A project by PROOF: Media for Social Justice and the University of Dayton's Human Rights Centre.
I am just recently back from a two-week trip to New York, where I met with fellow PROOFers to discuss our next project. Although I had planned on including the Unearthed America project (on the culture of rape in the US) in my PhD research, the timeline of the project is longer than anticipated. Instead, we decided that I should work on the graphic design of the upcoming exhibition for the Moral Courage Project, "Ferguson Voices: Disrupting the Frame."
Back on Australian soil this week, I've started the process of developing a design brief, and this starts with research on Ferguson, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, and the protests and activism that followed.
The Moral Courage Project is a program teaches university students techniques to record testimony for social justice and human rights. As part of this project, PROOF will be creating the exhibition, "Ferguson Voices: Disrupting the Frame," and will include the testimonies and portraits of people from Ferguson, a municipality of St Louis, Missouri, who were part of the protests and/or have been activists since the fatal shooting of 18-year old Michael Brown by Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson on the 9 August 2014.
While the Department of Justice did not indict Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown, an investigation into the Ferguson Police Department (FPD) determined that the FPD had regularly engaged in misconduct towards the community members of Ferguson, in particular discriminating towards African-American citizens and applying racial stereotypes that “revealed a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct within the Ferguson Police Department that violates the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and federal statutory law” (US Department of Justice, 2015b)
The incident lead to a series of protests in Ferguson and a heavily militalised police response that many viewed as symptomatic of the underlying issue that led to Michael Brown’s death, sparking vigorous debate about the relationship between law enforcement and the African-American community, the militarisation of police, and the Use of Force Doctrine in Missouri and other states. It also led to increased activism in relation to issues such as for-profit policing, and the education and prison systems.
St Louis is an unusual city in the US: it has 90 municipalities, some with a population of less than 100 people and a few square miles in area. There are 60 police forces and 81 municipal courts. For-profit policing is rife. According to Professor Brendan Roediger, from the St Louis University School of Law, there were 440,000 outstanding arrest warrants for minor offences in 2014, 9 times higher than Cook County in Illinois, Chicago. In an interview with Tim Pool in the documentary, "Ferguson: A Report from Occupied Territory" (2015), Roediger said, "Most of the homeless people that I work with at some point were making it...and then something happened. And the municipal court system is often the something that happened."
Within many of these municipal courts, almost all of the people who work in the court system are white, while the majority of the defendants are black. Racial profiling is a daily occurrence, with people being pulled over on regular basis (sometimes in a number of different municipalities in one day), or for J-Walking in areas that have no pedestrian crossings or walk lights. For people on fixed or low incomes, the fines can be financially crippling, and often have to be paid in a short period of time or an arrest warrant is issued. For some people, it comes down to making a choice between feeding their families or paying the fine, which in reality is a choice between feeding their families or going to jail and losing their jobs. The system, from this Australian's perspective, seems so far beyond broken that it makes absolutely no sense that the municipal system should be allowed to continue, particularly under a black presidency.
But who are we to talk?
Despite that fact that so many people assume people from the US and Australia share a similar culture, the fact is that we are very different in many ways. But those differences are not to be found in the way we treat certain groups within our communities, particularly within our criminal justice systems. According the the Australian Bureau of Statistics, "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners accounted for just over a quarter (27%) of the total Australian prisoner population. The total Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population aged 18 years and over in 2015 was approximately 2% of the Australian population aged 18 years and over (based on Australian Demographic Statistics (cat. no. 3101.0) and Estimates and Projections, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2001 to 2026."
Let's recap that: Indigenous Australians accounted for 27% of the prison population in 2015, but only 2% of the population? There's something very wrong with our own criminal justice, education, health and social systems when this is allowed to happen under our watch. Researching Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown for the MCP design brief brings these kinds of parallels to my own country, and it should. Learning about Ferguson should inform all humans of our responsibility towards each other, but of course, with this research comes the harsh reality that racism is alive, well, thriving and feeding on the news stories that paint African Americans as 'animals' - as less than human. It's an all too familiar narrative.
What the research into Ferguson has highlighted is that moral courage, and standing up for social justice, is a local and global imperative: when systems of justice are so broken that they keep people in unfair cycles of poverty, we have a duty to call out those who make for-profit policing and for-profit jailing the norm. As an individual, it's important to remember that what you do, say and contribute can and does make a difference. As a designer, I can use my skills to represent those who have stood up for justice, but to do that, I need to know more about the issue we're talking about. After years of focusing on the CHaSSMM Model and its potential for difficult exhibition design, I really am starting to see how it is guiding my practice in a positive way. It's making me more measured in my approach to design. I don't just jump in like I used to - I want to know about the issue, the people and the cultural and social contexts that not only lead to the shooting of an 18 year-old in such a horrific way, but also why Michael's Brown's death came to symbolise something much deeper for the people of Ferguson - and why it should mean something to us all.
Willhemina Wahlin is the creator of Braenchild Media, Creative Director of PROOF: Media for Social Justice and a Lecturer in Graphic Design at Charles Sturt University, Port Macquarie, Australia, where she is also conducting doctoral research on the design of 'difficult knowledge' exhibitions. "Ferguson Voices" will be included in her final PhD exhibition, which will also include excerpts from other exhibitions she has designed, including "The Rescuers", "Broken?" and "Unearthed India".
For more information on the Moral Courage Project, see:
University of Dayton: https://www.udayton.edu/artssciences/ctr/hrc/education/moral-courage/index.php