Protests have been brewing in large cities across the United States and in other parts of the world hinging on the injustice of Brown’s death — and the similar police killings of other young black men, including Eric Garner, a New York man choked to death. The protests have also become, as Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University, points out, a rallying point for civil rights leaders looking to start “a national debate over issues of race, order and social justice.”
Loury recently opened a Boston Review forum debate among a number of political thinkers around the topic of whether or not the Ferguson events can change the political landscape — by arguing that the protests are “an unfortunate and unproductive state of affairs.” Loury’s argument hinges on the fact that any dialogue emerging from the Michael Brown shooting is constrained by the specifics of the events.
Susan Sturm, Director of the Center for Institutional & Social Change and Professor of Law and Social Responsibility at Columbia University, responded to Loury by suggesting there may be a different lens through which to see the protests. Sturm says that Loury’s analysis hinges on a view of the world in which community order takes primacy over community safety, and that we may in fact be at a point in time where the corrosive polarity between public order and the trust needed for individual protections might finally be overcome.
Sturm makes four key points:
1. Both community leaders and the mainstream media have done a surprisingly good job of making the fairly sophisticated connections between the specifics of the Ferguson events to the broader issue of systemic patterns of “overly aggressive policing in communities of color.”
2. Those involved in the protests have come from myriad social and racial backgrounds.
3. In some ways, the protests have already worked: “new venues for public engagement and problem solving” have been established, including recently launched commissions and research collaborations around the subject.
4. The protests have grown in tandem with a rising pool of talented and effective leadership groups in affected communities, including the New York Reentry Education Network, JustLeadershipUSA, and Boston-based Ten Point Coalition.
Ultimately, says Sturm, if community members “have the opportunity to shape the agenda,” they can generate approaches that “bridge the tension between order and respect that frames Loury’s commentary.” And protest, it seems, is the prerequisite for building the public concern required to bring the community together to do so.