The Berkley Center welcomed Pulitzer Center grantee Richard Weiss and Teddy Washington, a Washington University student who was targeted in a racially charged incident in St. Louis, for a conversation on racial justice.
Weiss and Washington were joined by Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery to discuss race relations in the St. Louis area now, five years after the shooting of Michael Brown, Jr. in nearby Ferguson, Missouri. Emerald Christopher-Byrd, an adjunct professor at Georgetown, moderated the conversation.
The event was co-sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which has partnered with the Berkley Center since the 2017–2018 academic year to bring journalists to campus, and supported by the Doyle Engaging Difference Program.
Profiled over Pancakes
Washington made national news in July 2018, after police officers in Clayton, Missouri, mistakenly detained the 18-year-old student and nine classmates. The group of African-American friends had eaten at a local IHOP, where two other people of color dine-and-dashed around the same time.
Wrongful detention was traumatic for Washington. “Time just slowed down,” he recalled. “I realized that this is the beginning of a situation that could turn very, very bad.” Luckily, Washington and his classmates returned unharmed to campus the same night.
“What was interesting to me as a storyteller was this sort of paradox,” reflected Weiss. “There was a man who was shot and killed four years earlier—left in the street for hours upon hours…This one was different. I wanted to explain why this would be so upsetting to these students, to these families.”
Weiss has covered Washington as part of the “Before Ferguson, Beyond Ferguson” reporting project, supported by the Pulitzer Center to explore social inequities in and around St. Louis through reporting on minority families with deep roots in the area.
The project has allowed Washington to undergo a sort of awakening to racial injustice. “I had read statistics about how African-Americans are treated in the United States, but it was strictly through statistics and books,” he remembers. “But when these things happened to me, it made me question what I was doing to address these problems.”
Religion and Resistance
Like many people of color, Washington first learned from his parents about practical techniques to resist racial profiling and other forms of injustice. “They weren’t trying to make me afraid of the world, but at the same time they wanted me to be prepared and aware,” he said.
Awareness of racial inequity was also stressed at St. Louis University High School (SLUH), a Jesuit institution that Washington attended.
“The routine of religion at SLUH—and also in my grade school—almost did the same exact thing that my parents did,” recalled Washington. “I was implicitly learning rules to live by, learning what it means to be a man for others.”
Applying similar religious ethics, faith leaders have played important roles in the aftermath of racially charged police shootings. Lowery recognized the connection between religion and resistance during his reporting for the “Fatal Force” project, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.
“The role of religion has always been central to the story of African-American resilience,” he remarked. “Among the leaders and the folks who are attempting to both quell frustration and anger but also trying to hold powerful people to account, very often you see people who are clergy in some capacity.”
‘The Story of America’
Panelists also considered how perceptions of police violence and racial injustice have changed since the 2014 unrest in Ferguson. “What’s changed is really the conversation,” reflected Weiss. “The words ‘racial equity’ were not in the parlance.”
The changing conversation has been aided by more robust data. “When Michael Brown was killed on August 9, 2014, we didn’t know how many people were killed each day in America by American police,” Lowery said. “Today that’s not true.”
Media attention, including reporting by Lowery and by Weiss, continues to shed light on the prevalence of police violence against people of color in the United States. “What became increasingly clear over the course of these years was that the story of Ferguson is the story of America,” shared Lowery.
Although Lowery noted how Ferguson serves as a sort of American paradigm, he also highlighted local steps for progress, remarking,
“I do think a lot of people have realized in the last few years precisely this: That these problems they care about, these things that they’re watching, are things that they can do work on wherever they live.”