Monday, August 18, 2014

The Protests in Ferguson

Over the last week, I've been reading headlines and looking at photos of the situation in Ferguson, and also noticing just how many people around me seem to be following it, too.  A friend who doesn't talk much about the news brought the situation up to me, and my first thought was, "but this is western New York," as if what's going on there is a local problem.  

Clearly it's not, and the discussion of using National Guard forces illustrates that strongly.  Before that came up, though, the different headlines, the timeline of events on Buzzfeed, the discussion of whether the president would comment, the fact that he did, and a lot more showed that the situation there affects a lot of people, in a lot of places.  Maybe it's partly that the pictures of police in military-looking gear and vehicles dovetails with the discussions of government power and control ramped up by the Snowden leaks, and partly that the townwide clash between police and, I think, mostly peaceful protesters just hasn't happened very often in a long time.  But some of it, maybe the heart of it, comes back to the situation brought forcefully home by the Facebook-shared line drawing of Michael Brown's body with the six bullet holes--an African-American kid shot by a police officer, again, and the strong possibility, again, of nothing being done about it.  

I say "again," but I actually know almost nothing about the history of police brutality, aside from it being an ongoing problem with a very strong racial component.  But I tend to stick with statistics, to scroll down headlines, to shy away from the stories and the portraits that might make these situations hurt more.  And that has a numbing and distancing effect, as the Ferguson police might have known when they ordered media out of the city, and as the Bush administration must have known when they tried to ban images of flag-draped coffins coming back from the war.  The portraits, even of symbols like those, the bodies under them hidden, and the stories behind them, get us, or at least me, to feel for the situation and the people in it, to identify with it to some extent, and to want to do something to change it.  

That also has brought me up short in the last week--the pictures of people, in a time that can feel so dominated by distance, by the hand-held device, and by the safety and convenience provided by both, actually protesting in the actual streets.  And the question of whether that can still have an effect, in a time when distance and convenience are easy to come by, gets answered, for me, by how much it unsettles certain people.  The Fox News anchor interviewing Jesse Jackson suggests that the protests are a distraction from figuring out what really happened to Brown, and what should be done about it.  The predictable depictions of the protests as flimsy covers for looters come up.  And, again and again, images come of the cloudscapes of tear gas, the one with the figure crouching against their billows and the ones of the police as cut-outs, gas-masked silhouettes, marching through them.  The protesting works because it's face to face, because the protesters are leaving their screens behind.  

It's easy for me to get that distance and that convenience, not just from stories far away, but ones closer to home, but, this week, I'm also reminded that the technology in my life has no inherent effect on that, one way or the other.  I can use it to step back from things, but also to move in closer.  I notice the difference when, like the protesters, I feel like I have to reach across to someone, say something, ask why if need be, and make that contact, bring that intimacy that has and needs no screen.  


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