What can we take away from Ferguson?

Professor Saltsman encourages open and meaningful dialogue

BRIAN SALTSMAN, Assistant Professor of Psychology

When I was first approached to write an opinion piece for the Campus a few weeks ago in the wake of the events in Ferguson, MO, I was apprehensive. Considering the gravity, uncertainty, and emotional nature of the history of police brutality in the United States, the complicated (being overly simplistic) and sometimes turbulent relationship between African Americans and law enforcement, and the history of social justice and civil rights protests surrounding race, identity, and equity, it seemed a daunting undertaking. However, after careful consideration, many conversations with colleagues both at Allegheny and at other institutions, as well as attendance at multiple forums by various student organizations, I feel more confident in offering a perspective to my fellow community members.

My perspective is not representative of any specific group, organization, entity, or body. I am not giving the Black, African American male, professorial or psychological statement or opinion in relation to this set of circumstances.  I would like to, in no uncertain terms, encourage continued meaningful dialogue, open discussion and collaborative action both internally as well as externally by the Allegheny and Meadville communities at large.

The events which have transpired in Ferguson, MO since early August and those that occurred before that time, in a variety of other places in the United States, have been tragic, distressing, and appalling. The protests, forums, and discussions surrounding some of the circumstances related to Michael Brown’s death have been useful and important to reengage some segments of the population to issues of social justice and inequity. What happened to Michael Brown is undoubtedly a tragedy, but some individuals at Allegheny and in Meadville may either be unaware, uninterested, or ambivalent about the reality underlying the larger situations surrounding the state of race relations, authority, and institutionalized structures and thinking.

Many of my colleagues, current and past, have and continue to work tirelessly to help students and community members regardless of identity to confront injustice, inequity, and ignorance in our community and beyond. Each of us, in our own way, have formally and informally mentored, spoken with, and worked with individuals and groups with the noble goals to recognize and speak about a variety of perceived and actual conditions.

I have heard from some students at Allegheny, in both formal and informal discussions, that they believe the events in Ferguson;  the protesting, rioting, allegations of police brutality, and the discussions of racial profiling and mistreatment of African Americans (especially of African American males) are not subjects directly relevant to the Allegheny and broader Meadville community. They further assert that if such events occurred in Meadville, that their view of relevance would be tempered by their relationship to the individual to whom it occurred.

Everyone I spoke with acknowledged that such an event would be terrible and that the community would take action. However, a number of people felt that if the victim had “any skeletons in their closet” that the community action and the community buy-in would be severely compromised. They felt especially powerful about this view if the violated individual was a member of a marginalized population (broadly defined).

That is to say that if the victim was a member of a marginalized population the stereotypes, perceptions, and biases of some less socially conscious community members might significantly undermine the efforts of the greater community. To me this is a call to re-evaluate the manner in which we structure our conversations, moderated and informal.

Last week, for example, the town hall meeting “The Crisis in Ferguson” was a well-attended event with a broad cross-section of campus present. The overwhelming perception I received from the attendees whom spoke with me informally was that the conversation could have been structured more effectively. Some attendees felt discouraged by the lack of a clear stated “continuation plan.” I have since been informed that CIASS and other campus entities are actively working to rectify this situation.

Some individuals and groups in the broader community have taken advantage of the opportunity presented to speak, hold forums, or engage formally or informally with others to discuss any number of relevant social, ideological, or justice related themes which they view as relevant to the broader community.

We have a well-established and respected group of scholars, activists, student leaders, and Allegheny and Meadville community members dedicated to social justice issues. I encourage everyone, in whatever way you are capable, to engage in social justice and advocacy opportunities. To that end we need to have continuing, meaningful, open, and substantive conversations related to issues.

Too often I have left forums, discussions, and meetings related to important topics more confused, frustrated, and distraught than when I first arrived. It is my opinion we lose opportunities and some momentum on socially relevant community topics due to the tendency to “preach to the converted,” those who are already engaged in work or topics. I would personally prefer and have requested for all events which I am involved in to have someone record the event so that the message and content of the presentation can be carried into another forum or used as reference to those not able to attend.

Many community members are busy and do not get to engage in our community as actively as we wish sometimes and another portal of open conversation can be useful for those who want to engage.  Some of my fellow community members are not in favor of this approach of having a permanent record of the conversation in audio or video format.  I respect that perspective. Their argument has been if the event is recorded in any fashion, fewer individuals will engage in forums and those who do attend will feel intimidated into not speaking. I see the recordings as a starting point for larger open and substantive discussion beyond the one-time event.

I am proud of my membership in the Allegheny and Meadville communities. However, I think we can continue to grow, develop, and achieve greater.