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Truth-Telling and Ferguson  

by Sarah Stankorb

February 19, 2015
Protest at the Ferguson Police Department. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

“Ferguson” has become shorthand for police brutality without indictment. It is idiomatic for injustice, for protest (violent and nonviolent), for segregation. The city of Ferguson is now treated as the epicenter for racial injustice in this country, although, of course, Ferguson’s injustices are not unique. Its scars reflect those of many American cities, really. But as that community attempts to heal, perhaps it can offer a path toward transformation.

“There’s a short memory in the American psyche. People don’t remember that people’s parents lived in segregated America—some communities are still de facto segregated,” says David Ragland, a leader of the Truth Telling Project. Ragland, a North St. Louis native who researches peace studies and human rights as a professor at Bucknell University, has been part of a group of activists creating safe spaces—often in living rooms throughout Ferguson—for people to discuss racial and economic segregation and their own experiences with such injustice. It’s a way of hearing those who have been silenced by society.

The techniques of the Truth Telling Project are not quite new; they are based on the truth and reconciliation processes employed by the South African government and headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. North Carolina had a truth and reconciliation process after the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, and Canada likewise used truth and reconciliation to address the legacy of its Indian residential schools. The Truth Telling Project has gathered input from members of the Greensboro Commission, the Peruvian commissions, and the International Center for Transnational Justice, says Ragland, “essentially to learn how this process works in the United States.”

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped bridge the transition from apartheid to finding the state itself responsible for human rights violations. But as Ragland points out, in South Africa, “the structural change is slow—the structural change is always slow.” For now, the Truth Telling Project in Ferguson is beginning as an independent, community-led process, with people telling their stories amongst those who can be quiet and listen—those who can consider “the possibility that their lives are much different than yours,” as Ragland puts it.

Truth telling commissions endeavor to document systemic crimes that may seem invisible to those not suffering from them. Participants share often-painful stories of how injustice has impacted their lives so that it may resonate with those untouched by such crimes. “When a mother shares her story about her son’s death,” says Ragland, “she's providing specificity and stories and experiences that every mother can connect to.”

The Truth Telling Project is consciously choosing to begin these discussions in so-called safe spaces in Ferguson. “Folks in these communities, in my communities, are often reliving this trauma every day,” says Ragland. As a result the group focuses on “telling the story in a structured situation with the beloved community surrounding you and the presence of councilors and clergy.” He hopes to eventually include police in these gatherings, “but not yet.”

Starting March 13 in St. Louis, there will be a Truth Telling Weekend, where storytellers and community leaders from all over the country will offer their own experiences with police brutality, racism, and poverty, as well as solutions that worked in their neighborhoods. The event is designed to bring together the truths of Ferguson with similar realities shared throughout the U.S., initiate local projects that reflect human rights, and, perhaps, beginning structural change.

In so far as the horror of Michael Brown’s death shook the nation, his body left in the road for hours, that wrongdoing is specific to Ferguson. But as the slayings of Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, and Tamir Rice demonstrate, young black people are frequently beaten and killed by police, and they have been for generations. As Human Rights Watch put it, “Police brutality is one of the most serious, enduring, and divisive human rights violations in the United States.”

But as Ragland sees it, “My understanding is that often the police are scapegoats for what the larger society believes. The larger society allows police to behave in this way.” Ragland points to insidious systems of injustice and segregation that make it difficult for part of the population to do anything from buy groceries to interact with cops, and cause police officers like Darren Wilson to be afraid while on the job. “Because they don’t live with the people they police, they see them as ‘other,’ and no amount of training has been able to help that,” says Ragland.

The consequences are dire: black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men and 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white counterparts. In the neighborhood where Ragland grew up, Kajieme Powell, age 25, black, and mentally disturbed, was shot and killed by St. Louis police in August. “They got out of the car with guns drawn, never any attempt to stabilize him, or shoot for his leg, or calm him down. It was a murder,” says Ragland.

Ragland was in Ferguson the night the grand jury announced it would not indict Wilson. The mood was caustic; the police donned new riot gear. “As the police closed in, the words of a chant that has inspired this movement from the beginning clearly cut through the cold air that night, ‘the whole damn system is guilty as hell,’” wrote Ragland for Tikkun, with fellow social justice professor Arthur Romano. The chant pointed to generations of guilt and trauma. It was Ferguson’s pain, but it came from everywhere.

In other countries, truth commissions have been used to document the reality of genocide, crimes against humanity, torture. It’s a process that can aim at reconciliation and fostering a way of honestly living together despite a deep history riddled with horrors. It’s one method of recovering from a situation in which the system is guilty as hell.

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