Ferguson Riots Essay

When a police officer shoots a young, unarmed black man in the streets, then does not face indictment, anger in the community is inevitable. It’s what we do with that anger that counts. In such a case, is rioting so wrong?

Riots are a necessary part of the evolution of society. Unfortunately, we do not live in a universal utopia where people have the basic human rights they deserve simply for existing, and until we get there, the legitimate frustration, sorrow and pain of the marginalized voices will boil over, spilling out into our streets. As “normal” citizens watch the events of Ferguson unfurl on their television screens and Twitter feeds, there is a lot of head shaking, finger pointing, and privileged explanation going on. We wish to seclude the incident and the people involved. To separate it from our history as a nation, to dehumanize the change agents because of their bad and sometimes violent decisions—because if we can separate the underlying racial tensions that clearly exist in our country from the looting and rioting of select individuals, we can continue to ignore the problem.

VOTE: Should the Ferguson Protestors Be TIME’s Person of the Year?

While the most famous rant against the riots thus far comes from Hercules actor Kevin Sorbo, where he calls the rioters “animals” and “losers,” there are thousands of people echoing these sentiments. Sorbo correctly ascertains that the rioting has little to do with the shooting of an unarmed black man in the street, but he blames it on the typical privileged American’s stereotype of a less fortunate sect of human being—that the looting is a result of frustration built up over years of “blaming everyone else, The Man, for their failures.”

Because when you have succeeded, it ceases to be a possibility, in our capitalist society, that anyone else helped you. And if no one helped you succeed, then no one is holding anyone else back from succeeding. Except they did help you, and they are holding people back. So that blaming someone else for your failures in the United States may very well be an astute observation of reality, particularly as it comes to white privilege versus black privilege. And, yes, they are different, and they are tied to race, and that doesn’t make me a racist, it makes me a realist. If anything, I am racist because I am white. Until I have had to walk in a person of color’s skin, I will never understand, I will always take things for granted, and I will be inherently privileged. But by ignoring the very real issues this country still faces in terms of race to promote an as-of-yet imaginary colorblind society, we contribute to the problem at hand, which is centuries of abuses lobbied against other humans on no basis but that of their skin color.

Sorbo is not alone. A webpage devoted to Tea Party politics has hundreds of comments disparaging the rioters, bemoaning the state of our country and very much blaming skin color as the culprit of this debauched way of dealing with the state of our society.

“To hear the libs, one would think that burning and looting are a justifiable way to judge negative events that effect (sic) the black,” one person wrote. “I intentionally used black because of a fact that you do not hear of these events when another skin color is in play. It is about time that the blacks start cleaning their own backyards before they start on ours.”

However, even the Tea Party gets its name from a riot, The Boston Tea Party. For those who need a quick history brush-up, in 1773 American protesters dumped an entire shipment of tea into the Boston Harbor to protest The Tea Act, which colonists maintained violated their rights. In response to this costly protest and civil unrest, the British government enforced The Coercive Acts, ending local government in Massachusetts, which in turn led to the American Revolution and created our great country.

Should the Ferguson Protestors Be TIME’s Person of the Year? Vote Below for #TIMEPOY

Samuel Adams wrote of the incident, claiming it “was not the act of a lawless mob, but was instead a principled protest and the only remaining option the people had to defend their constitutional rights” according to John K. Alexander, author of Samuel Adams: America’s Revolutionary Politician.

That protest back in 1773 was meant to effect political and societal change, and while the destruction of property in that case may not have ended in loss of human life, the revolution that took place afterward certainly did. What separates a heralded victory in history from an attempt at societal change, a cry for help from the country’s trampled, today? The fact that we won.

In terms of riots being more common in black communities, that is true only when the riots are politically aimed.

The obvious example here is the L.A. Riots of 1992, after the Rodney King beating and verdict. I would put forth that peaceful protesting is a luxury of those already in mainstream culture, those who can be assured their voices will be heard without violence, those who can afford to wait for the change they want.

“I risk sounding racist but if this was a white kid there would be no riot,” another person wrote on the Tea Party page. “History shows us that blacks in this country are more apt to riot than any other population. They are stirred up by racist black people and set out to cause problems. End of story.”

Blacks in this country are more apt to riot because they are one of the populations here who still need to. In the case of the 1992 riots, 30 years of black people trying to talk about their struggles of racial profiling and muted, but still vastly unfair, treatment, came to a boil. Sometimes, enough is simply too much. And after that catalyst event, the landscape of southern California changed, and nationally, police forces took note.

And the racism they are fighting, the racism we are all fighting, is still alive and well throughout our nation. The modern racism may not culminate in separate water fountains and separate seating in the backs of buses, but its insidious nature is perhaps even more dangerous to the individuals who have to live under the shroud of stereotypical lies society foists upon them.

Instead of tearing down other human beings who are acting upon decades of pent-up anger at a system decidedly against them, a system that has told them they are less than human for years, we ought to be reaching out to help them regain the humanity they lost, not when a few set fire to the buildings in Ferguson, but when they were born the wrong color in the post-racial America.

Read next: What History Books Should Say About Ferguson

On Nov. 24, a St. Louis County grand jury announced that it has brought no criminal charges against Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Thousands took to the streets in cities across the country — from Los Angeles to Atlanta to New York — to protest the decision.

In an essay in the Sunday Review on Nov. 30, Michael Eric Dyson asked, “Where Do We Go After Ferguson?” He reflects on the fact that black and white people “rarely see race in the same way,” and notes:

These clashing perceptions underscore the physics of race, in which an observer effect operates: The instrument through which one perceives race — one’s culture, one’s experiences, one’s fears and fantasies — alters in crucial ways what it measures.

We have updated some of the resources in this lesson plan for addressing this new chapter in the case, but we also offer a Student Opinion question to which any student 13 or over is invited to post thoughts:

What Is Your Reaction to the Grand Jury’s Decision in the Ferguson Case?

In addition, the question we asked in September, “Will What Happened in Ferguson Change Anything?,” is still open for comment.

Finally, after the Dec. 3 grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case, we have posed a third Student Opinion question: Should All Police Officers Wear Body Cameras?

We have collected some of the most interesting and thoughtful student comments on this news here. Please invite your students to add their thoughts

How are you teaching about these events? Let us know, below.

One young man is killed and the whole world takes notice.

Nearly a month after the shooting in a St. Louis suburb of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer, the repercussions are still being felt — and educators everywhere are grappling with how to bring related questions about race, class, power, stereotyping, justice, the media and social action into the classroom this fall.

During the school year on this blog, we try to respond to important breaking news by immediately gathering Times resources for a lesson plan. In this case, however, thanks to our summer schedule, the web was way ahead of us.

What we’re offering below, therefore, is slightly different from our usual resources. Instead of a list of our own ideas, it’s more a roundup of the thoughtful ideas of others, though we include links to Times content around the most-mentioned themes and questions.

We hope you’ll keep adding ideas in our comments section, and we’ll keep updating this post if you do.

I. Preparing Students for Difficult Discussions

For many students and teachers, the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown are emotional and challenging to discuss.

One district near Ferguson, in fact, was reported to have asked teachers to “change the subject” if the events came up in class, while other local schools are proceeding with care.

Before you consider the ideas below, you may want to review a guest post from our blog, 10 Ways to Talk to Students About Sensitive Issues in the News, originally written during the Trayvon Martin protests in 2012.

Or, read an Aug. 20 interview from our friends at Facing History and Ourselves in which Steve Becton, associate program director for urban education at the organization, says:

My first concern would be the emotional well-being of all my students and the fragility of civility right now.

If I were in a classroom teaching right now, my goals would be the following:

–Give students a safe outlet for expressing their thoughts without arguing about the incident.

–Have students imagine the best possible outcome.

–Avoid further perpetuation of the fear and hatred of law enforcement that these incidents encourage.

–Help students to consider the tools for civil protest that are in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and in the spirit of brotherhood.

–Help students to examine the role that race, class, privilege, and stereotyping plays not just in this incident, but in our society.

–Bring historical context to the conversation.

How do you do that?

The first step is contracting for civil dialogue. Then I would go into a very effective reflective writing, active listening and civil dialogue protocol that we call “Learn to Listen/Listen to Learn.” This protocol calls for journaling, listening to others’ perspectives and civil dialogue rather than debate.

II. Ideas From Our Audience

In August we asked teachers if, and how, they’d be teaching about Ferguson.

Many suggested following the Twitter hashtag #FergusonSyllabus, started by Dr. Marcia Chatelain of Georgetown University:

Dr. Chatelain has written about her “crowdsourced curriculum” for The Atlantic, and included many of the suggestions she received there.

Here are more ideas, written both in response to our Twitter query and posted on our blog:

Renee | Learn About the Historical Context and Take Action: I will be adapting a lesson plan I did six years ago on Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo. It was published in Rethinking Schools.

As a trainer of educators, I will also be encouraging teachers to think about activities they can do that can help young people learn about the historical context of the events in Ferguson and Mike Brown’s death, while also giving them an opportunity to take action.

Melissa | Questions for an Inquiry-Driven Approach: I plan to use an inquiry-driven approach.

  • What is justice?
  • How can we enforce it?
  • Who should enforce it?
  • What factors stand in the way of justice?
  • Do we need police? If so, what should be their job?
  • What role does/should the media play?
  • How did the media frame Michael Brown’s shooting and why? (Looking at various media outlets, including the New York Times obituary, which surprised me…)
  • Why do humans hold prejudices and how can we acknowledge them and move on?

I expect my students to come in with a lot of questions too, and want to use their questions to drive discussion, research and action. While there are countless directions this lesson can go, these questions are as far as I have gotten.

Thomas Sitzman | Read and Have a Conversation: I worked with some students this week about the violence. I felt like it was good to at least have a conversation about whether or not police should be required to wear cameras, while condemning the violence of the riots, and talking about how the police in Ferguson are nearly all white people whereas the citizens are two-thirds black people. We just read an article out loud and had a conversation about the events.

Cindy| Role Play and Brainstorm: If I were returning to the community college classroom this fall, I would engage students in role play, first as Michael Brown, then as Officer Darren Wilson, exploring the minds of both as victims. Next, I would engage the class in brainstorming before dividing them into groups (two pro and two con members in each), asking them to compose pro/con charts so they could grasp an overview of each side. Finally, I would ask them to take a position in an argumentative essay.

III. The Basics: What Happened, and What Do You Think It Means?

: Use this Q & A or this continually-updated Timeline of Events to help students quickly learn the basics. For more depth, Officer Wilson’s Grand Jury testimony has been released, along with other documents.

What actually happened on August 9th in Ferguson, Mo., and what has it meant for America? Like Melissa, quoted above, we, too, favor an inquiry-driven approach.

You might begin by having students construct an iceberg diagram, an activity designed by Facing History and Ourselves to help students consider not just the details of an event but also their underlying meaning and connections. Ask them to start by writing the facts they know, or think they know, above the “waterline” on their diagram.

If students haven’t heard about the events in Ferguson at all, they can review this timeline and interactive Q. and A. feature, as well as watch the video above.

Then, brainstorm a list of initial study questions designed to explore what’s under the surface. Why did the shooting of Michael Brown provoke such an outpouring of protest and commentary, both in Ferguson and across the nation? Why did the Nov. 24 decision by the grand jury cause a new wave of anger and protest?

Working individually or in small groups, students can explore the five Times articles we’ve chosen below, or any others you, or they, like. After they have read, they can fill in the “underwater” section of their iceberg diagrams and explain their choices.

  • Interactive Timeline of Events (Regularly Updated)
  • Aug. 10, 2014 | “Grief and Protests Follow Shooting of a Teenager” – The first Times article covering the police shooting of Michael Brown and the initial aftermath in Ferguson, Mo., that brought the event to national attention.
  • Aug. 12, 2014 | “Shooting Spurs Hashtag Effort on Stereotypes” – The shooting spurred a social media campaign over negative depictions of young black men in the news media.
  • Aug. 15, 2014 | “Emotions Flare in Missouri Amid Police Statements” – The manner in which Ferguson police identified the officer involved in the death of Michael Brown and released evidence that Mr. Brown was a suspect in a robbery renewed tension in the Missouri town.
  • Aug. 16, 2014 | “Deep Tensions Rise to Surface After Ferguson Shooting” – The origins of Ferguson’s complex racial history run deep, and the residents of the largely black city with a white power structure say that most tensions have to do with an overzealous police force.
  • Aug. 25, 2014 | “Amid Mourning for Michael Brown, Call for Change” – Speakers at Michael Brown’s funeral service, addressing an overflowing crowd, exhorted mourners to work for justice not just for Mr. Brown but for others.

Finally, students might ask themselves how the killing of Michael Brown, or the days of turmoil which followed, could have been averted. They might construct an alternative timeline or “decision web” in which they plot the choices made by several participants on each day of the crisis, and how different choices might have led to different outcomes.

You might then pick one or several decisions, and do a barometer exercise in which students have a chance to share their own opinions.

IV. Going Deeper: Questions and Resources Around Themes

Below are selected Times resources that students might use to address the questions we saw most frequently posed by educators and others as this story developed.

Invite your students to add to the list of questions themselves since these are only starting points. In pairs or small groups they might then take on a theme or question and present on it to others.

Since each section ends with a question designed to have students think about what they could do to effect change, the unit might culminate with students planning some kind of social action on the issue they most care about.

The Role of Race and Stereotyping:


  • Why is race such an important factor in this story?
  • What role did stereotyping play in the events that unfolded in Ferguson?
  • Why do people stereotype? Is it always wrong?
  • To what extent do you think people see things differently based on their race or ethnicity?
  • Why is it so hard to talk about race?
  • What do the Ferguson protests reveal about American attitudes toward race?
  • How do you think the national conversation about race is evolving?
  • What can you and people your age do to make that conversation more fruitful?

Times Resources

The Role of Protests:


  • How did the protests in Ferguson affect you?
  • Are some types of protests — or protesters — more effective than others? What examples can you give?
  • What protests in history have been effective? What can we learn from them?
  • What role did social media play in reacting to the events in Ferguson?
  • What kinds of protests have you ever been involved in?
  • How might you design or participate in a protest around some aspect of this issue that matters to you?

Times Resources

The Role of the Police:


  • What kinds of interactions have you personally had with the police?
  • What role do you think the police should play in our society?
  • How would you describe the Ferguson police force’s point of view about and response to the protests? How should the police have responded differently?
  • Why were the police in Ferguson so heavily armed?
  • How would you describe your community’s relationship with your local police department?
  • How could you improve the relationship between police officers and citizens in your area? How might you improve the relationship between the police and and a particular demographic, such as teenagers or African-Americans?

Times Resources

The Role of the Media and Social Media:

The same day we asked “How Will You Teach About Ferguson?,” a profile of Michael Brown that described him as “no angel” was on the front page of The New York Times. We instantly heard from several on Twitter that teaching about media bias, in The Times and elsewhere, would be part of teaching about Ferguson:

The Times’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, responded to the complaints, but we include a questions about it on our list:


  • How did the media cover Ferguson? What examples of good reporting can you find? What examples of coverage you consider problematic did you see?
  • What bias or stereotyping did you witness in media coverage, whether in choices of words, images, headlines, interviews or anything else? How do you think that may have affected perception of the events and their meaning?
  • Do you think the Times’s profile of Michael Brown was biased or unfair? How would you respond to the public editor’s column about it?
  • What role did social media play in this story?
  • How is social media affecting how news breaks, is reported and is responded to in general? What examples can you give beyond Ferguson?
  • What kind of piece could you report about some aspect of Ferguson or the issues it raises for your school or local community?

Times Resources

Historical Underpinnings:


  • How has the United States progressed in terms of equal rights since the civil rights era? What work is there still to be done, in your opinion?
  • What events from the past does the shooting of Michael Brown remind you of? What parallels can you draw?
  • How has the town of Ferguson changed since the 1960s?
  • How, in terms of demographics and political structure, has your area changed? What tensions have those changes caused?
  • How can you help others understand the role the past continues to play today in regard to an issue you care about?

Times Resources

The Impact Beyond Ferguson:


  • How far has the news of the Ferguson protests carried? What has been the impact of Michael Brown’s death beyond his hometown?
  • How have other places around the globe reported on or characterized the events in Ferguson?
  • How do you understand the issues raised by Ferguson as they apply to your own life and the place you live?

Times Resources

The Aftermath

We close with some questions posed by Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. On his blog, he reflects on what Ferguson means for his school community and poses many questions, among them these:

  • What happens when too many people feel that the [American] dream is not accessible to them?
  • How do we get better than this?
  • How do we become a more just society?
  • How do we not lose hope?
  • How do we close the gap between the best ideals of America and the reality that we see around us every day?

How would you answer those questions?

Times Resources

Resources From Around the Web

Related Learning Network Resources


This resource may be used to address the academic standards listed below.

Common Core E.L.A. Anchor Standards
  • 1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

  • 2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

  • 3 Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

  • 6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

  • 7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

  • 8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

  • 9 Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice
    • 1 Understands ideas about civic life, politics, and government.

    • 3 Understands the sources, purposes, and functions of law, and the importance of the rule of law for the protection of individual rights and the common good.

    • 4 Understands the concept of a constitution, the various purposes that constitutions serve, and the conditions that contribute to the establishment and maintenance of constitutional government.

    • 11 Understands the role of diversity in American life and the importance of shared values, political beliefs, and civic beliefs in an increasingly diverse American society.

    • 13 Understands the character of American political and social conflict and factors that tend to prevent or lower its intensity.

    • 14 Understands issues concerning the disparities between ideals and reality in American political and social life.

    • 15 Understands how the United States Constitution grants and distributes power and responsibilities to national and state government and how it seeks to prevent the abuse of power.

    • 18 Understands the role and importance of law in the American constitutional system and issues regarding the judicial protection of individual rights.

    • 25 Understands issues regarding personal, political, and economic rights.

    • 26 Understands issues regarding the proper scope and limits of rights and the relationships among personal, political, and economic rights.

    • 28 Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals.

    Historical Understanding
    • 2 Understands the historical perspective.

    United States History
    • 29 Understands the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.

    • 31 Understands economic, social, and cultural developments in the contemporary United States.

Current Events

Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.


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