Ferguson: A Tale of Two Narratives

It’s been several weeks since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Here at Active Voice, we are following the story as it unfolds and discussing how the events relate to our work, particularly our Beyond the Choir philosophy and whether there is an opportunity to spark public discourse around systemic issues like institutionalized racism.

Many of the details surrounding the incident still remain unknown, but since the shooting, the country has been watching—and documenting—the passionate public response to this tragedy. In the aftermath, reporters, pundits, activists, community members, conservative and liberal reporters alike are all competing to create a narrative around the shooting that supports their own worldview. The trouble is, these worldviews are often in direct conflict with each other. Some narratives use language choices when referring to Michael Brown as a “thug” or a “gentle kid”, while then other narratives refer to Darren Wilson as “relatively soft-spoken, even bland person” or a “racist coward”. These word choices are cues to help the reader situate the storytellers’ perspective. Are storytellers characterizing the activities following Michael Brown’s death as “peaceful protests” or “violent riots?” Are Darren Wilson’s actions being portrayed as deep-seated racist anger or simple self-defense?

This is a war of competing narratives and it is clear that it has captured the attention of the American people.

What strikes us at Active Voice is the way in which these narratives polarize and silo, reinforcing racial and political isolation in both progressive and conservative circles or how the narratives “preach to the choir.” Something we explore in our Beyond the Choir approach is the importance of working with nuanced stories and narratives that tap into values and themes that a broader range of audiences can relate to, stories that don’t tell viewers what to think or feel. The reaction to the August 9th tragedy is, broadly speaking, split along racial lines and, while Michael Brown’s tragedy has been used to mobilize people around police violence and institutionalized racism, it seems there has been little productive dialogue and few have managed to reach beyond the choir.

We see this incredibly sad moment as an opportunity to support dialogue that uses Michael Brown’s story to bring communities together to support lasting change. The question isn’t whether or not Darren Wilson is a racist or a victim. It’s also not about whether Michael Brown was an angel or a thug. It’s about longstanding and systemic reasons why young people, particularly young men of color, are dying so regularly under disturbingly similar circumstances. Maybe if we can move the conversation beyond innocence and guilt for these two individuals, we can begin to address the root causes of police harassment, institutionalized racism, racial profiling, lack of political representation, and militarization of local police forces that contribute to an environment in which these appalling deaths happen with such frequency.

 Find a 2010 report on our Beyond the Choir framework that explains this values-based thinking in action, as a tool for both identifying audiences, and for assessing impact.