Ferguson and Related Protests Come to Knoxville

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

Recently, the racial protests that have spread across the country starting in Ferguson, Missouri  have arrived in Knoxville. The first, after the grand jury declined to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, started as a rally at the John Duncan Building, processed along Gay Street, blocking it briefly, before holding another rally on Market Square. Another shut down Cumberland briefly last week. On Friday night a rally and march disrupted some of the parade goers at the Christmas parade before concluding, again on Market Square. Some commuters and parade goers have been angry at the interruptions, but the police have been very low key and matters haven’t escalated.

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

Counter-Protester, First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

Counter-Protester, First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

The first thing that struck me when I arrived at the original rally was the size of the crowd. Conservatively around 125, I’ve rarely seen any other cause draw that many people in Knoxville. The next thing was the intensity. It felt different than other protests I’ve witnessed. Shouting slogans about “racist police,” and saying without Justice they will “shut it down,” they proceeded to do just that to Gay Street. Chanting, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” and other slogans, eventually, various speakers talked of systemic oppression. Both groups roughly reflected the population of Knoxville: probably 80% or so white.

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

A counter demonstrator at the Duncan Bldg. told me, “It wasn’t racist until the black people made it racist. The grand jury spoke. When blacks commit crimes against whites it isn’t called racist.” Another counter-demonstrator, dressed in what appeared to be middle-eastern attire of some sort, disrupted the moment of silence, waving a Bible and saying that those gathered were going to hell and that “God is going to destroy this country through Jesus Christ.”

We have a hard time having certain conversations in this country. Having a productive conversation without name-calling about politics has become the exception. The person who disagrees with you is a “socialist,” a “racist,” a “libtard,” a “neanderthal conservative,” “redneck,” “nazi,” “communist,” or some other name. When I posted a couple of photographs of the first rally on FB – without personal comment – the names flew. The protesters are “media whores,” “sheep,” and “dumbasses.” One person posted a fake photograph purporting to be Michael Brown with a gun and money. When it was pointed out to be fake, she didn’t back down, nor seem to have any regret at the original post.

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

For reasons they did not make clear, many people on Facebook brought up Channon Christian and Chris Newsom, asking “where was the outrage and media coverage when that happened?” My memory says both were constant and palpable, but beyond the fact that they were white and their murderers black, what’s the connection? Their killers were civilians charged and put in prison. Michael Brown’s was a policeman who will never go to trial.

If there is a specific topic we have the most difficulty discussing in a positive way, it is race. We don’t even have acceptable words. “African-American” is clunky and does it really apply to everyone who is included? “Caucasian” is similarly clunky and sounds either politically correct or hopelessly outdated depending on your perspective. “Black” and “White” are the easiest and that’s what I’ll use in this article, but that doesn’t really cover the various shades that make up our community and country.

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

It’s a topic that most people, certainly white people, don’t want to discuss. Often racism is proclaimed an artifact of history by whites and declared a daily reality by many blacks. Despite our discomfort in having the conversation, our history dictates that it won’t go away easily. Depending on how you look at individual cases, slavery began in the colonial United States in the early to mid 1600s. Taking the latter mark, that means it was legal to own black people in this country for about 200 years. That was followed by another hundred years of legally sanctioned racism. But did it end in 1964? From that point forward have black people in the United States had the same opportunity as people who are white?

Here are some disturbing differences in racial realities in the U.S. today:

Race/incarceration Facts

  • The US has the second highest incarceration rate in the world behind only Seychelles, which has a population of less than 100,000. The US imprisons 707 people per 100,000. The next country down the list to which we would like to be compared (IE, more or less modern, industrialized, democratic) is Scotland at #104 with an incarceration rate of 146 per 100,000, or about a fifth of our rate.
  • In the last year for which I found figures (2012), the US executed 43 people. Four countries executed more:  China, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The only other countries in the world to execute more than ten: Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan. Are these countries with which we are proud to be associated? We are the only government in South or North America to execute anyone and in Europe only Belarus employed the death penalty.

So, we incarcerate and execute more people than most of the world. What does that have to do with race? Here you go:

  • 13.6 % of our population is black, while 42 % of prisoners on death row are black. Since 1976 34% of those executed in the US have been black. The GAO found that studies overwhelmingly support that a white victim is more likely to produce murder charges  and the death penalty. Source: Here
  • Blacks represent 13.6% of the US population but 34% of the prison population.
  • According to the US Department of Justice, blacks accounted for 72.5% of homicide offenders from 1980 to 2008, with whites 25.3% and Native Americans and Asians 2.2%. The offending rate for blacks was almost 8 times higher than whites, and the victim rate 6 times higher. Most murders were intraracial: 84% of white homicide victims murdered by whites, and 93% of black victims murdered by blacks.[32][33]
  • “Prison sentences of black men were nearly 20% longer than those of white men for similar crimes in recent years. . . “
  • 10 % of whites live in poverty while 27% of blacks live in poverty.
  • “The #1 cause of death for black males between 15 – 34 is murder. “Compared to other ethnicities, the numbers really stand out. Forty percent of African-American males 15-34 who died were murdered, according to the CDC, compared to just 3.8 percent of white males who died.”
Counter-Protester, First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

Counter-Protester, First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

First Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, November 2014

So, put it all together and in a country that imprisons and executes more of its citizens than any other industrialized, democratic country in the world, a disproportionate number by far are black. If you are a black male, your chances of imprisonment are vastly higher than that for white males. If you are young, you are much more likely to be murdered than a white male. If you are a murdered black person, there is a 93% chance your murderer is black. If you are a murdered white person, there is a 84% chance your killer is white. If you are black, you have a 1 in 4 chance of living in poverty in this country. If you are white you only have a ten percent chance.

So, those are the facts. But that’s where it gets interesting. What are your beliefs about these facts? Are Americans generally worse behaved than the rest of the world so that we have to be imprisoned at much greater rates? If we aren’t worse, then what is the explanation? Taking it to the racial question, what do the statistics mean? Are black people worse in general than white people? More likely to be poor because they are lazy or make bad decisions? Or is it something in the system? For many white people it is uncomfortable to say out loud that black people are worse, but they also don’t want to say the system is racist. What’s the third option?

Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, December 5, 2014

Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, December 5, 2014

Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, December 5, 2014

Ferguson Rally and March, Knoxville, December 5, 2014

So, Michael Brown gets killed and draws attention, not only to police officers and black men, but the whole question of what is wrong with race in this country? The officer says it was warranted, that Michael Brown reached into his car and hit him and he felt he had no choice but to shoot him eight times. That satisfied the grand jury and the officer will not be tried. That was followed by other incidents – not coincidentally, but because they aren’t uncommon and now we are paying attention. Eric Garner dies in New York City at the hands of police after being confronted for selling illegal cigarettes and is video-taped as he dies saying, “I can’t breathe.” Once again, the officer isn’t indicted.

So, what happens next? I’m not sure. I wish all this would lead to a dialogue about why black people in this country are more poor, less educated, more likely to kill and be killed, but I’m not very optimistic that will happen. We just don’t seem to have the language or the will to have the conversation. Just this simple article with little more than facts and a few questions has likely made many of you uncomfortable and some of you angry.

Whatever your perspective on all of this, surely we can all agree there is some sort of problem and that would be progress. It’s hard to make a case that everything is fine. And if we agree there is a problem, can we have a civil discourse as to what it might be and how to improve the situation? A first indication may be the responses here and on the Facebook page. I’d like to think it is possible.

You will find about 100 additional photographs of these marches here.

Comments

  1. Renee Hoyos says

    You are a brave person to bring this up. Thank you for this post. Race is such a painful topic. I’ve been noticing a lot of posting on Facebook about the protests here and the comments haven’t been compassionate or civil.

    I don’t have anything to add to your thorough assessment of race and priviledge. Like all issues we must be vigilant. While slavery and Jim Crow are behind us, there are still chilling inequities both in our system and our culture.

    To those who are upset the Christmas parade was interrupted, I’m sorry it made you uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s time to pay attention to what is going on with fellow Americans and work together so we can have an equitable society. Perhaps that is really the best way to spend the holidays.

  2. Thank you for the article. The statistics are very worrisome and I don’t mean that in a trite way. I agree there is a problem and long for civil discourse.

  3. Leticia Flores says

    I second Rene’s comment- I am so glad you posted this piece, as touchy as it may be. I attended the last protest. I chanted some but not all of the chants, because some were not true. Cops are not uniformly racist, and I appreciate their efforts and sacrifices 99% of the time. Protests by necessity simplify these very complex issues- we chant slogans, not dialogues. But I attended because I wanted the young people of color to see that others empathize with their anger and confusion and frustration. I am actually pretty happy to see so many protests in town- they cause some annoyance but don’t actually hurt anything, and it shows that people are listening, watching and paying attention and participating in the world around them. Now, if we can just get these folks to keep paying attention in the weeks and months ahead, and volunteer for a cause, write to their representatives, and stay engaged….that will be the hard part.

  4. Thank you for covering this event. I am so proud to see several familiar faces out there in the crowd, taking this fight public. As white people, it is our duty to our friends of all races to listen right now to what the people around us are saying about their experiences. It’s also our duty to call out racism where we see it. We have privilege, we need to use it.

    I wrote about my thoughts on race the night of the Ferguson grand jury announcement. I hope you don’t mind me sharing it here. http://www.domesticdisturbia.com/2014/coming-out-of-the-dark/

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