The Violence in Missouri: Writers and Artists Respond
Like many people around the world, I have viewed the events in Ferguson, Missouri, with a combination of dismay and horror. The shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager by a white policeman has led to angry demonstrations and the kind of police response one would find in a military dictatorship. After police assaulted and arrested two journalists and a Missouri state senator, the Melbourne, Australia-based photographer “legojacker” posted a haunting image on Instagram along with commentary that sparked a discussion involving his followers around the world. To quote the chant from another police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, “The whole world is watching!”
For me, the images from Ferguson resemble some of the PowerPoint slides that I present when I speak about my novel Gringolandia—photos of demonstrators confronted with tear gas and water cannons, children being arrested and taken away in armored vehicles, and streets patrolled by men in tanks with full army gear. My friend and fellow young adult author Trent Reedy was equally stunned and horrified, not because the scenes paralleled the images in a historical novel taking place under Chile’s military dictatorship but because his recently published dystopian novel set in the near future, Divided We Fall, imagines the United States under military occupation following the shooting of an unarmed civilian. A military veteran himself, Trent probably never thought his work of speculative fiction would turn out to be so close to reality.
I have a special connection to Divided We Fall because I created a scene from the book using Lego minifigures with my Little Brick Township as a backdrop. In fact, I was planning a blog post on how I created the special effects for that photograph, but it will have to wait. Yesterday, Trent posted some of his concerns on Facebook—concerns that a worst-case scenario he had imagined could become a reality, as well as concerns that talking about it would look like an effort to gin up sales for his book.
Trent brought into the discussion another friend and fellow student from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Kekla Magoon, who wrote about the police and the Black Panthers in Chicago in 1968 in her acclaimed novels The Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets, and whose forthcoming How It Went Down is a contemporary story of a black teenager killed by a white man. Much of Kekla’s writing has addressed the violence growing out of racism. Her stories don’t end with neat resolutions, and she doesn’t have easy answers. Rather, she sheds light through her nuanced portrayals of past and present realities through the eyes of characters with whom readers can empathize.
In my essay on the powerful film Fruitvale Station, I talked about how seeing the world from Oscar Grant’s eyes can help viewers go beyond the black-and-white, and often stereotyped, versions of his shooting that appeared in the mass media. Oscar Grant, like Michael Brown, was a complex human being, a work in progress like young people everywhere, a person with a story to tell. Telling this story—whether it belongs to a real person or a fictional character based on real people—can change how we look at these events in fundamental ways, so that we come to understand each other’s humanity and make our choices based on that understanding. This is why storytellers and artists belong in the conversation—not to sell more of our work (though we need to make a living like everyone else) but to bring more light into the world.