Harry Targ :
The forms of violence and the meanings
of Ferguson

From police violence to economic despair, to lack of political representation, to cultural rationales for state violence, the basic characteristics of American society are uncovered.

ferguson cops

The militarization of police in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo by Scott Olson / Getty Images.

By Harry Targ | The Rag Blog | August 21, 2014

In addressing violence, researchers, educators, journalists, and religious leaders have usually concentrated on its most visible forms: murder and war. The central features of such violence include physical assault and killing. In our own day terrorism has joined war as the most popular common subject for study.

Over the years, peace educators have developed intellectual tools to uncover more diverse meanings of violence, their differences and their connections. Structural violence has been distinguished from direct violence. Researchers continue to analyze direct violence, physical assault and killing, but also study structural violence, the various forms of human suffering that take more time, impose pain and suffering on populations, and are perpetuated by leading institutions and relationships in society.

Structural violence includes economic inequality, low wages and poverty, inadequate access to health care and education, and the psychological damage that economic suffering causes. These injustices, the concept of structural violence suggests, are embedded in economic, social, and political institutions.

It is possible to disaggregate further the structural violence that is embedded in institutions. Institutional violence refers to unequal distribution of power and influence in major societal institutions: political, criminal justice, and educational, for example.

Cultural violence refers to the images, symbols, and educational materials that value some population groups over others.

Finally, cultural violence refers to the images, symbols, and educational materials that value some population groups over others. Culture refers to the public consciousness of history, traditions, and popular narratives that describe people. Stereotypes are short-hand representations of a culture.

In total then violence is direct, structural, institutional, and cultural. These kinds of violence may occur separately but in most cases are inextricably connected. It is this fourfold conception of violence that is relevant to the current crisis in Ferguson, Missouri.

The tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri, came to national attention because of direct violence. A Ferguson policeman shot and killed an unarmed young African American male. In response to the collective expression of community outrage that followed, the local police initiated a multi-day barrage of tear gas, strong-arm arrests, threatening street protestors with military vehicles and loaded rifles.

The images on television screens nationwide have been of a people under assault, parallel to Israeli bombings in Gaza and United States targeted air strikes in Iraq. The fear that young African-American males in Ferguson have historically felt every time they stepped into the streets of their city have escalated since the killing of Michael Brown.

Beyond the threat of direct violence in Ferguson is structural violence, less visible but as important. Brookings Institute researcher Elizabeth Kneebone (“Ferguson, Mo. Emblematic of Growing Suburban Poverty,” brookings@edu, August 15, 2014) reported that the community of Ferguson has experienced a qualitative economic decline over the last decade. The city’s unemployment rate increased from 5 percent in 2000 to 13 percent by 2010. Average earnings of community members have declined by one-third. One-fourth of the population lives in poverty.

Kneebone indicated that poverty rates have doubled in suburban neighborhoods surrounding the 100 largest cities. “By 2008-2012, 38 percent of poor residents lived in the neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or higher. For poor black residents in those communities, the figure was 53 percent.” Of course, poverty is highly related to declining schools, inadequate access to health care, lessened prospects for jobs, and large-scale youth unemployment.

Institutional violence is reflected in a 300-year history of slavery and racism.

Institutional violence is reflected in a 300-year history of slavery and racism. Professor Clarissa Hayward, Washington University, said: “The St. Louis metropolitan area has been an extreme example of racial segregation for 100 years.” She pointed out that St. Louis geographically was at the nexus of the South, the Midwest, and the West and added: “The practices and politics of St. Louis created the problems that underlie the tension that boiled out in Ferguson this week.” (Puneet Kollipara, “Wonkbook: The Social and Economic Story Behind the Unrest in Ferguson,” Wonkblog, The Washington Post, August 18, 2014.)

In terms of the Ferguson political system, two-thirds of the community is Black and the local government is almost all white. Five of six city council members are white, the mayor is white, and six of seven school board members are white. Fifty of 53 police are white.

Finally, cultural violence addresses the issue of ideology, consciousness, images of the other, and additional ways in which whites see African-Americans. Racist culture socializes the dominant class and race to reflect its superiority. For example, Missouri Lt. Governor Peter Kinder said: “That’s one of the great advances of Anglo-American civilization, is that we do not have politicized trials. We let the justice system work it out.” The mayor of Ferguson recently declared that his community was free of racism.

Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, police and politicians have organized a campaign to demonize the victim of the police killing. The tall young man, an African-American, was a robber, a drug consumer, and violence-prone. Also, the days of protest in Ferguson were framed to privilege the peaceful, religious, mourning adults and to explain night-time violence not as police violence, but as violence by outside agitators from New York, Chicago, and California. The fact that young African Americans leave their houses at their own risk could not, the frame implies, engender outrage.

So from police violence — killing, gassing, beating — to economic despair, to lack of political representation, to cultural rationales for state violence, the basic characteristics of American society are uncovered. And once again, the victimization of people of color, as well as workers, and women, lead to the following conclusions:

  • The root cause of exploitation, racism, and sexism is structural violence (capitalism).
  • Physical violence is used to crush rebellion against class exploitation and racism.
  • Unrepresentative political institutions are dominated by the wealthy and powerful.
  • Dominant cultural stereotypes and specific narratives about society reinforce the economic system, the political system, and justify the police violence in the St. Louis area.

In sum, in addressing violence, its multiple forms should be taken into consideration.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University and is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, and blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical. ]

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2 Responses to Harry Targ :
The forms of violence and the meanings
of Ferguson

  1. Jim Weiler says:

    Err… My previous comment contains an error… It was a Tweet from Robert Greenwald, not Glen.

  2. Extremist2TheDHS says:

    Suggesting that if we could only provide more money, political representation, assistance, education, training etc to the urban poor, so that their changed circumstances would make them less violent and angry and thus turn them into genteel citizens, is absurd. Its the kind of thinking academics come up with.

    There is a permanent class of people whose self identify is that of victim. it is how they explain their failure to prosper, failure to be moral, its how they explain their sexualization of women, theft, destruction and laziness. We heard it over and over in Ferguson. “We deserve this” they proclaimed as they ripped the city apart.

    Even if society gave them what Prof Targ suggests they are lacking, many will continue to be thugs and loosers in life.

    I have experienced this personally hundreds of times in my work in the streets. Some people, regardless of color, can change their lives if you give them assistance and help them. Others will simply waste your assistance and never leave their circumstances. They cant change their identity and do not want to stop being a victim.

    I help the ones I can, and leave the others where i found them and pray that someday I or someone else will reach them when they are ready to be helped. Professor Targ. You cannot give someone character and ambition. You can only feed it if it already exists.

    – Proud to be an Extremist2TheDHS

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