of black boy cry out. Crowds thicken; chants of injustice begin. News stories released on black man’s life revealing its sweet normality. Anguished parents speak of son’s lost future. Grainy pictures of altercation appear. News stories released indicating man was no angel. White policeman assert fear for life from black threat. T-shirts, slogans, marches with cries for peace, police, compassion.

Act Three
Investigation of shooting. Charges filed; not filed* (*skip next line). Trial held. Shooting found justified. Community anger ensues. Media debates die out. Black boy/man engaging in life. White policeman notices…

As discussed in a previous newsletter, structural violence is a relatively new term for describing a state of being in the United States. Structural violence refers to the oppression of one community (geographic and/or a community of affiliation) by another through framing, stereotyping and laws and policies that limit its possibilities. It is indicated when social disparities are rampant in a community. Strutural violence tends lead to inter- and intra-personal violence. The presence and fear of this physical violence lead to an interaction over time in which the actions of both communities reinforce the state of oppression. One effect of structural violence is that it lodges the image of community in the public mind as the other, not connected to the core of the external community. The community’s demographics and social and economic indicators are seen to exist in defiance to the core values and beliefs of the broader community. The perniciousness of a structural violence frame is that although all parties –inside and out -- maintain it, it is invisible to all.

The social problems seen in poor communities in the United States (i.e., crime and violence, out of wedlock births, poverty, lack of education) are generally the result of a historic mixture of social engineering, urban planning, disinvestment, economic downturns and individual behavior. Time and persistence of these issues have lead to their being mostly attributed to the individuals who inhabit the communities. Behaviors that are not productive outside these communities enable residents to survive inside them, reinforcing the structural violence frame in the minds of those within and outside the community. In communities of color, the confluence of embedded structural racism (the primary form of structural violence in our society) with structural violence adds even more strength to the frame. Structural violence sets the context for interactions between the framed community and its external environment. In Ferguson and other communities of color across our country, structural violence has led to the following structural frames.

An “us versus them” power dynamic

Power is the base of structural violence; it sets up a context of relative powerlessness of one community and strength for its broader environment. This power dynamic generally arises from the actions of very distant players, but those currently in power are complicit in its maintenance. For instance, the decision at the inception of our country to give citizenship only to white male landowners, set up an enduring power dynamic that diminished and stereotyped white men without land and all women and people of color. Those left out of the power dynamic were seen as lesser than, the other, not worthy of the rights, privileges and resources of white male landowners.

An “us versus them” power dynamic was - and continues to be - in play in Ferguson as those protesting the death of Michael Brown were treated as enemy combatants rather than citizens by law enforcement. County and state law enforcement, spurred on by what has been said to be the actions of a few, greeted the lawful gathering of the community with military uniformed officers shielded by armored tanks and tear gas. It is hard to believe that a similar response would have occurred at a gathering of those from more affluent, white communities of the St. Louis suburban ring.

A power dynamic was also revealed as we learned about the lack of representation of African Americans on the police force and city council despite the fact that African Americans are the majority population in the City. The strength of this dynamic was further uncovered by discovery of the perverse effect of poor communities of color in the suburban St. Louis City ring supporting the municipal budgets of wealthier white communities because of oppressive and punitive traffic laws visited on African American communities.

Power dynamics such as these are hard to dislodge, because of their durability over time and also because of the great rewards provided to those who become a part of it. This explains why a town with leadership of color may remain structurally violent for people of color and law enforcement officer of color may behave similarly to communities of color as do whites. That is why just changing the faces of those in power does not necessarily change the dynamic. If the power dynamic is not altered, if it remains the same, its effects may not be diminished even if a different group assumes control of it. To shift the effect, power relations have to be consciously changed.

Separate fates

From what we know about Ferguson, its transition from a mostly white middle class suburb to a mostly working class to low-income black community has been fairly recent. According to one report, blacks moved to Ferguson as part of a long-term exodus from St Louis as the city separated from the larger County. Massive economic dislocations in Rust Belt States, demolition of housing projects in St Louis and the economic recession contributed to depressed economies in the larger St Louis County as African Americans moved out of the city into the county in greater numbers. As the story of Michael Brown has unfolded, we have been witness to the distance between Ferguson’s now small white community and its majority African American community. Many news stories have documented the physical, social and economic disparities between the two communities.

As a microcosm, Ferguson is an example of the effects of a power dynamic in our country that continues to divide its citizens by race and class. The narrative of our country and its existing power dynamic places African American and other people of color in a different reality (psychically if not always physically) than whites. The fact that we are different and our difference defines whether or not we are accepted as part of the mainstream of our country means that we do not believe that we are one people sharing the same fate. Rather we believe that the status of our lives is determined by our community’s adherence or lack of adherence to a set of values, lifted up by people more interested in maintaining the status quo than in envisioning a new way of being together that benefits us all. In Ferguson, the status quo was maintained even though it was in violation of a fundamental belief of the country – that the rights of the majority should not be held captive by a minority.

Altered expectations of childhood

Michael Brown – as were Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and a host of other young black men -- was killed not because of what Darryl Wilson knew about him, but what a structurally violent frame made Wilson see and not see and how a structurally violent setting forged their interaction. Like the other young men, Brown was engaged in ordinary activity: by all accounts walking down the middle of a street. While we have not yet heard the police officer’s account of what happened between Michael Brown and him, the emerging story is that they tussled in the car, shots were fired, Brown retreated, followed by the policeman who shot him several more times despite Brown’s outstretched arms. It is hard to imagine how walking down the street – even in the face of the commission of the mild crime of blocking traffic ---degenerated into these actions, except for the taint that structural violence places on the actions of its players.

The counter narrative that circulated at the same time by the news media was that Brown ‘was no angel’. Videos of his altercation with a store clerk, as he stole cigars emerged. It was leaked that he had marijuana in his system. This cemented a negative majority frame about a black teenager: he was a violent drug user, which in some minds justified his killing. This judgment has been resisted by those who point out that none of this was known by the police officer and in any case, he should not have been killed for stealing a package of cigars.

Structural violence keeps us from seeing what we should all see in these situations – it hides the normal behavior of childhood. Even if Michael Brown resisted the officer, even if he had marijuana in his system, even if he were engaging in risky behavior by walking down a street, had he been a non-framed adolescent, this would have been seen as what it was -- the risky behavior that is the hallmark of adolescence for many young people in the United States. Adolescence is known as a period of risk -- some flaunt authority, some experiment with drugs, some dress in ways that mark their adolescence, they play loud music; they mimic each other’s behavior. In some communities this behavior is annoying to law enforcement and others; adolescents may be hauled into the police station, parents called, charges not filed. In structurally violent communities the same adolescent behavior is often seen as threatening; adolescents are arrested and charged at best and killed at worst. The existing power dynamic in our country normalizes adolescent behavior for most white children, but criminalizes it for poor kids of color. It paints black young men as bad and blinds us to the notion that they are just ordinary kids, a point made by Jordan Davis’s father at the trial for his son’s killer.

"He was a good kid," Davis said of his son. "It wasn't allowed to be said in the courtroom, that he was a good kid. But we'll say it: He was a good kid."


Ferguson represents more than problems between law enforcement and the African American community. It represents more than the lack of representation of the majority population on the city council. It represents more than the interaction between one officer and one adolescent. What Ferguson represents is a structural problem in our country, one whose roots go deeper than the obvious things we see and whose solutions will likewise have to be much deeper. The outcome of the actions in Ferguson and the other places in which black men have been killed by police and other white people will represent whether we as a country can face the demons that we may not have created but that we have continued to perpetuate; whether we can muster the resolve to together develop a way of being that will honor what we represent ourselves to be as a country.

Many solutions have been suggested for Ferguson. The city council must reflect the current, not past reality of Ferguson’s citizen base. Black people must vote to ensure this happens. Ferguson’s police force should be reconfigured to include more black officers. Heavy military equipment should not be used in civic disturbances. All of these actions need to occur, but just changing the players and their equipment will not mean that Ferguson will not happen again, either literally or figuratively. At the same time that the solutions above are instituted, work must happen at a deeper structural level in Ferguson to make it less likely that another Michael Brown incident does not occur. To do this we must:

Acknowledge structural violence and work to end it

Structural violence is easy to recognize but we must lose our blinders. When we see a community locked in generational social, health and economic disparities, including violence, we are noticing a community experiencing structural violence. To fully see this, we have to see past our desire to place individual blame (or community of affiliation) blame on the circumstances in which people are born and grow up. We must acknowledge the conscious roles played by policymakers and citizens in developing and supporting laws, policies and strategies that marginalize these communities. We must also acknowledge the long ago embedded values that caused structural violence. One way to begin to do this is to ensure that those who live in structurally violent communities occupy an equal seat at the table as values, laws and policies are established and resources distributed, especially for those that directly affect their communities.

Lift up a value for all Americans, not just those who benefit from the current power dynamic

The negative frame on males of color, specifically African American males, leads to their conscious and unconscious maltreatment by feeding stereotypical thought and action by those with personal biases and embedded societal messages to which the rest of us respond. While in one arena black males are enjoying access in ways that would not have been envisioned a generation ago – at the same time others are being treated in ways that hearkens back before the civil rights movement. The killings of young black boys and men, sanctioned by laws and policies that support individual judgment, which is hard to dispute in our courts of law, is too similar to those which in an earlier generation led to serial lynchings and imprisonment. We have seen these laws and policies place all black males at risk, not just those living in structurally violent communities.

Lack of value for black Americans provides fodder for law enforcement training that links communities with the confluence race, poverty and crime as the marker for law enforcement action. The further societal message that the all people who live in these communities are the culprits provides a frame for seeing them as unlawful and unworthy. One of the “solutions “ advanced to address Ferguson’s problem has been the observation that its police force needs to be diversified. This is certainly true, but hiring officers of color will do little to change the dynamic between law enforcement and Ferguson’s African American community unless the structural issues in the police department that conflate race with crime and target the African American community as the enemy are addressed. Inviting men of color into the prevailing power dynamic for the most part produces men of color who promote the dynamic. This is not to say that in the short run officers of color would not express more empathy with the African American community – they may or may not, given their own personal biases and/or responses to societal messages. What will really change the relationship between these two communities is a fundamental values change in the police department with respect to communities of color – a values change that becomes embedded in its training programs and zealously protected through the department’s reward (and punishment system). Determining this values change should be a process that involves not just the law enforcement, but also the African American community, the city of Ferguson and the suburban ring of St. Louis to the extent that they too benefited from policies that framed African Americans.

Normalize adolescent and young adult behavior for African Americans

Research has revealed interesting things about the adolescent brain – specifically that significant development picks up in adolescence and continues through age 25; that judgment is significantly impaired during this time leading to the risky behaviors we characterize as adolescence. The Supreme Court in acknowledgement of this finding has issued a few decisions with respect to treating adolescents as adults when they are involved in serious crime.

What we now understand about brain development and adolescence has not fully translated to communities of color.
Malignant intent has been attached to the actions of the normal behaviors of young people who live in communities at risk for structural violence. Rather than seeing these young people of color for who they are and providing room and opportunity for their positive growth and development, we mark their adolescent responses to structural violence as aberrant and treat them as in violation of our norms. This is not to say that when they break laws or behave badly that they should not be punished, but it is to say that (1) the punishment should fit the action (i.e., one should not be killed for walking around in one’s community (with or without a hoodie) or playing loud music or walking around a department store with a plastic gun) and (2) young people should be allowed to be young people – not given a ‘do not pass go card’ to adulthood. Their behavior should be seen by law enforcement and the larger society within the context of the journey that all young people traverse as their brains continue to develop and grow into the brains that allow them to make better decisions.

Join Fates

While justice for Michael Brown is the rallying call for the ongoing demonstrations in the community, residents are also protesting the embedded structural violence that asserts that African Americans are different from and lesser than other communities in our country. To begin to address this, we must acknowledge the dangers of the prevailing power dynamic and address the structural violence that it supports. Because the power dynamic is focused on economic power and worth, those more affluent get to set the frame on the less affluent. This has locked African American communities in Missouri (and now other marginalized communities throughout our country) in historic disadvantage to white communities and has nurtured and embedded the belief that the American pie is a small one, not able to accommodate us all. We must envision and implement a new way of being together, not separately. We must co-create conditions to lift collective power in Ferguson and our country. We are much better when we work together as a community to ensure that everyone contributes and benefits from the resources of our country.

Read this http://us4.campaign-archive2.com/?u=aec31e0bdc2cda2a4df125eaf&id=850db2e24f&e=[UNIQID]

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