Faculty Voices: Gary Bailey on Ferguson

On August 9th, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man was fatally shot by a 28-year-old White police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. While the circumstances of the altercation itself remain disputed, Brown’s tragic death sparked significant civil unrest, protests, and a greater dialogue about police brutality and racial discrimination throughout the United States. After months of deliberation, a grand jury decided to not indict Wilson for any criminal charges in relation to the incident. As a result, protests and demonstrations have occurred in approximately one dozen US cities in a collective demand for justice.

To glean more context on the implications of the events in Ferguson and the sentiments fueling the unrest nationwide, we sat down with esteemed SocialWork@Simmons faculty member Dr. Gary Bailey this Tuesday. He offers his powerful perspective on the Ferguson tragedy and how social workers can work on the front lines to make a difference.

Dr. Gary Bailey, M.S.W., A.C.S.W., is currently a professor of practice at Simmons School of Social Work and has a faculty appointment at the Simmons School of Nursing and Health Sciences. Among Gary’s many accomplishments, he was the first person of color elected as president of the International Federation of Social Workers in 2010 and was also appointed to the CSWE Global Commission. Dr. Bailey has been recognized with numerous awards and honors including recognition as a NASW Pioneer. For more information on his career and his many honors, visit Mr. Bailey’s SocialWork@Simmons faculty page.

The following is the full transcript of our conversation with Dr. Bailey:


Interviewer: First off, we would love it if you gave our audience a little background on yesterday’s verdict and the resulting sentiments surrounding the decision.

Gary: It wasn’t a verdict. What you had was a decision by the grand jury not to move forward and not to indict. We really need to be clear about that. A verdict would say that there was a trial and there was no trial. What you had was a presentation of evidence to a grand jury at which point the jury makes a decision about whether or not it then moves forward to trial, which then moves forward to verdict.

Interviewer: Thank you for that important clarification. What are your opinions on the incident itself in Ferguson, Missouri and the resulting dialogue surrounding Michael Brown’s death and the grand jury decision?

Gary: I think that when we look back on what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, we can extrapolate this to talk about what happened in New York City, or we could then take it to talk about what happened in Florida with Trayvon Martin – but let’s focus on Ferguson this past summer. I think that one would be able to discretely”…”say that this was an incident of the police “doing their job” – possibly. However, I think that if we look at this in a broad way, what we see here is another type of incident where an unarmed African American male (who this is predominantly happening to) was tried and executed by those people who are charged with protecting the public.

What followed was the rioting that occurred in Missouri or an episode of what some people would refer to as “Black rage” (a term first coined by the Boston psychiatrist Dr. Chester M. Pierce). What I think what we really need to address is what Dr. Carol Anderson refers to as “White rage.” Anderson states that “White rage has been historically cloaked in the niceties of “law and order”, but it is rage nonetheless. It is rage that happens in the voting booth. It is rage that goes unnoticed for the most part and is accepted for the most part because White rage does not have to take to the streets or with great regularity, face the onslaught of rubber bullets. White rage carries with it an aura of respectability. It has access to the courts, and has access to our police. In fact the perpetrators are often the police, or other agents of the state such as legislators, and governors. Often, their efforts are being seen as being just and noble. White rage is central to American history.”

Interviewer: Ideally, what kind of legislation or reform would you like to see enacted so that an incident like the one in Ferguson does not occur again?

Gary: First of all, you have to take into account that all lives matter, that Black lives matter and that somehow we are not looking at White male individuals as having more credibility or credence in our society than any other sector of the population. I don’t know that there is legislation [that could be reformed or enacted per say], except that the law [must be] applied equally to all people.

It is important that those people who are charged with protecting our society (the police force) are not armed as paramilitary forces in our cities. It is important that they understand that they are there to work on behalf of the communities that they serve, and that they really give back to their community and learn how to do better community policing.

I have numbers of friends who are in the police force and have worked closely with police officers across this country, so I have a great deal of respect for police. However, that does not mean that there isn’t a need for ongoing training, and that there isn’t a need for accountability. I would be an advocate for body cameras and cameras in police cars as a way of documenting both justifiable police action as well as helping to weed out those bad eggs who are, perhaps, giving other police officers who are doing a good job a bad name.

Interviewer: What are the implications of the grand jury decision in what’s happening right now in the conversation about race? How do you see the dialogue evolving?

Gary: I think America is at a place where we are not at a point where we are prepared to talk about the issues of race. Using South Africa as an example, [a country] that went through a period of truth and reconciliation, we are still in denial about our racialized past. We continue to play out over and over a kind of denial of responsibility. If I hear one more person say, “Well I had nothing to do with slavery” or, “My family came to this country at such and such a time,” I would offer them another option. I have nothing to do with, for example, the Holocaust. My family in Ohio had absolutely nothing to do with it. We were here in America. That does not mean that I do not bear responsibility as a citizen of the world for ensuring that that never happens again.

When I hear that sort of qualification or abdication of any kind of responsibility when we talk about America’s relationship to race, we can make that argument about all sorts of things. As a man, I have never acted in a way that was sexist towards a woman. Does that mean I have no responsibility for sexism? I think what we have to be able to do as a society is to get to a place where we can have a very hard and difficult conversation about the issues of race. It is a really complex relationship in this country. I think we have deluded ourselves after the first election of President Obama. Many people thought that this was, in clinical terms, “a flight into health,” that we were now free, and that we were now post-race. If anything, what this has done, both in his election and his re-election, is open a gaping puss-filled wound that is called racism in this country.

Interviewer: As a social worker, how do you think cases like Ferguson will affect the social work profession. How do you think social workers can mobilize and effect change in their communities?

Gary: I think that we have to be able to be on the front lines, and that we are a social justice/social action profession. I am not deluded to believe that we all sing from the same hymnal or that we see the world in exactly the same way, but I do believe that in order to be a professional social worker, one really has to adopt a social justice and social action perspective and way of doing business. When one begins to look at people who have been historically disenfranchised, when one is going into communities or host settings where people are afraid, when one wants to begin to talk about why one is depressed or why one is unhappy or why one is not doing one’s school work and one is not talking to kids/adults about the reality of their lives – [that social worker] is missing the boat. As social workers, we don’t ignore the obvious. We really have to get back on the ground and into communities. We have to talk with people with whom we don’t always agree. We need to speak to people across difference, and we have to really lead by example.

Closing Comments

Gary: I believe that what we saw last night was an abdication of responsibility by Prosecutor McCulloch in St. Louis County. What we saw was the theater of the absurd and American obscenity at its best. The timing of this and the whole travesty of what happened in Missouri has been something that could be a business school casebook on how not to do things. It is in some ways, so sadly American in that the prosecutor, in his arrogance, just utterly disregarded the people’s jurisdiction for whom he is elected to serve. He demonstrated, without question, how 400 years of racist White supremacy can corrupt even a so-called educated human being. It was, without a doubt, in my opinion, arrogant and obscene. What was lost for many people was his obligation in that grand jury room to be the representative of the victim. The victim was Michael Brown. The victim was not the police officer. That is the purpose of the prosecutor. That is who died: Mike Brown. He was supposed to be Mike Brown’s advocate in the grand jury room. What is most disturbing to me as a human being and as an American is to watch a miscarriage of this process.