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John Samuel Tieman: Ferguson and the We-ness of Transition

All we have is anger and sadness. On the front page of Friday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch was a story of two policemen shot in Ferguson. There was also a huge photograph of an anarchist blocking traffic during the demonstration in which the policemen were shot. Despite all the calls for unity since the Michael Brown shooting, St. Louis is no less divided now than it was the day before that young man died.

Poverty. Racial tensions. Political corruption. Police brutality. Anarchy. I don’t have any solutions to these problems. Neither does anyone else.


After forty years in the classroom, I recently retired. My last job was with the St. Louis Public Schools. Most of my students were poor, and some were the poorest of the poor. The work was grindingly difficult and spiritually numbing. But I learned something.

I was often the only white person in the room. This is unusual for a white person in America although it’s a common experience for a black person to be isolated in this way. Eventually, I would reach a point where this experience was simply, well, where I worked. But I still remember my first day. An auditorium filled with black folks and one white guy, me. I had tremendous anxiety, and no idea what would happen next. So what happened next? I resigned myself to the situation. Meaning, I resigned myself to dialogue. So what happened next? Not much. We went to class. That’s my point. I entered into a dialogue, the outcome of which was beyond my control. Thus it went for the next fourteen years.


Everyone comes to Ferguson with an agenda. Everyone has an answer. As one of my students might say, “How’s it going so far?” Every one of us is like the anarchist in the street. We can stop traffic, and, for the moment, holler our agenda. Then everyone moves on, and, as the old journalist says, tomorrow the front page lines the bottom of the birdcage. The deadlock is not simply among street protesters. Some of our elected officials have been downright embarrassing in their unhelpfulness.

Everyone has an agenda. Everyone is talking and no one is listening.


I often think the best things in life begin with two components, anxiety and a lack of control. Art. Love. Who will win tomorrow’s baseball game? Go to the new restaurant with friends, order the thing you can’t pronounce, and you’ll see what I mean. Least of all can we control our own mind, or the minds of others, when we enter into dialogue. Why? Because the second before the dialogue begins, there is you and there is me. The moment after dialogue begins, there is only that which is between us, call it the we-ness of transition. No one controls where that we-ness will go. If the dialogue is honest, then no one controls it. All you can say is that dialogue is transition. All you can say of transition is that it will lead to change. And everyone — from sweet God above to the anarchist in the street — knows that St. Louis needs to change.

So there’s my agenda. Listen. Speak. Listen again. Then listen again. Don’t think you’re going to control what comes next. Because what comes next is – Who knows?

Copyright 2015 John Samuel Tieman

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