A Mimetic Reading of the Ferguson Events

I’m a hugely text-oriented person, but so much of what happened in Ferguson this week was captured in truly compelling tweeted images that this post will be full of embedded tweets, mostly including images.

Some of those compelling images were side-by-side photos showing photos from the civil rights protests in the 60s:

I was so shocked when I heard the police had brought out dogs that very first day: the imitation of police tactics from the 60s reads to me as a deliberate invocation of the police violence against black protesters then. If the online image made a white woman like me flinch, I can’t imagine the potent effect it must have had on the black people who were there.

See the mirroring, in the postures of the two lines of men? That’s a classic dynamic in mimetic theory, occurring as rivalry escalates. (Frighteningly, the men in the Ferguson picture look more escalated than in the older picture, which seems to have some degree of engagement in the body language going on. The men in the Ferguson picture look like they’re being walls: rigid and immovable.)

The intensive police presence that showed up right away may have been intended to intimidate by an overwhelming show of force, but I read it as designed (consciously or not) to provoke an equally intense response.

Police presented such an overwhelmingly aggressive posture that it is frankly amazing to me that there was so little violence in response.

Unbelievably, police presence and posture escalated even further over subsequent nights. This was Wednesday:

But note that the war zone framing is problematic, as Mikki Kendall pointed out:

This next tweet is talking about scapegoating: the scapegoating of black Americans as the source of crime.

This picture blew me away:

The bravery of taking a non-violent, vulnerable posture in response to the present and immediate threat of violence is amazing. I am sincerely in awe of this community, and profoundly grateful for their example.

Furthermore, this is not just any non-violent, vulnerable posture. It is very close to the posture in which, according to some witnesses, Mike Brown was shot to death: fallen to his knees, with his hands up.

This is what I read about in my studies, over and over again. According to mimetic theology, the particular way in which Christians are called to respond to violence and scapegoating is by standing with the victim: literally putting our bodies with the victim’s body. That is what I see in this picture.

The next night, students at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, DC, took up the same posture at their protest:

But remember: these black protesters are not just standing with the victim of Saturday’s shooting. They are themselves potential victims, scapegoat candidates, pharmakos, the handy marginalized population from whom scapegoats are drawn when a mimetic crisis erupts. They are the half-insiders against whom white America (or perhaps, as Persephone Jones suggests, non-black America) regularly, routinely, commits violence, up to and including fatal violence.

All over the country Thursday evening, at the #NMOS14 National Moment of Silence vigils organized by @FeministaJones, people did the same thing. The hands-up posture of surrender goes with the verbal slogan that emerged in Ferguson: Hands up – Don’t Shoot. Together they proclaim vulnerability in the face of violence: I have no weapon. Don’t shoot me.

They held up their arms while holding hands, a further gesture of solidarity, of with-ness, of nonviolent resistance.

They held up the names of the victims of police shooting, symbolizing the presence of the victims in the midst of the crowd who had come to stand with them and for them:

And, conversely, when Captain Johnson from the Missouri Highway Patrol was given command of the policing operation on Thursday, he first changed the presentation of the police officers there

and then put his body with the bodies of the protesters.

Another paired picture, comparing where the police bodies were on Wednesday and Thursday:

And the result? Peaceful protest. The protest and vigil that the Ferguson community wanted to have in the first place.

Mimetic theory provides a unifying framework presenting an anthropological understanding of how human beings influence each other, and the particular role of the scapegoat mechanism, in carefully precise language. But it is so compelling because it formalizes an understanding of human beings that is, in some ways, simply common sense.

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2 Responses to A Mimetic Reading of the Ferguson Events

  1. johnkstoner says:

    We are living in an amazing stage of the ongoing human struggle of choosing between violence and nonviolence. One of the great ironies of it is the frequency with which those who have used, stockpiled, and threaten to unleash vast explosions of violence urge nonviolence on those whom they oppress, this drawing attention to their own hypocrisy.

  2. Pingback: Bible Matters: The Prophet Jeremiah, Michael Brown's Murder in Ferguson, and Racism in America - The Raven Foundation

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