The riots in Ferguson and elsewhere are an expression of hopelessness, says Stefan Bradley of St. Louis University.
Protester in Ferguson. Image: reuters
Mr. Bradley, what was going through your mind when the grand jury decision was announced?
Stefan Bradley: I was with acquaintances outside the police station in Ferguson, I didn’t want to be alone. Admittedly, I had an inkling that there would be no indictment. But then to hear that and to feel the deep disappointment of the people, the sheer agony, that hurt a lot.
After the decision, there were very different reactions in Ferguson. What did you do?
A lot of people started moving from the police station towards West Florissant. It was quite chaotic, some were running. I saw things that reminded me of the days in August (after Michael Brown’s death, ed.). I could feel people’s hurt, their anguish. After twenty minutes, the agony turned to anger. And after a while, into a frenzy.
After all that had happened: Where can the city go now?
That’s a difficult question. Ferguson must now focus primarily on the moment. People are reeling with anger and disappointment and hurt. I think the city has to bear that now.
What does that mean for the days and nights ahead?
People are going to suffer for a while. And as they express that, there is potential for more destructive acts. Some people think that those who loot and burn are crazy, uncivilized and wild. But that’s not accurate. These young people are showing their hopelessness. They do not believe in a justice system that does not provide justice. They find it hard to make any sense of an unarmed teenager being killed by a police officer with a gun. And they wonder why they should respect property when they can be shot at 18.
is director of African American Studies at private Saint Louis University in Missouri.
In recent U.S. history, there have been other moments of looting and arson – in Los Angeles in the 1990s and in many places in the 1960s. Is this comparable?
The situation is similar. Because people are suffering a grievance, their own powerlessness. They feel they are not being represented. It’s frustrating when there’s not much in life to look forward to. And when there is no one running in elections to represent our interest.
Why does the majority population of Ferguson accept that there are hardly any blacks in the police and administration of their town? Why don’t many even vote?
It has to do with demographic changes. North County only became black in the ’80s and ’90s; before that, it was majority white. But whites stayed in power. That led to a situation where the city council was all white for a long time. The feeling of powerlessness and that life doesn’t change when you vote is widespread.
What is special about the situation of African Americans in the greater St. Louis area around Ferguson ?
It’s one of the most segregated areas in the nation; a reminiscence of the old South. We have black neighborhoods – neighborhoods where you can count the whites on one hand. And white neighborhoods where hardly any blacks live. The other things in St. Louis resemble the rest of the U.S.: we have the same low employment rates for blacks, the same low standards for homes where black tenants live. Blacks are stopped by police more than any other group. And schools, with majority-black students face failure as often as anywhere else in the country.
What do you tell your students?
I have African American students. One day they will be in positions where they have power – as lawyers, politicians, entrepreneurs and educators. I hope they learn that they have responsibilities to others. I want them to empathize and understand now.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
I don’t want them to destroy anything. But I want them to talk to people and understand their concerns. It’s important that they have a connection with people who feel powerless and hopeless. My students get an education that most don’t get. It’s a privilege and a responsibility. So that later, when they are in a position of power and hope, they can make a difference.