Reflections on Ferguson and the History of Racism in America

Season's Greetings from Ferguson

Season’s Greetings from Ferguson


I have wanted to comment on the uprisings in Ferguson for the past two weeks. But, I first needed to check my own biases to make sure that I was seeing the issues clearly. Having taken the time for that reflection, I feel that I have arrived at a place of clear understanding; or at least a place of understanding that reaches the limits of my own perceptions and experiences.

As a native woman, I have direct experience with the impacts of racist beliefs and practices. I grew up on a small Indian reservation in central Maine, one of the whitest states in the country. Our tribal nation is located on an island in the Penobscot River. While I was growing up, a one-lane, green bridge was all that separated us from the mainland.  Yet, the real distance represented by that bridge far exceeded its physical span.

As a child, I was warned that crossing that bridge was the greatest transgression that I could make. No one could ensure my safety if I crossed that bridge and went into town, and no one was willing to ensure my safety once I returned home and my grandfather found out what I had done. I was convinced that I could have burned the house down and I would not have been punished as severely as I would have had I been caught crossing that bridge.

When I was about ten years old, my cousin John Bear decided to throw caution to the wind and explore the world on the other side of the river. He got on his huffy bike and set out to see what the world beyond the bridge had to offer. What I remember most about that day is what he was wearing. When he set off on his adventure, he was wearing light colored pants. A short time later he returned and those pants were covered in blood. To this day, the memory of those bloody pants is etched upon my mind. When he reached the other side of the bridge he noticed that his shoelace was untied. He stopped and bent down to tie his shoe. As he lifted his head, something hit him in the thigh. His leg immediately began to burn and he noticed a blood stain was beginning to form on his pants. He quickly turned around and raced back home. When his mother and my grandparents examined the wound they found buck shot embedded in his leg. The person that had shot him had been aiming for his head. Thankfully, he had lifted his head just in time to avoid the shot. Though this incident was reported to the police, no charges were ever filed.

Around that same time, a group of young men from our community decided to go camping at Katahdin. Katahdin is a mountain that is located approximately a hundred miles from our community. It’s a ceremonial site for our people and is considered one of our most sacred places. Every year tribal people from across the state do a hundred mile run to honor our connection to this place. On that weekend, while the young men were camping on the mountain, they were found by a group of KKK members and beaten brutally. No one was ever charged or convicted of that crime.

A year later, another tribal member was walking home after drinking in town. As he was walking, he noticed that the police were following him. Though he hadn’t committed any crime, he was afraid of the police because of their known mistreatment of Native people. He began to walk faster and faster, and eventually began running toward the bridge. The police also increased their pace and ran after him. When he realized that he wouldn’t reach the bridge before being caught, he dove into the river, intending to swim to the island. The police shot him in the back and he drowned. The officer that fired the fatal shot was never indicted for the shooting, despite the fact that the victim posed no threat to anyone, had committed no crime, and was unarmed at the time of the incident. All of these incidents framed my idea of what waited for me on the other side of that bridge, so I was more than happy to remain safely inside my community.

When I was 12 years old, I learned that I would have to leave my community and go to school across the bridge. Understandably, I was terrified by the idea. But, I was assured that I would do fine, because I was a straight A student and a good athlete, and both of those things would be valued. I was also informed that I would have to work twice as hard as the other students to get the same grades as they did, because the teachers didn’t believe that Native students were very smart. My grandfather acknowledged that this was unfair, but told me that there wasn’t anything that I could do about it other than to work hard and prove them wrong. When I arrived at the school I worked very hard. I found the material to be interesting and fairly easy and believed that I was doing well. Yet, despite my best efforts and despite having my grandfather check all of my work before it was handed in, I wasn’t able to get a grade above a B or C. I was told by one teacher that it wasn’t my fault, that it was the tribal school that had failed me. He said that the tribal school just didn’t prepare the students to be at the same level as the other students. When I talked to my grandfather about this he assured me that the work that I was doing was just as good as the work being done by other students and that I was properly prepared. He reminded me that I had won a national academic award the year before transitioning and that I had competed with students from all over the country. He asked “how could you have won that award if you weren’t as smart as all of the other kids your age?” He then encouraged me to continue doing my best, regardless of the grades that I was receiving. My grandfather was a Ph.D. and an Associate Dean at the University at the time.

When I reached high school, I learned that Native students were not allowed to register for AP classes, due to the Principal’s belief that “Indians weren’t capable of succeeding in college.” The Principal, in collusion with the guidance counselor, discouraged Native students where possible and refused them when necessary. As a result of their stonewalling, I was forced to leave my local high school, my family and my friends and go to a boarding school in another town. Without the support of my family and friends, and because I felt like there was something wrong with me that led to this forced exile, I wasn’t able to adjust to my new environment and I eventually left the school. I ended up completing my high school education by taking night classes at a school that was closer to home.

While I was in school, I had several friends that were not allowed to associate with me outside of school, because their parents didn’t allow them to associate with Indians. I had other friends that could hang out with me as long as I was at their house. They were never allowed to come to my house, or to be on the rez. Whenever I questioned these decisions, I was told not to make a big deal out of it, to just let it go or their parents would get mad and then we wouldn’t be able to be friends at all. We never discussed their parents underlying fears or misconceptions, or took any steps to address those beliefs or concerns. We just carried on with our lives, because that was the way things were. After I graduated and began college, I ran into a young man that I had gone to school with during those years. While we were catching up, he told me that he had always had a big crush on me in high school, but that he didn’t dare to ask me out. I was surprised to learn that his fears were not based on shyness or the fear of being rejected. Instead, he told me that his fear was based on the fact that I was one of those “wild Indians” and he was afraid of what his parents would think or what his friends might say if he dated me. As he told me this story, it didn’t seem to occur to him to feel bad about it. He never apologized to me for his ridiculous beliefs; he just laughed uncomfortably and changed the subject. I remember being stunned into silence by his comments. I quickly made my excuses and walked away. Later, when I had some time to consider what he had said, I realized that it was this view of the “wild Indian,” coupled with fear of retribution and judgment that was at the heart of another silent tragedy for my people, the rampant victimization and abuse of Native women.

Sherri Mitchell

Sherri Mitchell

As a native woman, I grew up knowing that I was amongst a group of people that was specifically targeted for violent sexual crimes. As a result, I was taught to be overly cautious and to never go anywhere on my own. Statistically, Native women are ten times more likely to be the victims of violent sexual crime than any other group in North America. And, unlike other groups, they are more frequently targeted by those from outside of their racial group. When I was in high school, car loads of young men from the local college would drive onto the rez at night looking for girls that they could pick up and take back to the college. They would then abuse these young women and drop them off at the bridge. Despite numerous complaints, law enforcement did nothing to stop these crimes. As a result, several young men from our community took it upon themselves to protect us. They stood at the end of the bridge and stopped all of the cars entering the community at night. They asked the occupants why they were there and who they were coming to see. If the driver couldn’t give a specific name and address they were turned away. These courageous young men were labeled as troublemakers, bullies and radicals, even by our own people. But, they were none of those things. Instead, they were our true warriors and protectors.

Most of the non-native people that I associated with during my younger years remained oblivious to the reality of the Native students, partly because they weren’t impacted and partly because no one talked about it. People just accepted the status quo. If you talked about it, or stood up to the injustice of it, you were labeled a troublemaker, just like the warriors on the bridge, and people shunned you. We were taught by those who loved us and by those who hated us to keep quiet and accept our reality. If obstacles were thrown in our path it was our responsibility to overcome them. If we had to work twice as hard as the non-native students to get to the same place, then we should just do the work and be thankful that there was a path available for us to get there. And always, we were told that our success would be our reward.

When I look back on that history, I realize that I was part of the problem. I allowed the status quo to remain; I didn’t talk about it; I kept quiet and allowed my life to be disrupted; I allowed people to make me feel less than, and; I allowed those same people to redirect my path again and again. In doing so, I contributed to the perpetuation of the racist beliefs, practices and ideals that framed my reality. When I look at the events connected to Ferguson, I see this same story continuing to unfold. I don’t see a story of guilt or innocence; I don’ see the story of one young black man and one white police officer; I see the entire history of racism in America. And, I see myself in the midst of that story. Then, I realize that I must choose: will I continue to accept the status quo, because this particular incident doesn’t impact my people, or will I acknowledge that this incident impacts us all, and speak truth to the long-standing injustices that have shaped the reality of this country? I choose the latter.

There are many issues that have concerned me about what happened in Ferguson. As an attorney, I am concerned by the lack of adherence to procedure that marred the Grand Jury process, and I’m not alone in my concern. There have been a number of legal scholars and practitioners that have come forward to condemn the way that the Grand Jury was conducted in this case. My concerns regarding the Grand Jury have nothing to do with guilt or innocence. My concerns are focused on the way that the system is often manipulated to the benefit of certain groups and to the detriment of others. There was ample evidence presented to the Grand Jury to indicate that Officer Wilson acted in self-defense. However, there appears to be an equal amount of evidence that was not presented that would suggest otherwise. It is not the job of the Grand Jury to determine guilt or innocence, its purpose is to determine if there is probable cause to prosecute someone for an alleged crime. It is the then the job of a judge and jury to determine guilt or innocence.  Here, we do not get to a determination of guilt or innocence, because the procedures set forth for Grand Juries were not properly followed. This means that the state of Missouri will not be holding a trial to review the facts of this case. Therefore, the many questions surrounding this case may never be answered.

However, that hasn’t stopped the court of public opinion from issuing its own opinion. On social media, the case has become the subject of heated debate. I have noticed that this debate has included a full scale campaign to muddy the image of Michael Brown. Included in this campaign are a series of photos that are intended to portray this young man as a thug, someone operating on the wrong side of the law and thus deserving of his fate. I’m not too concerned with the factual basis of these photos. It is the public response to these photos that I find most disturbing. To date, a number of these photos have been reported to be false. For instance, there is one photo that shows a young man surrounded by alcohol, cash and a gun, sitting at a table, throwing up gang signs. This picture is supposed to be a picture of Michael Brown. Its purpose is to show that he had gang connections and that he was part of the criminal underground in the city. The problem is that this picture is likely not a picture of Michael Brown. The picture being circulated is reportedly a picture of a convicted criminal who only looks like Michael Brown. In addition to the questionable photos, there is also video footage circulating of a large black man, strong arming a store clerk, while stealing tobacco products. This video allegedly shows the robbery that preceded the shooting. Again, the man in the video is reported to be Michael Brown. However, there are reports that the store owner has come forward and stated that Michael Brown was never in his store. Additionally, there are distinct visual difference that can be seen between the man in the video and Michael Brown.  The man in the video is clearly wearing socks and sandals. The pictures of Michael Brown’s sheet draped body clearly show that he was wearing boots when he was shot. Are we to believe that he stopped somewhere on the side of the road to change his shoes before running away from the police? It’s possible that we may never know which of these reports are accurate. But, as I stated above, I don’t think that’s the biggest problem. To me, the problem is not the conflicting images or conflicting stories surrounding this particular incident. The problem is with the deep seated beliefs that continue to shape public opinion. The public is willing to believe that the man in the video is Michael Brown, even though the pictures of Michael Brown’s body clearly show that he was wearing boots and not sandals. The public is also willing to believe that the picture being circulated of the convicted criminal is Michael Brown, despite all evidence presented to the contrary. They are willing to overlook both of these discrepancies because they have been conditioned to view all young black men the same, as a threat to society.

This isn’t a new problem. This country was founded on practices of genocide and slavery. These horrific practices were made palatable to society through campaigns that painted Native Americans and African Americans as subhuman savages.  The European “founders” fully believed that genocide and slavery were their ordained right.

When they arrived here, they were operating on centuries of racist indoctrination that resulted in the slaughter and enslavement of millions. Through centuries of indoctrination into principles of conquest, the Europeans had come to believe that it was not only their right, but their obligation to slaughter and enslave other people; to take away their freedoms, their lands and their possessions. These beliefs had been commonplace for more than three hundred years when the first settlers stepped foot onto this land. They were well-accepted social practices and they were also deeply embedded into religious doctrine.

After hundreds of years of indoctrination, these barbaric practices didn’t simply disappear overnight. Yes, the form changed after decades of debate, and only when it was determined that it would be politically unwise to do otherwise. But, those changes did not result from a massive paradigm shift in thinking; they resulted from the work of a small portion of the population and the survival instinct of a seated politician. The underlying beliefs that led to those practices remained; they lingered in the hearts and minds of the larger society, who had been convinced through centuries of indoctrination that they were correct. Therefore, when the dust settled, those still opposed to those changes assassinated the politician that had forced the change on them. Thereafter, these beliefs have continued to hold sway over large portions of the population. And, they have continued to manifest in multiple forms of oppression and subjugation of those same populations. Though undeniable progress has been made, there is still a reality that exists for people of color that is deeply rooted in these archaic beliefs of the past. There still exists a tangible thread of fear and animus that is aimed at people of color. This is why people of color are 20-25 times more likely to be arrested or targeted for violent crime than the white population. This statistic isn’t an opinion. It is a fact. And, it is this fact that is at the heart of the issues in Ferguson. At its core, this uprising is about the lingering beliefs of a society that was built on principles of conquest. Until we are willing to look at that truth, these events will continue to occur.

It is the obligation of all those who wish to live in a just society to ensure that these practices of colonial conquest come to an end. The only way that this happens is if we, as a global society, are able to acknowledge our biases and look critically at the issues before us. If we allow the divisive tactics of the few to take away the ability of the many to think critically then we will continue to be enslaved. As my friend, D.J. Vanas says, they won’t need to create any walls or boundaries if they can keep us enslaved on the reservation of the mind. I think it’s time that we all take a step back and look honestly at our collective history, so that we can work collectively to heal our future. If you can’t see the larger issues being presented here then you, my friend, are part of the problem.

Sherri Mitchell is citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation. She is an Indigenous rights attorney, writer and teacher. You can follow her work on Facebook or on twitter @sacred411

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