From Paris to Ferguson

One professor’s journey back home, to the reality of police violence

Aaron Banks

I’m a professor of psychology at Saint Louis University. I have every reason to be comfortable with my life, yet I also have every reason to be outraged by the longstanding and recently highlighted deadly assumptions about and violence against black lives.

Ferguson unfolded as we were in the midst of our first European family vacation. The children were spending their days trying croissants and playing pick-up soccer games in the Parisian neighborhood park. The idyllic scene, however, stood in contrast to the scenes that unfolded on our computer screens by night. After my husband and I put our kids to bed, we watched press conferences and livefeeds of tanks and tear gas. Something felt different about Michael Brown’s killing—unfortunate, urgent—and I longed to be home in St. Louis. The next day, we purchased a local newspaper, Le Monde, and read the headline, which translated to “The Wrath of Black Americans.”

We were being misunderstood even thousands of miles away. I struggled to remain present and enjoy the serenity, cognizant of my privilege, before heading back to what looked like chaos. Yet it was clear that the wrath being expressed reflected the present and historical inequities heaped on the shoulders of African Americans.

I was happy to hear, alongside the justifiable anger at the disregard for Brown’s humanity, the extended commentary on race and racism. I have spent the past 17 years working towards dismantling racism, educating individuals about the deleterious effects of discrimination, and teaching about how we can increase our understanding of unconscious bias and improve intergroup relations. It was clear the protestors weren’t going away, and that their demonstrations had created an opening. I hoped the attention to the topic would last, that the reflections would create momentum. I am keenly aware that social change often takes hold as a result of extreme pressure placed on the system, and the persistence of the protests appeared to be having that effect. It looked like a pivotal moment.

Upon returning home, I jumped into action, yet at the same time felt uncertain about my role. I was old—a “slave to my job”—in the eyes of some young people. And I was relatively young and not “seasoned enough” compared to the elders. I joined the work of my local chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists, offering pro bono services and community workshops. I protested with friends and parents from my children’s school.

I was, however, unsure how open I could be about my activism with colleagues at work. Some individuals would rather put Ferguson “behind us,” and it felt as if that opening for understanding the personal hurts and systemic inequities of racism was closing. I forged deeper bonds with protesters and made plans to march as a de-escalator in the upcoming weekend of resistance. People from all over were coming to St. Louis.

And then, in October, 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers Jr. was killed—a mile from my home and three blocks from my boys’ school—by an off-duty police officer. On the nights after Vonderrit’s death, protests filled the streets nearby. The vilification of protesters continued, and the justification of militarized police behavior intensified. And I made a decision that I would not shy away from bearing witness.

The night the grand jury announced the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, I was near my home, in the midst of a multiracial, multigenerational, intersectional protest. I joined hundreds of others in the streets. Our attempt to spur reforms by engaging in peaceful protest was rewarded by indiscriminate tear-gassing at the hands of my local police. I was gassed without warning, on the same street where I run for exercise and take my kids out to eat.

When I was later asked to join in seeking an injunction and to testify about that night, I didn’t hesitate. My commitment to bearing witness meant that I had to recognize my privilege and leverage it for the benefit of the movement and more broadly for the First Amendment rights of future peaceful protestors. I believe that most media outlets chose not to show my neighborhood that night because it wasn’t on fire—unlike the images they chose to loop. I believe the police made baseless assumptions, which led to errors of commission and omission, and ultimately to tear gas.

A federal judge agreed. After hours of testimony, she granted a restraining order against the police’s use of chemical weapons on peaceful protestors. My testimony helped disrupt the distorted narrative of protestors. It’s unfortunate, in some ways, that my status as a professor was necessary to justify justifiable rage.

I am no different than anyone else who took to the streets. My experience being gassed was a keen reminder that I am vulnerable and no degrees or affiliations can save me from racism. I have long been familiar with this reality, but this past year showed me another way in which my privileges can potentially serve these disadvantages by being in community and standing with others.

Police violence is disproportionately killing black people. Mike Brown could have been my husband and Tamir Rice my sons. I might have been Sandra Bland. These facts fuel my audacity to do what I can to assert that black lives matter.