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Webster University professor fights for human rights in multiple countries
Photo by BRIAN VERBARG / The Journal
Webster University Professor of Religious Studies Chris Parr had no plans on the night of March 14 and thought the best way to spend a free night during spring break was to head to Ferguson. He figured he would go out for an hour or so to help celebrate the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson and be home before midnight.
An hour later, Parr was inside the Ferguson Police Department sitting in a jail cell, charged with failure to comply.
Word of his arrest reached his family back in New Zealand, an occurrence they felt was inevitable. The oldest of four children, Parr said he was the troublemaker of the bunch.
“They weren’t terribly surprised,” Parr said.
Parr’s sister, Deirdre Parr Carryer, posted on Facebook, “It had to happen one day: my brother Chris has finally been arrested for protesting (it only took how many years, bro?).”
Parr drove to Ferguson and found protesters celebrating the resignation of the former Ferguson police chief. Parr said getting Jackson to resign was one of the goals of the protesters.
Brenna Whitehurst, a junior psychology major, was there that night. She arrived in Ferguson around 8 p.m. and took part in the celebration.
“When I first got down (to Ferguson), there was pizza, there was hugging and dancing, having a good time. Then the protest started,” Whitehurst said.
According to Whitehurst, she was with friends in the street when a police officer instructed them to get out of the street or face arrest. After an argument resulting in an officer trying to grab one of her friends, Whitehurst said the levels of animosity between protesters and law enforcement grew.
“People were pissed after that,” Whitehurst said.
While Whitehurst left around 10 p.m., Parr was just arriving and saw a blockade of police shields and masks. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder and without warning, Parr said police started moving toward the protesters, pushing them into the street.
While others moved out of the way of the oncoming wall, Parr stood his ground and was met with opposing force from a shield. Parr said no policemen said anything to him, only following the first shove with another.
After the second shove, Parr found himself behind the police lines and was put into zip-tie handcuffs. While his fingerprints were taken, Parr heard an officer’s radio go off.
“Officer shot, officer shot,” Parr recalls.
Whitehurst and Parr would find out the following morning that two policemen, one of them from Webster Groves, were shot by a gunman outside the Ferguson Police Department.
No patience for racism
Parr was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, and like a lot of New Zealand boys, he dreamed of playing for the
country’s rugby team, the All Blacks. While playing for the All Blacks was only a pipe dream, Parr took offense to the fact that if he were ever to play for them, he would face discrimination if he were to play in South Africa.
From 1950 until 1994, South Africa enforced apartheid laws as a way to segregate the population. Players of visiting rugby teams, like the All Blacks, should they be born of non-white descent, would be “honorary whites”, including Parr who is Tongan and Samoan.
“From the age of nine or 10, that made no sense to me. Why should I deny some of my identity or let someone else deny my identity in order for me to represent my nation on their grounds, purely on the basis of race?” Parr said. “I have no patience for racism. I have no patience for it whatsoever. Partly because it comes very close to home for my family.”
Parr’s lack of patience for racism brought him to Ferguson to take part in protests the day after Michael Brown was shot by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. He said he has been in Ferguson for protests a few times since August.
When asked if race relations in St. Louis have gotten better, Parr let out a chuckle.
“It’s an excellent question that invites, which I can only describe as, a disappointingly sad answer,” Parr said.
Parr said while the Justice Department reports have “speeded up” some change, the leadership in Ferguson, he said, needs to change. Parr also said there is a need for change in how police handle those who protest.
In his mid-20s, Parr dealt with the police on a routine basis. In 1981, during the Springbok tour – when South Africa’s national rugby team toured the country of New Zealand, playing different local teams- Parr and thousands of others protested the tour due to South Africa’s still-enforced apartheid laws.
“That was a very militant, confrontational, deliberate attempt at extensive civil disobedience. There were games twice a week, and the whole country was just torn up by protest demonstrations and disruptions of games,” Parr said.
Parr said protesters disrupted the tour by dropping bags of flour onto players during games, marching through the streets and even making their way onto the field to cancel games.
Despite years of protesting, Parr was never arrested before March 14, which he attributes to knowing who the police liaison was for the protesters. Parr said there was communication between the protesters and police in New Zealand, which he said doesn’t seem to be the case in Ferguson.
“The police lines of command and their liaison with the protestors seems to be non-existent,” Parr said.
Putting act in activism
Parr’s passion drives him to show up when help is needed, Webster University Professor Terri Reilly said of her long-time friend. Parr was hired by Webster in 1992, which is when the two began their friendship. Throughout their friendship, Reilly has always known Parr to be driven by passion.
“Whenever he sensed injustice, he felt the need to do what most of us don’t do, and that’s show up and be present in the forefront of the injustice,” Reilly said.
Reilly teaches a course on social movements, where she talks to her students about “slacktivism”–where people try to contribute to fighting injustice while sitting in the comfort of their own homes.
“We hit the ‘like’ button, and we’re supportive to the extent that it is convenient for us. For Chris, he’s there in the frontlines and raising his voice,” Reilly said.
Parr does more than fight against oppression. He lends himself during times of need. After Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana in 2005, Parr and six other friends drove to Jackson, Mississippi to find people they could help relocate to St. Louis.
“When we got back, all of Webster University really fell in support of that. We worked with a lot of help from Webster people and also churches from the neighborhood to get these guys jobs and stuff like that,” Parr said.
Parr said helping Katrina victims gave people an opportunity to help in a national crisis. He said he and his friends came up with a reasonable solution within a reasonable scale.
Despite his arrest, Parr said he will continue to show up and take part in the activism in Ferguson. He said he would go back tomorrow if it was needed.
“I feel like the whole story of Michael Brown is a story of people not treating other people as human beings. It’s up to us to represent the opposite orientation,” Parr said.