The death of Michael Brown, a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., by a police officer sparked outrage that still burns across the country almost two months later. People want to know one simple question: Why do black men and women die at the hands of police?
A discussion Tuesday tried to explore the subject through “Facing Ferguson: A Teach-In on Race and State Violence” at Paterno Library’s Foster Auditorium.
“I didn’t have a moment of outrage when I heard about it,” said Courtney Morris, assistant professor of African American studies at Penn State. “Black death has become banal. Black death is common in this country.”
And that is the problem. Brown was not the first young man killed by police, not even the first in 2014. He wasn’t the last.
Postdoctoral fellow Cynthia Greenlee pointed to Missouri’s history on the bloody subject of racial tension and outright violence. From the paper racism of the Missouri compromise to the Dred Scott decision to the 1919 riots in St. Louis, the timeline is clear. So is the history of police violence against blacks, she said, pointing to a man shot for stealing a ham in 1923, another beaten by five officers after someone else’s theft, and a 1968 call for an end to the state-sanctioned racial attacks.
“I can’t help but think of Michael Brown as a part of this continuity,” said Greenlee.
Something else continues, though: talking about the subject.
“Can we stop talking about starting a conversation? We’ve been talking for 200 years,” said political science professor Errol Henderson, who claims the problems are not about race and violence.
“The problem is white racism,” he said, and it’s a problem he said he still sees openly on campus and in State College.
Another man in the audience said he has had racial epithets shouted at him as he walked home, and has passed fraternities where members waved a Confederate flag.
“I’m frustrated,” said a woman in the back of the room. “I don’t know what to do. This conversation, I don’t want to say it’s fruitless, but I wish it were more fruitful.”
So the conversation continues. More teach-ins on the topic are planned, with another scheduled for late October. Until then, there were reminders to register to vote and to become active in organizations pushing for social justice.
“Words need to lead to actions,” said philosophy and African American studies professor Vincent Colapietro.