Professors lead discussion on Ferguson shooting, race and constitutional rights

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By Kim Bolduc

On Wednesday, September 17, the history and political science departments held a discussion on the constitutional implications of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

September 17 marked Union’s annual recognition of Constitution Day, which is an American celebration of the prideful legacy of the United States government.

This year’s topic focused on the constitutional issues that underlaid the two weeks of protest and civil unrest in Ferguson.

On August 22, 2014, police shot and killed Michael Brown, a black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo.

Many people believed the shooting was the result of racism and class prejudice. They protested against the police, but were put down with aggressive tactics.

Wednesday, Professors Brad Hays, Kenneth Aslakson and Deidre Hill Butler led a discussion about how the events in Ferguson revealed greater constitutional issues.

Professor Hays opened the evening by outlining the context of the situation in Ferguson.

Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, is not unique in terms of its demographics or class structure, as it includes poorer areas and more affluent neighborhoods.

Yet, 86 percent of Ferguson police stops are directed toward African Americans, 92 percent of police searches focus on African Americans and 95 percent of police arrests target African Americans.

However, African Americans are less likely to have contraband worthy of police attention.

These statistics suggest a culture of racial profiling and disrespect, as well as raising questions about the limits of authority.

These questions become especially pertinent when considering the violence perpetuated by police against peaceful protesters on the streets of Ferguson.

Professor Aslakson addressed the root of the prejudice in Ferguson. “It’s not all on race, but it’s a lot about the face,” he said.

Both race and class play into the overarching theme behind the Ferguson controversy: the subdivision of citizens into those that deserve protection and those that are threats to society.

This dichotomy results in two communities that exist solely in the eyes of the authorities, or those tasked with protecting Americans.

In this way, Ferguson relates to the Constitution differently than the controversies of notorious cases like Dred Scott, Brown v. Board of Education or Plessy v. Ferguson.

Those cases dealt with limits on the states’ powers.

However, the issues at hand in Ferguson are limitations on policing power and double-standards on gun rights and race that result in the perception that young black men are more likely to be armed.

Following up on the topic of constitutional history, Professor Brad Hays addressed two constitutional traditions that are useful in the context of Ferguson.

He spoke of the tradition of the Supreme Court as the body tasked with interpreting the Constitution for the general populace.

While this is not necessarily a failure in the American system, it does ignore the second tradition: the people as the wellspring of legitimacy.

Both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., believed that the Constitution itself and the Supreme Court’s rulings on the Constitution only gained their power from the people’s acceptance of their legitimacy.

In this view, the Constitution is not the ultimate, unquestionable authority; it is a working docuzment that is meant be continually corrected.

In Ferguson, legality and personal interpretation of the Constitution have clashed.

Protestors, who believe in their right to freely assemble, have exercised their civic rights, while police officers, knowing that constitutional rights have limitations, have exercised their legal rights.

How can we deal with this conflict between citizens and the authorities?

Both Professor Hays and Professor Hill Butler pointed to a reduction in police authority, a limitation on aggressive tactics and a new culture of respect and dignity for all American citizens who are, by definition, protected by the same laws.

Professor Deidre Hill Butler, an eyewitness to some of the Ferguson demonstrations, gave an account of hundreds of people traveling to Ferguson to participate in a memorial service for Michael Brown.

She described lines of cars with license plates from all around the country. All were streaming in to pay their peaceful respects to the grieving family.

After the professors’ closing remarks, the floor was opened to the audience.

One student spoke of her experiences at a gathering held in New York City in honor of Michael Brown.

She questioned the training of police officers, which taught them to see fellow citizens as threats.

Another student pointed to the removal of people from the social contract and the militarization of police as one of the key issues of the Ferguson controversy.

On the same trend, one student wondered how to eradicate harmful laws in order to change prejudiced minds.

All three professors pointed to individual awareness, the opening of one’s mind and the engagement with others in the discussion of controversial issues to find solutions.

The evening held true to this philosophy, as young minds pondered how to change their seemingly flawed system.

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