Law enforcement ignorant of communication methods in Ferguson, Missouri

In the August 22, 2014 issue of the Austin Chronicle, Jim Hightower writes in his column that there are lessons we can learn from the past and ongoing events in the estranged community of Ferguson, Missouri. To use his words, the way the local police department marshalled their forces, in an “infuriating” manner, against their own citizens. The gulf between African-American residents and in what is basically a European-America faction who support Officer Wilson who shot an unarmed Michael Brown six times. To add to the indignity of how Michael Brown was killed, as well as his age, ethnicity, and class, after Michael Brown was shot, authorities allowed his body to lay in the middle of the street for a number of hours; this to me is the height of disrespect.

A similar dynamic went down in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the city. Many of the hard hit areas were areas where African-Americans and other persons of color lived. Sadly, first responders didn’t make it to many homes to identify bodies in any kind of timely fashion, in a respectable way, or failed even to come. Police, themselves, appeared to use this incident as a pass for vigilantism, and criminal actions against many persons-of-color in that city.

Yes, we can learn from the experience of the Ferguson Police Department, primarily how not to quell violence, what has worked and what hasn’t worked, what methods of reconciliation & integration have been useful? Police officers dressed out in combat gear is seen as an occupying enemy. The irony in this is that practically all the personnel on the police force are white, in a town two-thirds African-Americans. So they are the local representatives of a white, male system that employs a military force; the police department is only one representative of Institutional Racism that continues to perpetuate the use of military equipment, armaments, and racism within the community.

My undergrad work in the field of Communication Studies, and graduate work in Counseling Methodologies helped me to develop a good platform for practical communication. What factors does effective communication hold in its hand? Language, choice of language, grammatical tools, etymology, learning how to be a better listener, learning how to read environmental, social, emotional, intellectual, social contexts in which the communication unfolds, projection of biases, ignorance, perceptions of both encoder & decoder, peer influence, & genetic components.

One component of communication that greatly influences the way communication happens or goes down, of which the Ferguson Police apparently were unaware, is called Object Language. Object Language is comprised of aspects of verbal or visual communication, as well as non-verbal elements such as clothing, architecture, what kind of car someone drives, the music we prefer, and direct or indirect behaviors. If there are consistent patterns of these and other elements over time, we can infer certain ideas or messages are in the process of being communicated.

Let’s look at an example: suppose you attend a school where the textbooks are inferior, old, & beaten up, or unavailable. The school, inside & out, has paint peeling off the walls, and broken-up concrete sidewalks; each classroom has windows that have been painted over with black paint. So the lighting is poor in all of the rooms, and the blackened windows keep out sunshine an overcast day may psychologically effect people, and cause some depression with it. It presents a darkened and morbid environment where students feel repressed and demoralized.

If resources are slim, and these problems are never fixed, what does this kind of Object Language say to both students & staff? The clear message is: we don’t really care that much about you—you’re going to have to make-do with you have right now (the implicit message is indifference & lack of caring concern from the encoders of this kind of communication. If they really cared, they’d find some way to improve the students’ learning environment, wouldn’t they?

In contemporary, American society, there has been a trend to move to militarization by law enforcement agencies. This may move a police function from that of protect & serve, to shoot & ask questions later. In communities of color, there has been, for a very long, long time, a basic mistrust of the police by the community. They are often viewed as ‘the enemy,’ so there has often been no basis for everyone coming to the table to advocate for their own issues & and collaborate across boundaries for the higher good of the community. Trust, as a process, often is flawed & unworkable.

The reason the militarization of police agencies is even alive & well is that the Federal government has become one of the main providers of military gear, weaponry, and tactical technology such as tanks and Humvees; they are doled out to police departments through a special program in the Federal government. The Federal government is a colluder & commiserates in the new militarism now waking & sticking its head out of the sand!

One recommendation is insuring that all personnel on the Ferguson Police Department receive Cultural Competency Skill-Building training, using a Best Practices model, such as the one used by The Center for the Healing of Racism, Houston, Texas, in a regular & consistent cycle of theory & practice. As with any kind of mandatory training for any group, some officers will feel it’s a waste of time. But, incrementally, there will hopefully be phases of training so teach a general understanding of workable cognitive & behavior interventions that all officers can use in their work. The goal would be for a greater sensitivity & awareness of cultural differences & similarities, growth of a consciousness that aligns itself with natural systems, and how this functions together with positive social education &accurate information for intercultural dialogue.

© Christopher Bear-Beam August 25, 2014