The sociology behind the events in Ferguson


Riot gear, constant focus on looting and heightened security in St. Louis. Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology Remy Cross and Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology Andrea Miller help explain to their students the events and misconceptions surrounding Ferguson, beginning Aug. 9, when police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown.

When the protests began, Cross grabbed his medics kit and went to Ferguson with street medic training and a trained observer of large protests. Miller has attended community talks in Ferguson to understand the needs and concerns of the Ferguson community.

Cross has been looking at a long-term project in St. Louis neighborhoods, like Fairgrounds Park, that are dealing with issues similar to those in Ferguson. He studied certain types of radical social movements and large protests dynamics for his dissertation. From that he received training as a street medic. He’s been on various media outlets to contextualize and talk about the issues in Ferguson.

“There’s often been difficulty in getting people from the community the platform to talk about what their concerns are in a way that gets them to an audience and make sense,” Cross said.

The Role of Looting

The looting and damage done in Ferguson and surrounding areas attracted much of people’s attention. Cross said the focus on the looting “attempts to take a very complex thing going on and reduce it to a simple concise statement on the state of the community.”

Cross said the majority of the people he talked to in Ferguson condemn the looting. However, he said a small subset that is involved in the protests and in the community that support some of the vandalism and looting specifically targeted at institutions that were thought to be detrimental to the community like check-cashing businesses.

Cross said some of the protesters were happy that the local check-cashing business had been damaged. He said check-cashing businesses are seen as a negative influence to the community because they don’t offer much employment and charge high interest rates on short-term loans, which puts people further in debt.

“That’s not money being reinvested in the community,” Cross said. “That’s money going out of the community to their parent organizations and into the stock market and other things.”

But he said the majority of the looting seemed to be caused by people outside the community who were taking advantage of the breakdown of social order. He said an activist had shown him a Twitter stream of people blatantly saying they did not care about the issues in Ferguson and just wanted to do something for themselves.

Miller said she perceived  the looting that occurred the night of Brown’s death to make a statement and was a more radical step taken in the community.

“Businesses tend to get valued above people and communities start paying attention when businesses get disrupted,” Miller said.

She said looting is a tactic used in social movements to draw attention to a problem. Ferguson is not the first community to use these tactics; she cited uprisings in Syria to local events like World Trade organizations.

Tactics in social movements

While violent protests have been the focus of the media coverage, there are nonviolent protests as well. Miller said most successful movements do not rely on one type or the other.

“Social movements need a variety of tactics and there’s not good evidence that any social movement has been successful just because of nonviolence or only because of violence,” Miller said.

Miller cited the Civil Rights Movement as an example where a large part of the movement was based on non-violent protests, but more radical protesting took place like the shutting down of intersections and children of elementary schools walking out.

Another term Miller said was used out of context was the term “riot.” She said many of the politicians have used the term “riots” in describing the situation in Ferguson and because the police forces are using riot gear. She explained riot gear is used on all level of protests. She said basic riot gears consist of a facemask, baton and the chemical spray.

“I’ve seen radical protests, but a riot tends to shut down things long term,” she said.

Usually a riot has long-term effects. An example she mentioned was the 24-hour shutdown of streets and intersections. She said there have been moments that could have been classified as rioting, but riots are something sustained overtime. 

ASA on race riots

The American Sociological Association (ASA) did a study on race riots. The study explained that riots are more likely to occur when “social institutions function inadequately, or when grievances are not resolved, or cannot be resolved under the existing institutional arrangements.” It explained race riots involve people of two races.

“In addition, offenses committed by white law enforcement officials, highly inflammatory in themselves, are aggravated when they involve actual or alleged wrongdoing on the part of officials expected to uphold and administer the law in an impartial manner,” according to the ASA study.

The role of police

Miller said that the police play an interesting role in social movements. She said there are times when some people might protest the police because they can be the ones who keep people from protesting, but there are also times when people need the police to uphold the citizen’s right to protest.

“We have to remember that the police, like the protestors, are individuals,” she said. “We can’t look at the police as one entity, just as we can’t look at the protestors (as one entity).” She explained there are individual police officers that want to guarantee the rights of the protesters, and there are police who are going to be more brutal.

Instead of looking at individual police officers, Miller said it’s the structure of policing and tactics used by the police that needs to be changed. Governor Jay Nixon said in a press conference on Nov. 11, that community policing would help ease tensions in Ferguson. Community policing is the philosophy of police officers working with members of the community to solve problems or help keep areas safe.

“If we wanted to do community policing, then you can’t send out police in riot gear or armored vehicles in a neighborhood. That’s not community policing,” she said.

She said trust between law enforcements and the community was lost by the governor declaring a State of Emergency before the verdict was announced and by the continued militarization of the police.

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