Hard Times in Ferguson
On August 9 in Ferguson Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis with 10% unemployment and a poverty level 46.4% higher than the Missouri average, an unarmed black teenager, Mike Brown was gunned down in the street by a white policeman, Darren Wilson in the middle of the day, in the middle of the road that goes through the middle of the apartment complex where he lived.. Although Brown was killed instantly by one of the torrent of bullets pumped into his body by Officer Wilson, his body, disfigured by multiple gunshot woumds, lay in the road for four and a half hours before the police removed it, Brown’s family was traumatized The entire neighborhood was traumatized. The country was traumatized. A thousand people were drawn to the scene of this disaster. on the first day. It was national news within hours. On the second day there were anarchists in the crowd who triggered an outburst of violence which resulted in the burning of a convenience store, but within 24 hours, local activists were guarding the shops and the order was restored.
Nightly protests continued in Ferguson. The sanctity of the community had been violated. Long time stresses between black youth and the white police force became a tangible threat. The police went into damage control mode, making one dishonest statement after another while refusing to indict Darren Wilson. The youth took to the streets, night after night. They demanded change. They demanded that Darren Wilson be indicted for murder. They demanded that the police live by the same rules anyone should have to abide by. Another youth was shot and killed by the police in St. Louis in an unrelated incident. Everywhere, it seemed that their lives were treated as disposable and police were ready to kill them anywhere anytime.
Ricardo and Rosemary, B.L.A.C.K. and Dhoruba
After a couple of weeks, with Ferguson in the news every day, Rochester, activists Rosemary Rivera and Ricardo Adams decided to go and see for himself what was going on there. Ricardo and Rosemary went to Ferguson, and talked to everyone,and eventually bonded with the local grass roots activsts. When they came home, they were filled with a sense that something important was happening in Ferguson. A new kind of revolution was happening, led by the people themselves. They had had enough abuse and were not going to stand down until their demands were taken seriously.
Ricardo returned to Ferguson for the weekend of resistance in October. He convinced some local University of Rochester students to go as well. On reaching St. Louis, Ricardo immediately went to join his friends on the street. The young people, who drove, arrived later and found their way into Ferguson where the joined the ongoing protest late Friday afternoon. Eventually Ricardo returned with his friend Dhoruba, and they marched off into the night with Tribe X, a local group of grassroots protesters.
In Ferguson, young black people have been marching in the streets every night since the death of Michael Brown on August 9th. Many march at night and go to work or school during the day. Ferguson, Stl Louis are not so different than many other cities in this country. Black lives are not valued. African Americans live in ghettos and projects like the one where Mike Brown lived, policed by white men from the suburbs. This is a symptom of the breakdown of community. The police are not men of the community. They aren’t comfortable with the local residents and there is no trust between them.
B.L.A.C.K. meets Tribe X in Ferguson where they learn about Direct Action
I attended a talk recently by some young people who had been to Ferguson on the weekend of resistance a couple of weeks ago. Most of them were University of Rochester students who belong to an organization they call B.L.A.C.K. It’s a radical name, but my sense was that before they went to Ferguson they didn’t really know what radical meant. In Ferguson, they traveled with a group of local activists who called themselves Tribe X. Tribe X is one of a number of true grassroots organizations in Ferguson, marching through the streets night after night to protest the killing of Michael Brown, and unarmed teenager, by a white policeman. Since Mike Brown’s death, two other unarmed black youths have been killed by the police in St. Louis under highly suspicious circumstances.
As the members of B.L.A.C.K. drove out to the Missouri, they drew their boundaries and prepared for the unknown. The women took a strong feminist stance. Adrian, their male companion asked many questions and debated their assertions in his attempt to understand where they were coming from. Finally, they told him that they didn’t owe him any explanations. He was going to have to accept their stance as they presented it. And if he didn’t get it then he should go do some research on his own to figure it out. I have to say that on hearing this, the phrase “You’re on the bus or you’re off the bus” came to mind. Either way, the bus is rollin’!
As a woman, I did understand that they were declaring their independence from patriarchal law. They weren’t going to be held back by a man, and they certainly weren’t go to stand back ‘for their own good.’ I was wondering what it had to do with their experiences in Ferguson. More on that later. They said that this isn’t the Civil Rights Movement like in the 50s. And I had to supress a giddy rush of my early days resisting the Vietnam War. We weren’t about to be those boring old peace follks from the past. (for at least another 30 years) They aren’t going to sit around and let people attack them in coffee shops. However, in the end they sat down and let armed police attack them in the road. So, they may have overreached there. . . as we did. I thought though, that this just might be the generation that will still be doing it in another 30 or 40 years.
The young people from B.L.A.C.K. went to Ferguson, of course, not to explore gender based oppression, but rather to protest the oppression of the black population of Ferguson, and especially young black men, who were being systematically excluded from society and whose lives were treated as less than dogs by those representing the law on the streets of Ferguson. On their arrival they joined a protest outside the police station, where they found themselves warmly received, a pleasant surprise.
The had many experiences including marching through the night for hours, being assaulted and arrested by the police, and spending a night in jail. The first time they approached the corner where direct action was taking place, they found themselves faced down by mass of police backed by a tank – thing. But life was good too.. After being bailed out of jail, they found themselves in a diner with Cornel West. Later in the day, they visited the memorial for Michael Brown, where they saw a woman photograph her small son on the street, holding a sign that said “Hands up. Don’t Shoot!”. The words “I am Legend” were painted on the street. On the last night, the local groups with their expanded crowd of visitors found their way onto St. Louis University campus where they set up an Occupy style encampment.
Members fo the Black Studies department met with them, and treating them with respect, They described it as meeting with “dumbfounded authorities”. The authorities attempted to talk to them about letting the process work, but they weren’t buying At St. Louis U, the students from B.L.A.C.K were in their element. Newly radicalized, harrassed and arrested the night before, they had not slept and had visited Mike Brown’s memorial instead of napping. Now they were on the ground sharing their experiences with the St. Louis U. students. They were teaching their peers. There were over a thousand people on the lawn.
After spending my evening with them, I understood that they had experienced something entirely new. it was the first time they had really put themselves on the line for their convictions. But it was also the first time they felt the oneness of solidarity in the face of danger, shared passion for an immediate and very personal cause. It was the first time they really understood the extent of their own privilege, as well as the extent to which they had supressed the raw experience of life in order to live up to the standard of that privilege.
For the first time, when they arrived home they immediately saw what it was they needed to do in their own world. They hadn’t found a big picture, maybe, not the final goal. The old frame was broken and a new one would have to be formulated. But they had a new found ability to respond right now to events as they arise.
Dhoruba and the Demands
During the meeting with B.L.A.C.K., Ricardo reapeately said how much he would like to bring Dhoruba Shakur, a leader in the movement of local youth in Ferguson, to Rochester where he could tell his story and have a rest after months of daily protests. Some of the young people with the International Socilaist Organization were jazzed with the idea and offered to make a contribution Within a couple of days, Ricardo set out to pick Dhoruba up in St. Louis.
When Dhorumba spoke a week later, lhe told us the black youth of St. Louis had been marching through the nights for 74 days. He had set aside his life to work day and night, organizing events and supporting those who land in jail, including at times, himself and his partner who is pregnant. Their demand is that Darren Wilson, the cop who shot Mike Brown, be indicted and tried for the murder of Mike Brown. The decison of the Grand Jury was supposed to come down the week that the massive public protest occurred, but it was delayed unti January.
Dhoruba was concerned because a police report which tells a very different story than that told by Mike Brown’s companion has been released, along with an autopsy report they have been told might indicate that Brown was attacking Wilson when he fired 10 shots into him. He is exhausted and feeling down about these events. He says he feas what will happen if there is no indictment. The streets are bursting with tension. It’s also true that changes need to be made in the relationship between the community and the police, but the inidictment is the first step.
It would seem like indicting Michael Brown’s murder would be an obvious choice, but there is something about the delay in assembling those facts that seems off. Red tape, bureaucracy, a slow system. Yes. We know. There are now a number of witnesses telling conflicting stories about what happened. But most of them say that Brown was facing Wilson with his hands up when he was gunned down in the street. The shots that come from above occurred after he started to stumble and fall towards the ground. The coroner’s report fits this scenario just as well as the one described by Darren Wilson.
Here is testimony from Michael Brady who saw the tussle in the car from his window, and when he arrived on the street,
By the time he got outside, Brown had turned around and was facing Wilson. Brown was “balled up” with his arms under his stomach and he was “halfway down” to the ground. As he was falling, Brown took one or two steps toward Wilson because he was presumably hit and was stumbling forward; Wilson then shot him three or four times. Brady said that the pictures he took of Brown with his arms tucked in under his body is the position he was in as he was shot three or four more times by Wilson before hitting the ground.
When I read the accounts of various witness testimony, it is actually pretty consistent. No one knows for sure what happened in the car though I haven’t heard any reports about Wilson’s bruises which would corroborate his testimony that Brown was punching him in the face. The coroner’s report shows that Brown had lacerations on his face. So why is the news of Wilson’s denial and the autopsy reason to expect that there won’t be an indictment? There is certainly enough conflicting testimony, and reasonable corroboration for the testimony that Wilson shot an unarmed Brown as he fell to the ground, whatever his perception of the event may have been, to merit a trial before his peers,
If a man is made responsible for the use of a gun, then he should take responsibility when he uses it, and he should be responsible to the community he was hired to serve. It may be that there won’t be an indictment for Darren Wilson, but if we are to judge ourselves a just and responsible society, he ought to be served one. The protesters in Ferguson aren’t asking that Darren Wilson be executed. They are asking that he take responsiblity for his actions within the community and submit to their judgement. The community needs that trial to heal itself, to feel that justice has been served. How many times has an indigent or retarded or otherwise handicapped black man been executed so the family of his ‘victim’ can find closure. The young men of Ferguson need to see Darren Wilson tried so they can have closure, so they can feel safe in their own neighborhoods.
The Locals are the Real Deal
Dhoruba pointed out that the radicalization of the local youth was exacerbated by the fact that, not only had Mike Brown, an unarmed teenager been gunned down in the street, but in the weeks following, two more unarmed black teenagers were killed on the streets of St, Louis by white police officers. He said that the young black men of the community were radicalized. They weren’t going to let others tell them how to handle their situation. They were taking their lives back from a society that had not supported them, and now was actively threatening to literally kill them. There needs to be a discussion of white privilege. It exists, but the discussion need not be about blame. “None of us”, he said, “is in control of the circumstances of our birth.”
According to Dhoruba, Tribe X and the other mobilized black youth of Ferguson invite us to join them. They want our solidarity and whatever resources we choose to share with them. But this is their fight and they are going ot pursue it their way. He said that they don’t want us to be scared of them, but we had the chance to be at the front of a revolution in our day, and now it’s their day. I heard him because I know that we felt the same way in our day.
In the beginning, on August 9th after Mike Brown was killed, Dhoruba didn’t get a chance to go over to Canfield, the site of the murder until after Brown’s body had been removed. He didn’t go as part of a group. He just went over there to see what was going on. Some of those present described to him how long Brown’s body had laid on the ground, all afternoon in the middle of an apartment complex with more than a hundred homes surrounding, in plain sight of his family and neighbors, adults and children, lying uncovered on the ground. Police reports say the body was covered, but this is what the youth are thinking. According to the police report, Wilson left and didn’t report tje event for some time after the shooting. The coroner was called an hour and a half after the shooting. According to witnesses Brown’s body laid in the road for a long time with crime scene tape around it, and people were afraid to go near it.
The situation was very disturbing, and the inept management of the crime scene by the poikce made it worse. A huge crowd was present by the end of the day, but it was a vigil. On Sunday, the next day, some anarchists came from St, Louis, and initiated violence and looting. It started when one of the anarchists threw a brick through the window of a convenience store. The police watched and did not respond. Apparently the same group that started throwing bricks, somehow burned down a local convenience store.
At the time, Dhoruba strongly disagreed with the use of violence and destruction as a tactic. After 74 days and nghts on the street protesting, of being subjected to tear gas, beatings and arrests for walking or sitting in the streets of Ferguson, he has changed his mind. Some people, he says, are ready for a revolution, but other’s aren’t. He doesn’t know where the movement is going.
For two weeks after Brown’s death, the police kept a no-fly-zone for press helicopters over the city. Drones were used to surveille the people on the streets. Local activists were gathering around local businesses to protect them, and the looting had stopped. But the national news continued to report that there was rioting and looting in Ferguson. Dhoruba went to a community center where many activist groups had their offices and volunteeered. But after a while it seemed to him that they had so many issues, and so many masters to report to that they were not focusing on the crisis at hand. “When there is a crisis”, he said, “you need to focus on it until it is resolved.” They didn’t do this.
After a month he moved on to the grass roots actions in the streets. He felt like he was really doing something. Actions brought constant attention to what had occurred and to the problems still faced by youth in the community. The public days of protest were at cross purposes with the youth on the streets. They were formal and bounded by the same authorities who were the target of protests. Big names came to town and made self aggrandizing speeches, then left. The ministers were defining the events. Their stance was that you need to work within the system. The youth on the street did not trust the system. They wanted to confront it.
On the big ‘Weekend of Resistence’, they went to hear Cornel West speak, but they didn’t stay because there was a long list of ministers speaking before him. They weren’t interested, so they went back to the streets. West had been arrested with them the night before. A lot of new people joined them that night because a lot of college students had come to town to join the public protest during the day. So they split the group and played a game with the police, finally rejoining and then moving on to St Louis University. When they got there, they were allowed in and they immediately saw themselves as occupying the campus. Apparently Cornel West had intervened on their behalf, so they were allowed to stay and set up an encampment.
The leaders were invited to meet with representatives of the Black Studies Department, but they weren’t impressed by the same old lecture about needing to work with the system.. After the weekend passed and they left, the school really needed the rest of the protesters to move on. The president of the University, a progressive and a friend of Cornel West, asked them to write a list of whatever demands they might want to make of the University in exchange for breaking camp and leaving. Dhoruba says that he put everything he could think of on the list, jobs, financial assistance for local youth, a community center, the list was long. He didn’t need them to accept the demands, and he didn’t expect them to. But they did.
They wrote out an agreement and signed it, and they granted all of his demands. Of course, they were the demands that a university could respond to, they didn’t include the focal demand of the movement, indcit Darren Wilson. So, they packed up and left. But Dhoruba had mixed emotions about the result.
He said that its a good feeling to serve the community, “They might not understand your ideology, but that’s OK.” He said that if they force their ideas on the people, then they are no different than the current authorities. At the same time he didn’t want to let the movement die because they got big concessions at St. Louis University. So many issues had come forward during the weeks of continual protest and direct action. He had come to see that if you aren’t transforming yourself, you can’t create a revolution. Tthe Anarchists were followers of a different ideology with different methods but they found they could work together. with them. And they had been able to integrate the crowd that came on the national days of action as well.
Dhoruba said his movement shows love for people by radicalizing them, by putting them on the front lines and letting them experience the truth for themselves. Certainly this is what I had heard from B.L.A.C.K ‘Some people are on fire’, he said, ‘but we need everyone to be on fire if we are going to create real change,” He asked for support from elders and white people, but he said that no one is going to take over and lead the black youth this time. It’s about real change. One of the members of B.L.A.C.K. had said she wished there were more white people present to protect them. It’s sad to think that this is the case, but in Ferguson and Rochester, in the United States and in any country with a legacy of colonialism, this is true. And it has to change.
But I haven’t seen these kinds of ideas embraced since I was their age and calling for a revolution. So, I feel a little sadness that there is such a strong barrier between white and black, youth and elder, though I certainly understand it. At the same time, I felt a sense that these young people are going to carry their movement forward and they are going to make real change. While the affluent middle class members of B.L.A.C.K were joyouslyy adopting hip hop chants like “Give us our Shit or we’ll Shut this Shit Down” they are heading back to campus fired up and ready to openly challenge the ignorance of racial issues and unconscious racism in their environment,
Meanwhile Dhoruba, the fearless leader of Tribe X is a thoughtful man, addressing very immediate existential issues. He is evolving a philosophical and political context for his actions on the fly, as he confronts a compeling crisis in his life and that of his community, which is every community here in the United States today. I hope we continue to hear from Dhoruba and the others like him. We need their voices,
Photos # 3, 6 from the St. Louis American, Ferguson Protests – Week 1