Peace vs. Quiet in the Summer of Ferguson

Thursday, August 14, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.
Thursday, August 14, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.

Ours was a summer punctuated by upheaval. On Aug. 9, gunshots were heard in Ferguson, Missouri, when a white police officer fired multiple times at Michael Brown, a young, unarmed black man. The second horror immediately followed, quietly, when his corpse was left on the street, untouched and largely exposed to the heat for four-and-a-half hours, sending a wordless, but potent message to the community about the power the police and government exert over their lives, bodies and final dignity.

President Obama, along with other lawmakers and commentators who gauge the state of the nation, began calling for peace. The press carefully documented the nights of “peace” in Ferguson as if it were a barometer of the nation’s—or at least the town’s—progress.

But what powerful people are actually calling for is quiet. Peace and quiet, as anyone who has ever demanded it at home or the workplace knows, are not synonymous. Peace, with its potentially long-lasting effects, requires investment. Peace takes listening and reflection. Quiet can be achieved through suppression or closing our eyes and ears to the clear signals that all is not right with our communities and nation. In some instances, as in the act of displaying Brown’s corpse, violence expresses itself quietly.

Since Brown’s killing a month ago, I have turned over the distinction between peace and quiet in my mind, my thoughts returning to moments this summer that had upset my sense of peace. Quietly, I walked into any number of restaurants and businesses in Austin to find that the entire “front of house” consisted of white waiters, white clerks, while black and Latinos were relegated to the “back of the house.”

I wondered if some elaborate game of chance might explain a workforce consisting of young, white people in what is often described as Texas’ most liberal city. There is nothing peaceful in repeatedly witnessing—much less experiencing—no fewer than four patrol cars surround black motorists on the east side, the once redlined district where working-class blacks and Latinos were shunted in an urban planning design built on segregation. On each occasion handcuffs were in use. In one instance, I spotted, a few blocks away, a young male hipster comfortably laying down on the sidewalk chatting with an officer, as if they were friends, and equals.

Each incident contributes to a singular message about where the community and business leaders believe people of color belong. Such attitudes are made plain in real estate ads that describe a neighborhood “transitioning” or, more crudely, when I hear locals blithely describe an area becoming increasingly upscale and white as “getting cleaned up.”

Austin City Council candidate Ora Houston recently described the African-American experience in Austin bluntly. “The city of Austin is very racist,” she said at a candidate forum for District 1, the African-American “opportunity” district. Black people in Austin, she said, “don’t have a sense of place.”

In November, Austin voters will elect a new City Council, based on single-member districts, after decades of at-large representation. While local representation based, roughly, on communities of interest presents opportunities for historically marginalized groups, some worry that the new system will cost the city its international stature and downscale ambitions. Evidently, democracy and political empowerment are fine ideals, as a brand.

But where blacks and Latinos are not made to feel invisible, their presence is systematically, and mathematically, diminished. Consider the findings from a UT-Austin/Texas Tribune public opinion poll released over the summer that found, among other things, that Texans believe undocumented immigrants should be deported immediately.

But the portrait of Texas was drawn primarily from people 45 and older (57 percent of those surveyed), and from people with no children living at home (63 percent). According to the U.S. Census, the median age in Texas is 34 and we rank among the states with the most children at home. The sampling reflected the state’s black population but weighted toward whites by under-sampling Latinos by 10 percent. We are left to conclude that despite the state’s demographics, the poll reflects the opinions of older whites.

Each of these acts undermines the peacefulness of a community, a state and our nation. This isn’t simply my conclusion. In the summer of 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson formed what became known as the Kerner Commission to investigate the factors that had precipitated the eruption of riots across the nation.

The commission found that the police are not merely a “spark” factor. “To some Negroes,” according to the report, “police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.”

Behind the confrontations with police, the commission discovered grievances with a systemic culture of racism manifested by: unemployment and underemployment, disrespectful white attitudes, inadequacy of municipal services, ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms. The commission concluded that whites were oblivious to the lived reality of segregation and poverty.

One recent Saturday afternoon, as I drove past Lady Bird Lake on the east side, I noticed four patrol cars in the park. Two officers were escorting a Latino man away, in handcuffs. Police turned up on the scene after receiving an urgent call from a resident of the nearby new condo development who claimed the homeless man had beaten a dog to death with his bare hands. But when the officers arrived, they found a very alive pit bull. The man had simply swatted the dog’s behind for misbehaving and, according to the police report, the caller later admitted to exaggerating the situation.

The show of force—four officers sticking around once it was clear the man wasn’t dangerous, but was wanted on an outstanding alcohol-related warrant—represents a common pattern of policing. Overlooked in the calls for calm and peace is that the police ultimately reflect and enforce the values and attitudes of the community they serve, the people eyeing cheap property in neighborhoods that need “cleaning up.” Such are the ongoing attacks on peace, ones replicated in many cities across Texas.

Michelle García's work has appeared in Salon, the Boston Review, the Atlantic Monthly’s Quartz and The Washington Post among other publications.

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