This summer I made several trips to Ferguson and Baltimore, not only as one in great solidarity with protesting efforts but as a researcher, too. My several trips to both locations have impacted me tremendously as a criminologist. Though I have had perfect training in critical theory and, not to mention, my biography, which informs me (as it does anyone else), I have been more enriched by stepping into the intersectional realities of others whom are like myself (in racial heritage, etc.), but who exist in different social categories and spaces. While matriculating through these very racially oppressed and hopeless spaces, I was suddenly awakened to my privilege—to the fact that my academic credentials have allowed me to ascend my previous status, which in many ways was akin to what I am now studying in Ferguson and Baltimore. The combination of my experiences and the life-stories of those whom I interviewed have forced me to drift away into a deeply induced state of introspection. At this moment, I was forced to recognize that I was angrier now than I was before—that me being able to achieve self-determination and actualization was not enough so long as others were still being oppressed and left hopeless.
I began my research in Ferguson long before I decided to include Baltimore in my study. My first trip to Ferguson was deeply revolutionary. I was amazed at the organizing that had been going on, and the unification (albeit sometimes shaky) that I was observing. A unique caveat, however, was that the organizing was largely being done by millennials, a generation within which I belong. Seeing all of this was deeply revolutionary and impressive to me, as millennials are typically stereotyped as apolitical and unbothered by government and its goings-on. However, in this moment, they were coming together to resist state violence, an undemocratic function of the US government that many of them (and their forebearers) have long had to experience. In this intersectional and educative moment, the true complexity of American injustice and inequality is captured. While mainstreamers would prefer a one-size-fits-all conception of what was going on, protestors in Ferguson and beyond were taking the narrative back and sticking to their humanity and their right to tell their story. Ferguson and the shock surrounding Brown’s death for me, and many of those whom I interviewed, highlighted many inconsistencies within the administration of American democracy and justice. While many congregated there in defense of Michael Brown, several people were also making interconnections between Brown and a myriad of others (especially Black women) killed due to state violence. These expressions helped to jump start a larger-scaled movement, #BlackLivesMatter, which would later shock the moral consciousness of America and beyond.
Moreover, the mainstream narrative surrounding these instances of state violence is that the victims (disproportionately of Color) somehow deserved their deaths, that the protestors are just lawbreaking “troublemakers” who have no respect for authority; and therefore, are not deserving of participation in American democracy let alone humanity. Thus, the underpinnings of American democracy and justice, as shown now and throughout history, are to always other those who are excluded, and legitimate the majority’s indifference to outsiders whenever possible and at all costs. These tactics are the foundation that keeps oppressive ideologies like white supremacy alive and well. The irony in what appears to be a battle of legitimacy and power is that the protestors are, in fact, well knowledgeable of power dynamics and governance. They regularly make very sensible arguments against the status quo which often highlights countless inconsistencies in the mainstream image of America. It is these heartfelt first-hand kind of experiences living in the belly of the beast that compels mainstreamers to immediately move to discredit the excluded, much like past government counter-initiatives such as COINTELPRO, for example.
While Ferguson and Baltimore are two very different locations, they both exist within manufactured oppressed and hopeless spaces at the behest of white supremacy. Genuinely stepping into these spaces as one looking to understand the residents’ experiences forces one to stand at the intersection of racial oppression and hopelessness. As I walked the streets of Baltimore and witnessed racialized abject poverty, despair, and disorganization, I had to ask myself, “why America?” This country can waste money on imperialism overseas but it cannot make its inner cities and other oppressed areas whole. Through my research narrators (participants/interviewees), I experienced lots of vicarious traumas. For example, from talking to some individuals whose family members were killed by state agents, to talking to struggling forgotten and stigmatized single mothers, and seemingly desperate, detached, and unemployed yet able-bodied young men, the dominant theme was clear—hopelessness was the end result, and whether this was intentional or unintentional, mainstreamers, to many of my narrators, do not seem to care. Thus, the underlying assumption is that those occupying these manufactured oppressed spaces operate under subjective citizenship.
Moreover, the everyday reality for those residing in these manufactured spaces of oppression and hopelessness is one of constant a) delegitimization (physically, mentally, economically, and socially), b) state-sanctioned surveillance via manufactured police occupation due to intentional non-preventative crime measures that ensures crime and disorganization and, c) facing of othered apathy—a maxim of excluded versions of American democracy and justice. For many of my narrators, getting through life is a day-by-day traumatic experience of not knowing what may happen tomorrow, or if one’s child is going to make it to adulthood, or whether or not one can afford to provide for his/her family. Though my narrators are what Joe Madison would call “underestimated, undervalued and marginalized,” many still find it necessary to believe that total inclusion is just around the corner; after all, for many of these individuals, hoping for a better future is all they have to hold on to besides engaging in the sometimes more advertised self-fulfilling prophecy and trap laid out by mainstreamers.
Jason M. Williams, Ph.D.
School of Criminal Justice, Political Science, and International Studies
Fairleigh Dickinson University
Updated: Article edited for minor grammar and clarity changes. A photo of the author was also added.