The Violence Happening in Ferguson Is More Than Physical

Many people assume that the term "violence" only refers to physically painful encounters. But I want to explore what multiple forms of violence—physical, emotional, bureaucratic, and spiritual—do to a group of people when they simultaneously converge on a community.

A man holds his hands up after Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson named the officer who shot Michael Brown last month. R. Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Read more of our coverage related to recent events in Ferguson here.

On Saturday, August 9, Michael Brown became one of several U.S. Black men in recent weeks to die violently at the hands of a law enforcement officer. Within days, Ferguson, and along with it Black-American hearts and minds everywhere, seemed to implode. I know mine did.

My Facebook, Twitter, and Google feeds were consumed with what was happening in Ferguson. All of my friends and loved ones were trying to process the crisis, express outrage, and grieve simultaneously. I couldn’t think or feel anything else. It was an emotional paralysis that I’ve never experienced concurrently with such a large group of people before.

As the days went on, the National Guard was called, tear gas was used on non-violent protesters, and I struggled to trudge through the overwhelm of watching my community be treated in a way that lacked compassion, empathy, or humanity.

Nearly a month later, I want to explore what multiple forms of violence—emotional, physical, bureaucratic, and spiritual—do to a group of people when they simultaneously converge on a community.

A big mistake that people tend to make when thinking and talking about violence is assuming that the term only refers to physically painful encounters. So when we have discussions about police brutality, state violence, or intrastate conflicts, we (understandably) tend to limit those conversations to, for example, young men being beaten on the street by a law enforcement officer, or the bombing of a school in Gaza, or the number of lives lost in Ukraine. Most people have been socialized to think about violence in terms of death and bodily pain.

As philosopher Viottori Buffachi argues, “The problem with adopting the notions of injury, harm or vigorous abuse as the groundwork from which to define the concept of violence” is that these terms and/or experiences may actually be the consequences of violence, and “not necessarily what constitutes the act of violence in itself.” What Buffachi means by this is that the bodily harm we generally point to as being violent may actually be the symptom of a disease—in this case, other forms of violence—that we miss completely before we were so horrified (understandably so) by the physicality of what we thought was the initial act.

We may miss the violence of the police officer who said something to a young woman that completely destroyed her spirit prior to hitting her in the face. We may miss the destruction of a young man’s spiritual altar in his home prior to being beaten brutally in the street after he reacted. We may miss that a woman’s children were suddenly taken from her home a week before she was raped by a social worker.

While these examples are somewhat extreme, I am using them to get at a central point: Physical, emotional, spiritual, and even bureaucratic harm can all enact different modes of violence, both on the community and the individual. Or, as Buffachi argues:

An act of violence occurs when the integrity of unity of a subject (person or animal) or object (property) is being intentionally or unintentionally violated, as a result of an action or an omission.

When considering how emotional, spiritual, or bureaucratic violence could function, it is useful to think more carefully about our understanding of integrity. When workers are renovating a home and something about the foundation or the structure itself is unsafe, they say that the building has lost its “integrity.” What they mean is that the home can no longer stand on its own and can no longer be considered a safe or secure place to live.

It is useful to think of a loss of integrity due to violence within an individual or a community in the same way. When a person’s lived experience illustrates that their “home” (actual or metaphorical) is no longer safe or secure, then a loss of integrity or, in Buffachi’s terms, a violation occurs. This violation around the perception of one’s interior self or community can have consequences that deeply affect an individual’s ability to live their life, in addition to paralyzing their movement within their neighborhood, their city, or even the world.

In this sense, then, the very act of racism and/or the impact of structural racism on individuals and the groups of which they are a part can be considered a violent act. I consider the violence that was experienced by the people of Ferguson when their governor imposed a mandatory curfew to be bureaucratic violence. I consider the attempt of mainstream media to malign protesters as looters, villains, and criminals to be emotional violence. I consider the multiple deaths and shootings of Black men and women across the country to be both physical and emotional violence. I consider the failure of the Ferguson Police Department to arrest Darren Wilson after the shooting death of Michael Brown to be a form of spiritual violence that has a devastating and completely debilitating effect on Black communities across the United States.

All of these examples are instances in which individuals and communities have been met with a series of structures that fundamentally distrust and disempower them. It is through this lack of trust and the systematic dismantling of individual and community-wide power that violation occurs. Whether the loss of integrity happens within the mind or the body, it often has a very physical manifestation in the lived experienced of the victim.

So what is the impact of the simultaneous convergence of physical, emotional, spiritual, and bureaucratic violence in a single town on a single community? You have Black Americans in Ferguson and around the country who are paralyzed by fear, overwhelmed, and expressing a righteous rage—all of which can not and should not be doused with simple, superficial, or temporary solutions. You have an entire community of people who are more afraid for their safety than they have been in a lifetime. But you also have a community that is adamant they will be the last generation to feel this fear.