When Hillary Potter arrived to do research in Ferguson, Mo., a few months after the killing of Michael Brown, the massive flock of national news cameras had left. True to the maxim of “if it bleeds, it leads,” they would later rush back to capture the violence of unfolding riots, but Potter had remained.
In a recent talk about her findings, Potter, associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, sought to tell the story she says the national media missed.
She explored implications of race and gender in issues surrounding the killing of Brown and brought her ethnographic analysis to life with colorful stories of experiences with individuals she met, demonstrations she witnessed and dramatic encounters with rioters and riot-police.
Potter began by showing an innocent picture of Michael Brown shown on a projector, “one you don’t often see in the media.”
She describes America as a failed attempt at a post-racial society, in which people think equality has been achieved. Black children, she contends, are still stuck in a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
“The signs are taken down, but the symbolism is still there,” she says, referring to Jim Crow era “whites only” signs on public and private facilities.
Potter also describes a legal system in which black people are overrepresented, in which the entire legal process has exhibited bias towards black people, yet is falsely represented as race-neutral.
Her experiences in Ferguson solidify these ideas. From following the news and meeting people in Ferguson, Potter identified two competing narratives: A widely circulated “white narrative” sees the crime as a non-racial event, as an isolated incident, as a justified use of force by the police officer against a violent criminal. A “black narrative” challenges all of these viewpoints, but is much less visible in mainstream media.
As a self-described activist scholar, Potter visited Ferguson to pursue knowledge and also to help spread the message of the town’s black people.
“It’s not about giving them a voice, it’s about them having a megaphone,” Potter told the diverse crowd gathered in the lecture hall and to those tuning in via live stream. “It’s about them having another platform where they can express what they are feeling.”
A reason they need this platform, according to Potter, is that news agencies offer 24-hour coverage of rioting and further the perceptions of black people as criminals and thugs, but give much less attention to non-violent reactions from the black community.
“The people who are being missed in this whole story are the people who have been on the ground since day one,” Potter argues.
With scholars from across the country, she joined a collaborative research group organized by University of California Santa Barbara researcher Victor Rios. Potter chose to focus her own research on the women of Ferguson.
Potter identified two competing narratives: A widely circulated ‘white narrative’ sees the crime as a non-racial event, as an isolated incident, as a justified use of force by the police officer against a violent criminal. A ‘black narrative’ challenges all of these viewpoints, but is much less visible in mainstream media.
During four trips starting in late October, she met many protesters, including two young black women who quit their “dead-end” jobs to spend more time protesting. One even decided to make activism her career and is now working to start a non-profit agency to benefit the black community.
Potter befriended community business people, like Cathy and Jerome Jenkins, who own Cathy’s Kitchen—a frequent meeting spot for protesters and the research team. Potter, with the help of others, would later end up defending that very same restaurant when looting began in November, facing down some angry agitators who threatened to break through the glass windows.
This wasn’t her first exposure to looting and rioting. Potter went to Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina to carry out similar research on racial implications of crime and violence. The difference was that people in New Orleans were looting to survive, while those in Ferugson were resorting to violence largely as a misguided outlet for their frustrations.
She witnessed the infamous moment when Michael Brown’s stepfather urged protesters to “burn this bitch down” following the announcement of a grand jury’s decision not to bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson.
While observing the chaos, Potter found herself surrounded by a cloud of tear gas. The disoriented scholar was rescued by an older woman who had come prepared with a “protest kit” of useful supplies.
Such unexpected moments of care and compassion occurred in each visit to Ferguson. She was shocked that a people who were “essentially at war” could find time to look after a complete outsider.
Her research also took her to the house of an activist couple that was being used as a community headquarters for young protesters. This house reminded her of people in the 1960s so devoted to the fight for equality that they lived together.
Potter paints a picture of not merely another moment of protest (like in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death or Rodney King’s beating), but a movement akin to the call for equality and civil rights that swept the nation in the 1960s.
Summarizing the protesters’ message, Potter concluded: “We interrupt this program. We interrupt your regular broadcast of white privilege. This is not a test, but your white privilege will be tested. We’re sorry, but we’re unable to return you to your regular programming. You can’t stop the revolution.”
Robert Stein is a CU-Boulder senior majoring in English and an intern for Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine.