Last week, Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network announced that it was sending Iyanla Vanzant — minister, spiritual life coach, host of OWN’s “Iyanla, Fix My Life” — to Ferguson, Mo., following the death of Michael Brown and the “subsequent unrest” in the town. The stated goal was for Vanzant to film a special episode of her TV show and “to listen to the people who have been adversely affected and to join the community in finding a path from violence into healing.”
This news was met with a hefty amount of skepticism. It’s one thing for news cameras to be in Ferguson during the protests and chaos. It’s another for cameras to arrive with a television star, especially one with an upcoming season of “Iyanla, Fix My Life” to promote. Some accused her of exploiting the volatile, emotional situation for her television show.
Before the episode aired on Tuesday night (called “Iyanla: Fix My Life Special Report: Healing in Ferguson”), Vanzant defended her choice to go with her production team. “The reason cameras went this time was because I did not see in the media the everyday person,” she told theGrio.com. “The people I talked to, nobody else talked to. The places I went, nobody else went.” She added that she plans to go back without any media coverage.
So, how did the episode go? Though it was the first time Vanzant has ever gone outside of her regular “Fix My Life” format, she stuck to what she does: Getting people to talk.
It started with a voice-over setting everything up, images of Brown on the screen. “Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, was shot to death by white police officer Darren Wilson,” she said. “An autopsy indicates that Michael was shot at least six times. Brown’s family and many in the Ferguson community believe the shooting was unprovoked. Police say Michael Brown physically assaulted the officer first.”
Then, photos of protesters with signs like “We want a murder charge” were shown. “The people of Ferguson took to the streets with their hurt, anger and outrage,” the voice-over continued. More footage of the National Guard arriving, along with President Obama’s call for peace.
Words appeared on the screen: “Iyanla felt she had to go to Ferguson to bring healing. This is her journey.”
Cut to: Vanzant at the Chicago airport, leaving at 5 a.m. “We are heading off to Ferguson, Missouri, hopefully to bring a healing bond to a very hurt and angry outraged community,” she said. “A community that’s calling for justice.” She noted that she has seen this pattern before: The anger, the guardsmen and shields and tear gas after a tragedy occurs. She named Trayvon Martin and Rodney King, and others that never made the news.
“I’m here to interrupt the pattern,” Vanzant said after she arrived in Ferguson, sitting in the back of an SUV driving through town. “We need to do better. We need to be better and understand why this keeps happening over and over and over. It’s clear we need another way to express our hurt and suffering.”
Vanzant’s SUV arrived at the site where Brown was shot, because as she said, “My first order of business is to pay homage to the spirit that brought us all together. Michael Brown… a young man whose spirit cannot be resting because of the upheaval.”
She got out of the car and walked over the tribute set up in the street, where there was a large crowd. Cameras filmed as she “paid honor” to Brown, sprinkling a bottle of water over the memorial to “offer fresh water” to his spirit. She sang “Come round here, my Lord” as many took videos of the scene with their iPhones.
Afterwards, many people came up to her and she offered them hugs. “We can’t be silent anymore, we cannot,” Vanzant said to a sobbing woman.
Next, Vanzant walked into the crowd and found one man who witnessed Brown’s shooting. The man said he knew Brown since he was a kid. “How does that feel for you?” Vanzant asked as more people gathered around to watch. “What do you do with that hurt?”
“Protest. Fight,” the man replied.
“What are you asking for?” Vanzant asked, taking his face in her hands so he would look her in the eye.
“Respect,” he said. “They don’t respect us.”
“When you’re out here at night, when you’re protesting and you’re marching, who are you asking to respect you?” she pressed.
“The ones that are supposed to be protecting us – the police,” he replied.
“But if we’re not respecting ourselves, we’re teaching them how to treat us. So how do we handle that? What do we do?” Vanzant continued.
“We gotta come together and talk to each other. We gotta communicate,” the man said.
Much of the episode continued in the same vein, as many people in the black community opened up about the pain of Brown’s death and the deep distrust that many feel for law enforcement in the town.
Elsewhere, Vanzant bluntly zeroed in on many issues. “This is a hard question: We are killing each other every single day,” she said in a conversation with Alderman Antonio French. “If that’s going on in our community – I’m speaking specifically of community of color – if that‘s going on every day, what is the upset? What’s the upset?”
“I’ve heard that logic before,” French said. Though in this case, he added, it’s not only the death of the person — it’s about how the government is treating them and frustration that’s been building for many years.
Vanzant asked if this was a racial issue. “I think race has a lot to do with it,” French responded. “I think what started as the case of one young man being killed by a police officer has really turned into a civil rights issue.”
Later, Vanzant left the crowds to sit with an “unlikely pairing” of Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson and Brown’s uncle, Charles Ewing, who had a discussion about the ways to resolve the larger problems of the town. Sitting across from each other at a table, Vanzant had them both address each other directly with questions and about what they wanted.
“A lot of times I drive down streets of St. Louis and I see numerous times that police officers have pulled over young African American men — and some Latino — and they have them line them up on the curb likes ducks in a row with handcuffs on them,” Ewing said, adding that many of these men are raised in homes without fathers and are looking for role models. Constantly being misunderstood by police officers, he said, adds fuel to fire and frustration.
“What would you say needs to be healed now?” Vanzant prompted the police chief.
“The perception of the police community,” Jackson replied. “And the way the police interact with the community.”
They both agreed there’s fear on both sides even though no one wants a conflict. Jackson asked Ewing to “please give this process a chance to play out.” At the end of the conversation, Vanzant had the three of them all hold hands across the table.
Afterward, there was a deeply emotional meeting with multiple men (several who identified as gang members) on the front lines of the protests. They previously told producers they wanted their faces covered before appearing on camera, but the day of the meeting, they decided it didn’t matter and showed up mask-free. Vanzant went around the circle and asked many of them, “What’s your story?” before sharing her own; namely, that she feels immense guilt for failing as an elder in the community to “usher younger ones up.”
Another scene occurred as Vanzant held the town hall with leaders, pastors and parents. Plus, hip hop producer Benzino, who was there to talk about the responsibility of hip hop artists to become positive role models and leaders. (Vanzant proudly introduced him as a cast member of VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta.” Maybe the wrong time for a plug.)
People at the town hall agreed that they were fed up with the treatment of minorities in Ferguson. “It’s a shame that it took something like this, so tragic, for us to even have a conversation,” one person said.
Throughout, Vanzant tried to sprinkle in some of her other “teaching” moments throughout all the very intense conversations. During the town hall meeting, a young white man started to say, “The reason why I’m really here is that I feel that the type of situation going on is wrong. I kind of see why they’re doing it, but I don’t condone it.”
Vanzant didn’t let him finish. “Can I offer you some coaching? Would you be open to that?” she said, smiling widely. She gently let him know that using the phrase “they” when he really means “young African American men” is not really a great idea because it “depersonalizes” people.
She also offered advice to some protesters holding “Don’t Shoot” signs. “Don’t affirm what you don’t want,” Vanzant said. She explained that the signs would be more effective if they simply read, “Hands up. See Me.”