Magazine Feature

Ferguson, U.S.A.

Hardships faced by communities in crisis are national issues worth teaching.
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Illustration by Matt Duffin

The August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown upended the suburban town of Ferguson, Missouri, and sent ripples of shock, fear, pain, anger and uncertainty across the country. Many educators and students learned of the tragedy as they were preparing to start a new school year—a school year delayed by over a week for K-12 students in the Midwestern suburb.

Since that summer, more police-related deaths (including John Crawford, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, Philando Castile—all men or boys of color), controversial grand jury decisions and countless demonstrations across the country have collectively signaled a need for national dialogue about how identity affects outcomes when African Americans encounter law enforcement. 

Despite sharp differences of opinion surrounding these high-profile deaths—and the outcomes of the subsequent legal proceedings—one thing is clear: U.S. schools were radically unaligned in their responses. Some districts supported teaching about the incidents; others ordered educators not to discuss the events at all. 

Regardless of the support or obstacles they encountered, teachers all over the country searched for resources to help themselves and their students make sense of what was happening. These educators recognized that that Ferguson, Dayton, Staten Island and Cleveland are American cities, and that the inequities and violence that occurred there reflect biases and systems of oppression that harm citizens across the country every day—including the children of color sitting in their own classrooms. 

Moreover, the deaths of these men and boys remain moments ripe for teaching: about how media outlets cover clashes between civilians and law enforcement; about the criminalization of communities of color; about contrasting definitions of civil liberties; about the tensions that exist within our national dialogue about race; and about how all of these issues influence the long march for freedom and equality.  

Teaching Tolerance selected three approaches to thinking and talking about the events of summer and fall 2014 that are particularly relevant to educators—as practitioners in the classroom and as citizens who care about all communities. 


Supports and Silences

Between the mainstream news and social media coverage, it has been almost impossible for schools not to respond in some way to the tensions surrounding the Brown, Crawford, Garner and Rice cases. Many educators immediately responded to the need for materials that could help break through the confusion and pain and allow teachers to understand and explain the systems and dynamics surrounding each loss and the subsequent reactions.

After Michael Brown was killed, Dr. Marcia Chatelain, an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, created the #FergusonSyllabus Twitter campaign. Educators, activists, social commentators and other contributors used the hashtag to build a crowd-sourced set of suggested readings, discussion topics and classroom activities related to Brown’s death and the subsequent protests. 

In District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), the development of teaching materials focused instead on preparing teachers to take on such painful topics. Chancellor Kaya Henderson recognized that many educators needed support, particularly when discussing race and racial hierarchy with students, so she asked Dr. Robert Simmons, chief of innovation and research for DCPS, to write a teacher’s guide. The result of his work is a publication titled “Preparing to Discuss Michael Brown in the Classroom.” 

As Simmons explains, “There are multiple levers in this document that really help teachers think critically, but also think through their own bias, their own perspective around identity [and] police brutality.” These levers include suggestions for framing classroom conversations using democratic principles, techniques for gauging students’ emotional responses and steps to encourage informed social action.

Yet, in many classrooms, the response to the deaths of Brown, Crawford, Garner and Rice was silence. Educators who shied away from these events often did so because they didn’t have the kind of professional support that Henderson and Simmons offered their colleagues—training in how to address systemic racism and privilege. Many teachers became stymied by conflicting viewpoints offered ubiquitously on news programs and social media. In one version of the narrative, the victims bore responsibility for their deaths by virtue of their questionable behavior, and race was irrelevant to the outcome. In the other, law enforcement is a component of a larger system that criminalizes black Americans and routinely devalues their lives. The fact that both viewpoints are held so strongly in the United States is, in and of itself, a critical conversation for educators to engage in with students—and an ideal opportunity to practice perspective-taking. 

I could be Mike Brown. Any one of us could be. And that he didn’t just die in vain, that people all over the world are speaking out against the way we get treated, shows me that people care.

Protests and vigils calling for acknowledgement of police brutality and immediate reforms in policy and training occurred continuously throughout fall 2014, peaking with the grand jury decisions in the Brown and Garner cases. Some were spontaneous; others—like the “die-ins” that occurred in countless locations nationwide—were highly coordinated. But a subset of every group of protesters broadcast its message via social media and received messages of support back. Expressions of solidarity came from coast to coast and beyond. Reform-minded individuals from as far away as Asia and Europe expressed support and outrage, and even offered advice on how to survive being tear gassed.

Dr. Kimberly C. Ellis, author of the forthcoming book The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter, explains how these online tools made it possible for events that happened in a small, little-known town like Ferguson to rise to international attention almost instantly.

“Allyship—particularly white allyship—along with global engagement made this issue of police brutality a global phenomenon,” she said. 

Even young people who were not directly involved in protests used social media to express how the incidents affected them. Teachers like Xian Barrett used Twitter to encourage their students to practice succinct communication about their emotions following the Garner decision. “I think most of the youth can see that an essay they write gets seen by one or maybe 30 people if you do peer sharing, but a tweet can be seen by thousands,” said Barrett. “That motivates them.”

The ongoing virtual commentary angered some people and empowered others. But regardless of the feelings it provoked, the prevalence of social media as a tool for logistical communication, solidarity and collective action-taking is a force that educators, media researchers and activists alike acknowledge as game-changing. 

Although they bear startling resemblances to moments of the past, such as the protests in Watts in 1965 and in Los Angeles in 1992, after the acquittal of the four police officers tried for beating Rodney King, many moments of the summer and fall of 2014 could be described as game-changing. These moments sparked an urgent desire for change in a generation often described as apathetic, and demanded conversations about race in an era many describe as post-racial. 

For educators, these moments brought intense challenges as well as vital opportunities. For many young people, it changed the way they saw the world.

T.J., a teenager currently living and attending school in Ferguson, feels that the events in her community have fundamentally changed her life. “I could be Mike Brown. Any one of us could be,” she says. “And that he didn’t just die in vain, that people all over the world are speaking out against the way we get treated, shows me that people care.” 

Living History

Several parallels can be drawn between the recent protests and moments in the U.S. civil rights movement, a fact that can help educators address this difficult material in the classroom. 


Consider how these approaches to thinking about contemporary civil unrest are relevant in the context of civil rights history. How did segregation and violence affect schools and students in the 1950s and ‘60s? How did civil rights leaders use the Constitution to further their legal battles? How did protesters communicate? What role did state-enacted violence play in the events? What role did the media play? Educators can use questions like these to connect the past to the present and show students that social movements are possible in today’s world. 


To learn more about teaching the civil rights movement—past and present—see our publication The March Continues: Five Essential Practices for Teaching the Movement, as well as our professional development resource Civil Rights Done Right: A Tool for Teaching the Movement.

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