The city of Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in protest after the August 9 fatal shooting of an unarmed African American teenager by a police officer. The event—and the response of city and state authorities—inspired a national debate about race, law enforcement, and the militarization of police forces.
The Rev. Willie Bodrick II, MDiv '14, youth and young adult pastor at Boston's Twelfth Baptist Church, traveled to Ferguson to participate in peaceful protests and encourage dialogue within the African American community. HDS contacted him for an update on the situation on the ground.
Harvard Divinity School (HDS): Information about Michael Brown's death has been slow to come out. Furthermore, witnesses from the community contradict police accounts of the shooting, which adds to the confusion. You were there in the community. What's your understanding of what happened?
Rev. Willie Bodrick II: This is the narrative I gathered after being on the ground and hearing various accounts:
On Saturday, August 9, Michael Brown and a friend were on their way home from Ferguson Market. They were walking in the middle of the street. At some point, they were confronted by Officer Darren Wilson about getting on the sidewalk. The officer drove forward, but then put his squad car in reverse as he got close to Brown and his friend. The situation escalated into a physical altercation at the car and the officer drew his weapon and fired one shot, hitting Brown. Both Brown and his friend ran. Wilson pursued them and shot Brown a second time. It was then that Brown turned around to surrender—residents say with his hands up in the air. Officer Wilson shot four more times. The last shot was fatal.
HDS: What's the broader perception of the event and its significance among the residents there?
Bodrick: The members of the community—and others from across this country—believe that an unarmed African American man was wrongly killed at the hands of the police. They're not persuaded by reports of Brown's personality flaws and past faults, or by attempts to find the "gray area" in the picture. After the killing of Eric Gardner by police in New York City, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and the overall profiling and policing of young African American men across the nation, what happened to Michael Brown was the straw that broke the back of many Ferguson residents. As one young lady told me, "This is just what they do down here. I've seen police beat and kill many other folks."
You can't really understand the reaction in Ferguson outside the context of race and the fear of the African American male body in the American consciousness. Nearly 100 years ago, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation portrayed African American men as hypersexual, unintelligent, and dangerous. This impression has been perpetuated and exploited throughout media outlets ever since, creating unrealistic identity extremes that rob African American men of their full humanity and free expression.
HDS: How have protestors conducted themselves? How have police responded?
Bodrick: In my time there it appeared as if the tension of riots had subsided and the threat of violent protest had been defused. I met Ferguson Police Captain Ron Johnson and his staff. They said that things had gotten better since the early days of the protests and that they wanted to maintain the peace. From my perspective all who were protesting did so with class and respect. They were peaceful and wanted their voices to be heard.
However, I must say that I was appalled by the over-militarization of the police forces and National Guard on the ground. It was a disturbing site to see, especially when you consider the many children, elderly, and young people were on the front lines of the demonstrations. The scene on the ground was disproportionate in the numbers of police compared to the amount of protesters.
Hyper-militarization in this country is a representation of a problematic system that breeds and reifies a culture of violence that needs to be structurally reassessed. We need to push the conversation further than the "few bad apples can destroy a bunch" analogy as we discuss policing in this country. We know that there are great police who protect and serve with pride, but it's still necessary to hold law enforcement institutions accountable and ensure that justice is served.
HDS: Why was it important for you as a pastor to come to Ferguson?
Bodrick: The very first reason I sought to be in Ferguson is to be in solidarity with the Brown family and to work alongside local religious professionals and community activists, who I believe, were standing on the right side of justice. As a faith leader in my community of Roxbury I hold close to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
I also felt inclined to be present as a young African American man and to go and fight the epistemic fear that has been historically ingrained in the American conscience. It felt good to be able to be among the community, feel the pulse of the people, and to see how they dealt with the tragedy of Michael Brown's death.
HDS: Did other HDS alumni and faculty join you?
Bodrick: I was very blessed to go to Ferguson with a spirited group of HDS alums and students under the leadership of Pusey Minister in Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Jonathan Walton. HDS alumna Irene Routte took the lead, and we got a solid group from HDS to go down, including Melissa Bartholomew, Meighan Parker, Chavis Jones, Danny Ballon, and Adam Van Der Tuig. We were accompanied by a few other students in the Harvard graduate community and one from Dartmouth College.
HDS: How did you minister to folks down there?
Bodrick: We volunteered at the Dellwood Recreation Center to assist in the process of helping people live their best possible lives and to have access to needed resources amidst the crisis. We marched with local protesters, engaged many of the community members in viable dialogue, and bore witness at the site where brother Brown was slain. We also worshipped at Washington Tabernacle Baptist Church, where Professor Walton gave the morning sermon.
HDS: What did you take away from your time in Ferguson? Where do you go from here?
Bodrick: Ferguson was a reminder that there is so much work to do here in the greater Boston area. Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan are all neighborhoods that need our presence, and it is up to us to connect the dots so that we can bring about structural change. As I told my colleagues, "Don’t drive 20 hours if you can't drive 20 minutes!"
My shared experience with so many African American boys and men in this country demanded that it was a necessity for me to be present in Ferguson in that moment, for that cause. It reminded me that, even as a member of the cloth, in one moment my hands can go up to praise God, and in another I must shout "Don't shoot!"
—by Paul Massari