An organizers experience in Ferguson
This piece is part 1 of a 3 part series. The first installment of this series will focus on the things and people I saw during my time in ferguson. The second part will focus on the struggles and challenges I saw around organizing during a period of crisis. While part 3 will focus on what I believe organizers around the country can do to build a stronger movement capable of taking action in solidarity with communities who experience a tragedy or find themselves the focal point of national attention and organizers.
You can find my original reasons for traveling to Ferguson Missouri here, so I'll focus on what we saw once we arrived. The photos below were taken by my amazing partner and Photographer/Citizen Journalist Rae Charlie.
Ferguson Missouri was a small lower income suburb outside of St Louis, not unlike my hometown of Norwich CT, or the many suburbs around Raleigh/Durham where I now reside. That being said, There was one big difference that was immediately apparent on our arrival.
The very first place we pulled over after getting off the highway was a shopping center that we would later find out was being used as central command for joint Law Enforcement efforts. This shopping center was longer a place for families to buy food or clothes. We pulled over and entered a Burger King to recharge our phones and see if we could speak with any community members on how having this scene from a war zone dropped on their community. They were more than willing to tell us their story, especially once we told them we were an organizer and an artist, not mainstream media.
When asked about the police presence: "We are terrified of them. They have guns. We don’t.”
Another element we felt immediately was the heat. Temperatures were nearing or surpassing 100 for our entire journey, an element that would effect many aspects on organizing in Ferguson. The heat made tensions rise and mobilizing becomes difficult when everyone is exhausted and dehydrated. Organizers and locals made sure to offer cold water to protestors throughout the day. The oppressive heat was an apt backdrop for the tension of the situation. Communities united in perseverance and yet a tangible feeling that it even a small transgression could incite anger with anyone at any moment. The environment was oppressive in both a literal and figurative sense. We knew we were in for quite a next few days.
We left the law enforcement festival known as "Central Command" and headed toward W Florissant, where the majority of the nightly protests were held. It resembled any lower income suburb with a smattering of small shops and a few fast food restaurants. There were a couple tents that had individuals sitting on them. We walked over to the one marked "Clergy United" and asked where we could go to get more information about the protests. The woman behind the table told us she wasn't sure and to just ask around, so we did.
We approached the first group of young people we saw and this is what they had to say:
"“Most people don’t understand what propaganda means. This is happening all over the world and we’s sick of it.”(in reference to the police presence)“I understand they need to feed they families but all this tear gas is ridiculous. So is the looting.”
"“This is the civil rights movement. We know what the civil rights movement is. This is for our people. This is for our kids. We are the people. Stand up for your rights. They have tanks, we don’t care. The cameras are leaving but we still here.”
The sincerity in their comments was palpable. They were clearly angry at what happened to Mike Brown, and what the police did to their community just for demanding answers and ultimately justice. These young people were very conscious of the politics at play and made it clear to us exactly what they wanted: Justice.
We continued on down the street looking for residents of Ferguson who wanted to tell us their stories. There were far too many to fit on this post, but you can you can find more here on Rae's site. The stories made it clear that while Mike Brown was the most well known example of police brutality in Ferguson, it wasn't the only one.
“Why is it too much to expect accountability? The police murdered my son and covered it up. It happened last October and I still haven’t seen the autopsy. The investigative report was so full of lies I had to stop reading it. It’s not just happening here it’s all around the world. Justice? No. Injustice.”
Person after person had their own story of police harassment or misconduct. It was clear there was no trust between the people and law enforcement, and this has been the case for a long time.
As the sun began to set over west Florissant we found one of the few local eateries that was open late. It was a small burger and chicken restaurant and it was packed with what were clearly both locals and folks from out of town. The place had air conditioning but it was being pushed to it's limits with the number of people in the space and the constant opening of the door. The woman at the counter greeted with a demeanor of both seriousness and a welcoming strength that was exemplary of the vibe I got from the people of Ferguson.
“Do you stay open for the protesters?” “Every night.”
After paying for our food the two of us sat at an open table and were quickly approached by a young man who asked if he could share our spot for a minute so he could charge his tablet. We happily obliged and as we struck up conversation he informed us that he was someone heavily involved with the occupy movement in New York. I had also been pretty involved and we immediately began discussing the dynamics on the ground. The role of the clergy, local organizers, the media and on. An older gentleman heard us talking and asked if he could join us while he waited for his food. He was very intrigued by our conversation, and asked us if he could share a new perspective with us, that of the young men of color who have lived in Ferguson their whole lives.
“They left the body in the streets for hours. Hours. I can’t even begin to describe how disrespectful that is. I never seen that in my life. And you know what I keep telling them, I tell them give these kids something, some power, because if you don’t they will use the power they have. Your bullets and tear gas are an honor to them.”
His perspective was incredibly enlightening. The young men of this area felt making it to adult hood without getting shot or going to prison to be an accomplishment. They had lived under an oppressive environment their whole lives, and now they had a chance to fight back in a way that was meaningful. To die fighting the police as part of this movement would be an honor when so many, like Mike brown, die for nothing. To them, the death of a young man of color wasn't new. What was new was the community fighting back. This was their moment to push back on decades of abuse, or die trying.
After a long day, we felt we had certainly arrived in a new place. It was not our home but we felt at home within the struggle against oppression. I had felt this tension, this vitality of life in the heart of difficulty that comes when a community decides the status quo is simply no longer tenable, and something, anything, must be done. It was clear the people of ferguson had hit a turning point in which their community could not go back from. The people had seen one of their own brutally gunned down, their protests met with violent force. Yet, in spite of that they persevered.
The people of Ferguson represented to me a sample of the zeitgeist of the moment we are in. People of color are killed by police with impunity, mass surveillance systems seek to monitor the actions of the peaceful, criminalization of protest, mass media re-framing to obscure the true story, and yet the people persevere.
Citizen journalists provide an outlet for the stories of the people of Ferguson to reach the masses unadulterated. Action Medics joined the protests to help anyone hit with tear gas. Organizers from around the country arrived to provide support and expertise in the tactics of resistance. For every cop with tear gas and an armored vehicle, there was an activist with a gas-mask and a camera ready to stand in solidarity with the people of Ferguson. In the face of immense pain and oppression stood a movement of young people ready to say "No. You will not do this without a fight."
In part 2 I'll go over the organizing efforts on the ground, the political dynamics among the groups, and some of the internal tensions and difficulties that emerged as structure and vision became a necessity. All the passion and resilience in the world will be wasted without the ability to effectively channel it toward justice and progress. In this I was just as frustrated, as I was inspired, by the people of Ferguson.