Word on the Street: Ferguson and UVA in our crosshairs

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Lee Baker, professor at Duke University, describes the distinction between sociology and anthropology. He states that, in the early 20th century, anthropology was distinguished from sociology by an understanding that anthropologists study people and things that are “out of the way.” Sociology, he argues, studies things “in the way.”

Indeed, sociology must be praised for its ability to stand in the gap for peoples who are overtly oppressed and ostracized within the United States. However, although aloof, anthropology has been wise to maintain the importance of ensuring that stories of human tragedy and suffering throughout the world are parts of larger narratives of sociality that span human experience. Anthropologists study race, indigeneity, gender, and other universal human ideas across national lines and within a largely global and trans-human context. That is why, at the beginning of most introductory anthropology classes, you will probably see videos of some ape or gorilla along side stories of far away lands. Anthropology, by and large, is the stranging (“queering” is a popular term today) of most anything. Anthropologists make things strange so that, in that strangeness, we can begin new conversations about human realities.

That’s why I’m interested to hear how anthropologists respond to the current proliferation of events in Ferguson, MO and the strange ways that the ebbs and flows of violence (between police and black men, for example) dance with other major events in the early 21st century in the United States. Watching the news media in these last two weeks, for example, we have heard very little about the “war on terror.” In fact, in the midst of the tension in Ferguson, the U.S. Secretary of Defense left his office.

We also haven’t heard from alternative places of oppression. For example, we don’t see signs in the midst of the Ferguson riots from “Gays for Ferguson.” We don’t see rallies of Native Americans against the rage of police terror against Black men in Ferguson and in many other cities across the United States (although much of this violence mirrors what was happening to Native Americans up until the 1990s). We don’t see hospitals in America placing posters on their doors asking for there to be “Justice for Mike Brown”, even though practically every hospital argues that it is the site and source of “health” and “wellness” for its clientele. (Walgreens…is the “corner of happy and healthy” in Ferguson?)

Where is the unification between different oppressed peoples? Well, different types of oppression often have dissimilar access to “the system.” My friend texted me a great quote from a radio station in Southern California in the midst of the Ferguson Riots: “White rage is in the system. Black rage is in the streets.” This is excellent! But I would modify it a bit. Certain people are able to “rage” in the system. Other people are forced to rage in the streets. We can’t always base this location of rage on race or other normalized categories. For example, we know, post-Katrina, that certain Black peoples had access to certain resources and influence when other poor Black peoples became victims of chronic displacement.

Nevertheless, it seems like West Florissant isn’t the only street in America that is being defaced in protest. Lakota youth in the Dakotas and Lumbee youth in North Carolina are patrolling their community spaces with spray paint and guns. Protestors at the University of Virginia march down fraternity row to bring attention to rape.

And it is important to see how tentacles of “the system” reach into “the streets” during these moments. In Ferguson, police, missionaries, and humanitarians are face to face with the realities of the urban ghetto everyday. Deans at America’s universities attempt to preserve fraternity life while they assuage raped women after decades of silence. What we see in the streets of Ferguson – as evidenced by the decoration of local police and military as peacekeeping forces (see picture above) – is a conversation between the streets and the system. What we see in the streets in the University of Virginia – as evidenced by strange gestures toward the safety of female students – is a conversation between the streets and the system.

Battling against Molotov cocktails that are thrown from “agitators” that look for a place to express grievances. Defending the reputation of UVA against Rolling Stone articles that shed light on fraternity row and the legacy of oppression at UVA. The streets are alive and well.

We do need to save Black men from the terror of police in their neighborhoods. We do need to save vulnerable women from being raped in fraternities. However, I would argue that post-Reaganomics frameworks about the need to fix the streets dismiss the extreme value of the streets. The streets in Ferguson remain a space where White power, cloaked as militarism, is continuously identified (the amount of video footage of police brutality on the internet is astounding!). The streets of UVA remain a place where White power, cloaked as “liberal arts,” is questioned like never before.

So as we wonder why Ferguson was the wick that ignited an explosion of protests across the United States, perhaps we should consider what we (anthropologists) don’t understand about the importance of the streets around and between our academic homes. Sociologists get it a little better than we do sometimes. However, sociologists can profit from conversations with us. As they (sociologists) are more inclined to be “in the streets,” we (anthropologists) can help them become more conscious of the topography.

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