What Happened in Ferguson...and Why?

Students discuss the police killing of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, MO, and consider the racial and economic backdrop to the killing and the protests that have followed. 

To the teacher: 

The set of activities below can be used in either a classroom workshop or circle format. To learn about the circle process, see this TeachableMoment introduction. To find out more about Morningside Center's restorative circles program, click here


Gathering or Opening Ceremony

Ask students to take a minute of silence for the 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014.  

What happened in Ferguson?

Ask students:

  • What do you know about what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, in August?
  • Do you know the name Michael Brown?  What do you know about him?  What happened to him?
  • What has happened in Ferguson since then?
  • Where are things at now?

Summarize and explain that on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.  Brown was originally stopped for jaywalking.  He and a friend, Dorian Johnson, had been walking in the middle of the street. 
What happened next is disputed.  The police account is different from that of eyewitnesses.  The police say Brown was shot during a skirmish with the officer in question, whose name was kept anonymous for days after the shooting.  Brown's friend says the officer opened fire when the young men refused to move to the sidewalk.  He says Brown's hands were over his head when the officer fired.   All agree that Brown was unarmed. 
In the days since his death, Ferguson  has been rocked by protests, some of which have turned violent.

Circle format:  

Send the talking piece around, asking some or all of the questions above.  Then summarize and explain the information above.

Pair Share and Go Round

Ask students to think about how they feel about what happened in Ferguson and why. Invite them to write their feeling on an index card. 
Ask student to count off by twos, instructing the ones to turn to their right, and the twos to turn to their left.  Each student should now face a partner.  (If you have an odd number of students in your class, the remaining student can join the two students closest to him/her.) 
In their pairs ask students to share how they feel about the events in Ferguson and why.  Let students know that within each pair, each person will have two minutes to talk.  Instruct them to decide who will go first. While each person is speaking, their partner should practice active listening. Inform students that you'll let them know when two minutes are up so that they can make sure that both partners get an opportunity to speak.
After the four minutes is up, invite students to come back to the full class or circle.  Then ask some volunteers to share the feeling they wrote down on their index card, and to say a few words about why they feel that way.  Elicit different voices, asking students whether they feel differently or the same as their classmates and why.

Circle format: 

Once students have written down their feelings on the card and shared in pairs, send the talking piece around, asking students to share the feeling they wrote down, and to say a few words about why they feel that way. Before handing the talking piece to the next person ask each student to contribute their index card to the center piece.

Discussion: The context of race relations in Ferguson

Divide students into groups of six to eight.  Ask each group to read one of the following excerpts from online sources Fox News, The Guardian and the New York Times, then discuss the information, guided by the questions below each excerpt.  (The questions are identical for each excerpt.)  Provide students with the definitions handout below in case there are terms that need clarifying.) 

After about 10-15 minutes, or when interest wanes, reconvene the whole class or circle. 
Ask some volunteers to respond to what they read and discussed in their small groups about the context for recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. Make sure to elicit a variety of voices and opinions.
Circle format: 

Provide a talking piece for each of the small groups so they can respond to the questions using a circle process. In the whole group session, send the talking piece around, asking students to respond to what they read and discussed in their small groups about the context for recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. 

Excerpt One:  

What led up to Brown's death Saturday is a point of major contention.

Witnesses say the African-American teen was unarmed and his hands were in the air when he was shot. Police have said Brown attacked the officer and tried to take his gun.

On Wednesday, Jackson told CNN that the officer had been hit and suffered swelling on the side of his face. He was taken to a hospital and released the same day, Jackson said.

Police had not before offered any indication that the officer had been injured in the reported struggle. The officer, Jackson said, is shaken by what happened.

As federal civil rights investigators and the FBI carry out their own inquiry into the controversial case, tensions are running high in the town of 21,000, where there's a history of distrust between the predominantly black community and the largely white police force.

"Race relations is a top priority right now and, as I said, I'm working with the Department of Justice to improve that," Jackson told reporters Wednesday, adding that he has tried to increase the diversity of the department since he got there.

Only three of the city's 53 officers are African-American.

(Fox News, 8/13/14)
Questions for discussion:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about this information?
  • What does the excerpt say about race relations in Ferguson?
  • According to the excerpt, who is "at odds" with whom in Ferguson?  Why?
  • How do you think this information helps to inform the course of events in Ferguson over the past few weeks?

Excerpt Two:  

... The underlying, bitter resentment among many in the local African American community about their treatment at the hands of an almost unanimously white police force and local authorities, will likely continue to simmer.
Ferguson's population is 67% black, but 50 of Jackson's 53 police officers - 94% - are white. Figures published last year by Missouri's attorney general showed seven black drivers were stopped by police for every white driver, and that 12 times as many searches were carried out on black drivers as white. The sharp disparities fuel mistrust, residents said.
Asked about race relations at a press conference on Wednesday, Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson acknowledged that there was a "community that is at odds with us now." He said: "Apparently there has been this undertow that has now bubbled to the surface. ...
... [O]ne after another, young black residents complained to the Guardian about the way they have been treated by those in positions of power in the city over recent years. Their claims against police officers in particular ranged from disrespect to "all-out race war.

(8/13/14, TheGuardian.com

Questions for discussion:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about this information?
  • What does the excerpt say about race relations in Ferguson?
  • According to the excerpt, who is "at odds" with whom in Ferguson?  Why?
  • How do you think this information helps to inform the course of events in Ferguson over the past few weeks?

Excerpt Three:  
The [racial] disparity is most evident in the Ferguson Police Department, of which only three of 53 officers are black. The largely white force stops black residents far out of proportion to their population, according to statistics kept by the state attorney general. Blacks account for 86 percent of the traffic stops in the city, and 93 percent of the arrests after those stops. Similar problems exist around St. Louis County, where earlier this year the state chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging widespread racial profiling by police departments.
The circumstances of Mr. Brown's death are, inevitably, in dispute. Witnesses said he was walking home from a convenience store when stopped by an officer for walking in the middle of the street, and they accused the officer of shooting him multiple times when his hands were raised over his head. The police said Mr. Brown had hit the officer. State and federal investigators are trying to sort out the truth.
What is not in dispute is the sense of permanent grievance held by many residents and shared in segregated urban areas around the country. Though nothing excuses violence and looting, it is clear that local governments have not dispensed justice equally. The death of Mr. Brown is "heartbreaking," as President Obama said Tuesday, but it is also a reminder of a toxic racial legacy that still infects cities and suburbs across America.
Questions for discussion:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about this information?
  • What does the excerpt say about race relations in Ferguson?
  • According to the excerpt, who is "at odds" with whom in Ferguson?  Why?
  • How do you think this information helps to inform the course of events in Ferguson over the past few weeks?

(New York Times, 8/13/14)

Summarize what was shared in the discussion about the context in Ferguson, MO, touching on such themes as racial disparity and power, segregation, profiling, discrimination and other related issues that your students bring up.    



The Exception or the Rule?  Reading and Go Round

Invite some volunteers to read the following, a different excerpt from The Nation article, out loud, with each person reading one line or paragraph.



...But is Ferguson really exceptional? ... The unequal application of the force of the law is also well documented across the country. Five times as many whites use illegal drugs as black Americans, and yet black people are sent to prison on drug charges at ten times the rate of whites. And disparity is evident in other police forces; for example, only 10 percent of the New York Police Department's recruits in 2013 were black.



The whiteness of Ferguson's political leadership is a national trait, too. Since Reconstruction, only four states have elected black senators: Illinois, Massachusetts, South Carolina and New Jersey. Voters in twenty-five states still have never elected a black representative to the House.



We know also that the killing of a young, unarmed black person isn't unique to Ferguson. It wasn't unique to Sanford or Jacksonville; nor to Staten Island; Beavercreek, Ohio; Dearborn Heights, Michigan; Pasadena, California; or any of the other cities that, as Jelani Cobb writes, now bleed together in "the race-tinged death story" that "has become a genre itself."



There's a crisis all right. But Ferguson is not its heart so much as a capillary finally burst. That many find the sadness and rage in Ferguson more needing of explanation than the militarized response is particularly telling.



Give students a minute or more to take in the excerpt. Ask if anyone has questions about the language used.  Use the definitions handout below as needed.  Answer any remaining questions or decide to look them up as a group or for homework. 



Then ask students the following questions.  

  1. What are your thoughts and feelings about the excerpt we just read out loud?
  2. What does the excerpt say about Ferguson in the context of the larger US?
  3. What does it say about race relations in the U.S. today?
  4. How do these race relations affect you personally, and how do you feel about that?
  5. How do your feelings relate to those people seem to be feeling in Ferguson?
  6. What do you think the author, Zoe Carpenter, means by Ferguson not being the heart of the crisis "so much as a capillary finally burst"? 

Circle format: After the reading, send the talking piece around asking some or all of the questions above.

Closing or Closing Ceremony

As we wrap up today's class or circle, ask students, based on what was discussed, to share one question or issue they'd like to discuss further next time you meet. 

Definitions Hand Out

Racial disparity:  In the criminal justice system: "Racial disparity" is defined as existing ... when the proportion of a racial/ethnic group within the control of the system is greater than the proportion of such groups in the general population."  Of course racial disparity exists throughout American society in other "systems" and "institutions" as well.  The racial disparity that has been discussed in the Ferguson case involves Ferguson's police department, department of education, city council, and other institutions. White people hold the vast majority of positions in these institutions, especially positions of power, even though most people in Ferguson are black. 

Segregation:  According to Merriam Webster online, it is "the separation or isolation of a race, class, or ethnic group by enforced or voluntary residence in a restricted area, by barriers to social intercourse, by separate educational facilities, or by other discriminatory means."
Profiling:  According to Merriam Webster online, it is "the act or practice of regarding particular people as more likely to commit crimes because of their appearance, race, etc."

Discrimination:  According to Merriam Webster online, it is "the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people."