Today, I read yet another article about injustices occurring in Ferguson. Community members are still fighting for justice, still organizing, and still encountering systemic injustice at every corner. I realize that Ferguson coverage on mainstream media has begun to decrease in recent weeks, but Ferguson community members are still facing great injustices that transcend the death of Michael Brown or any one incident of racial injustice. Protesters are having their constitutional rights violated every day by law enforcement forcing protesters to a small isolated area of the city and being quick to arrest anyone who deviates from the rules set by law enforcement and city officials. Not only are protesters who are demonstrating outside the “assigned area for protesting” being arrested, they are receiving unfair and unusually high bails from judges and magistrates. I have gone back and forth as a community organizer and social worker as to what I or anyone with privilege on the outside of Ferguson do to be helpful to the community and issues at hand? I have friends who have visited Ferguson and demonstrated with community members. The problem for me is that I wondered if folks, especially privileged whites, were doing this for Ferguson or to alleviate white guilt about institutional racism? I rejected the idea of just going to a community where persons of color were already actively organized with strong local leadership because while I value social justice and consider myself an ally to those struggling for racial justice, I am a white man with privilege, and I am not always needed or welcomed in spaces where African-Americans and others are struggling for liberation. At the very least, I cannot assume that I am welcomed. The reverse challenge to this way of thinking is that far too often, privileged whites wait too long to take action against racism and injustice. It’s like we need an invitation to put our privilege to good use to address what we more than anyone have a responsibility to challenge and change.
Since the onset of the events and injustices in Ferguson, I have challenged the profession of social work and its organizations, schools, and institutions to do something to support Ferguson and to take action. What I struggled most with though is what action did I expect them to take? Who am I as a white man to even begin to think that I know what action is needed? And what action would be most beneficial to the people of Ferguson? As much as I was pissed off at my profession for not taking more concrete actions in relation to the events of Ferguson, I was just as much at fault and unsure of what to do as anyone else.
As I was reflecting on all of these thoughts and feelings today, my mind wondered back to a conversation that I had with a former SNCC member in MS, in the summer of 2008. I asked this well known leader what about the civil rights movement was most imperative or what about the movement stood out most to him? His response somewhat surprised me as he indicated that while many African-Americans were involved in the civil rights efforts out of necessity, it was also important to point out that many others were too fearful (and for good reason) for the safety of themselves and their families to become active in the movement, which is why it was so important to the success of the movement for whites with privilege, many of them young people from the north, to travel down to the south to become actively involved. He remarked that while the news of the time could be very selective in the coverage and framing of civil rights activities in the south during the 60s, when young white men and women were being jailed, beaten, and killed alongside African-Americans, it was impossible for the media or general public to ignore the injustices of the time. His words seemed important to me today as I contemplated what could or should be done by those of us with privilege in relation to Ferguson.
I am still not sure what do do for certain and I am certain that there is no right answer. I am certain though that by doing nothing, we as social workers, whites with privilege, and advocates for social justice are doing more harm than if we tried to something. I think we need more than blogs like this or town hall meetings or educational forums about racism. What if we reached out to some local leaders in Ferguson with the idea of quickly organizing a large scale March on Ferguson? What if social workers, advocates, allies, students, young people, older adults, and all of us who stand with community members of Ferguson in the background, actually came together to stand with them over the course of a weekend? What if we then used our social networks to keep a steady stream of allies, especially those with privilege, in Ferguson, until community members receive the answers and outcomes that they are demanding and that they deserve? I look back on events like the Million Man March, the recent Environmental Justice protest, and Occupy Wall Street as recent evidence to what is possible in terms of organizing masses around common issues. Social workers, whites with privilege, academics, and allies around the country, let’s organize together around racial justice with our sisters and brothers in Ferguson, MO.