Students soothe the tensions of Ferguson

Johanna Pugh

No matter the era, location or identity of the person bringing it up, talking about race can be a touchy subject.

One of the first steps in addressing the issue of racism and attempting to get to a point of understanding could be through communicating with one another.

“Not Just Ferguson” was an informational presentation and discussion held in the Redwood room in the University Union on Oct. 2. The event was put together and facilitated by members of the Sacramento State Multi-Cultural Center.

The forum gave students a space to discuss the events occurring in Ferguson, Missouri stemming from the incident in August when an unarmed African-American man, Michael Brown, 18, was fatally shot by white police officer Darren Wilson, 28.

Following Brown’s death, protesters took to the streets and were met with a militarized police response. This included approximately 150 police officers donning riot gear while some pepper sprayed residents, including peaceful protesters and children. The city fell victim to looting, vandalism and violence as racial tension and questionable police tactics led to civil unrest.

The presentation encouraged students to see the significant repercussions racial profiling and police brutality could have throughout society and speak about it.

“What happened in Ferguson is not rare,” said MCC discussion leader Kevin Easley, 29.

Easley, a sociology graduate student, said the purpose of “Not Just Ferguson” was to bring awareness and clarification on what happened and look for answers together through discourse.

“What justifies taking someone’s life?” asked kinesiology major Laila Shabazz, 17. “How did we as people come to the consensus that killing is okay?”

After showing a PowerPoint of statistics on arrest-related fatalities, the facts surrounding Brown’s death and the social media coverage of the protests that followed, Easley divided the room into five discussion groups.

MCC student facilitators guided the groups through questions such as how do students think stereotypes are internalized, how it ties into police brutality against people of color and how to move forward after addressing this type of thinking.

After the presentation reconvened to open the discussion up to the entire room, representatives from each group summarized the main ideas their groups shared, and a microphone was handed to anyone willing to speak on the issues.

One of the students who stood up and took to the microphone was Selene Ramirez, 20, an ethnic studies major.

Ramirez said she was nervous because she never spoke in front of a large crowd before, but there was a certain conviction in her voice when she expressed how she felt about the unfair treatment of people of color she has experienced. She believes avoiding racial issues is both unfair and unproductive.

“It’s 2014 and people don’t want to say racism exists anymore because it makes people feel uncomfortable,” Ramirez said. “That’s ignorance. It won’t get better by ignoring it.”

As is a potential outcome of any discussion, not all points of view shared with the group were harmonious. Some participants soothed tension by reminding their fellow students to remain open and respectful of others’ opinions and what they have gone through.

“Do not erase other people’s realities and their valid experiences,” said communication studies major Tyler Williams, 21. “Just listen.”

Some students recognized the different environments everyone comes from and reminded others they were there to discuss the issues at hand in a productive manner, no matter their background.

“Race is a man-made concept. We see someone from another race get killed on the news and think, ‘Oh, that’s not my race, so it doesn’t matter,’” Shabazz said. “At the end of the day—regardless if you’re black, white, latino, trans, bi—we have to come to a point where we see someone of another race whose life was taken and see them as human beings. They came into this world first and foremost as human beings.”

Other participants suggested in order to progress toward understanding one another, students could actively listen and refrain from responding to opposing viewpoints in a negative way.

“What you say may not make sense to me because of the way I was raised, but we need to be able to have a conversation,” said ethnic studies major Aja Johnson, 21. “Are we coming into a space to just say what we want, or are we coming into a space to have a dialogue?”

Johnson works for the MCC, which holds weekly meetings Fridays at 6 p.m. located beside Java City across from the library entrance.

On the wall behind where Johnson sat during “Not Just Ferguson,” there was a banner honoring 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a victim of racial profiling who was fatally shot in February 2012. The banner, reading: “Stop the War on Black Youth,” was created for and used in a previous MCC demonstration.

Students brought up how it could be important and beneficial to society to continue to hold these types of discussions, even amid disagreements and hesitancies to bring up racial issues.

Johnson used a metaphor of a couple in a relationship having conflicts being told by a therapist in order to solve their problems, they would need to openly communicate.

“If there’s a problem and we are identifying it as a racial problem, then we need to talk about race. Otherwise, nothing’s going to be solved,” Johnson said. “Talking about race has this sort of taboo and people don’t want to talk about it, and that’s a problem because if you don’t talk about it and all these things are happening to you that are racially motivated, how are you ever going to make sense of it?”