On Sunday, August 17th I traveled to Ferguson, Missouri to show my support, love, rage, and hope for the community of Ferguson that has suffered the killing of Michael Brown, the unarmed Black teen, who was shot six times by a white police officer. The teenager whose parents have been left with an emptiness that I can’t fathom and don’t even want to imagine. The teenager who didn’t get to start college, who didn’t get to fulfill his goals, and who simply didn’t get a chance to live the life that was ahead of him. His name was Michael Brown. Michael Brown. Michael Brown.
By now, of course, the news of his killing is known across the globe, as the people of Ferguson began protesting soon after he was killed, and his body lay in the street for four hours. The militarized presence of the police and the aggressive ways in which they were confronting protesters, as well as media (with tear gas, rubber bullets, and rampant arrests) brought much attention to this town.
Some have asked me what made decide to go to Ferguson. The answer is quite simple. I wanted and needed to be there in solidarity demanding justice for Michael and for the long list of young people of color who have been killed with impunity by police and others functioning under the guise of “stand your ground” and the fear of black and brown bodies. Yes, it is racism. I only live two hours away, and I couldn’t sit comfortably on my couch watching the violence against a community unfold and demands for justice be turned into narratives about “unruly thugs.” I went to grieve, to support, to demand justice, to witness, and to provide testimony. I went because the treatment of black and brown bodies as discardable cannot stand.
As I approached Ferguson via highway 70, five SUV police cars and three police cruisers sped passed me. I was headed to the Greater Grace Church memorial for Michael. I arrived there around 3:45. As I walked toward the church I met a woman who was wearing a “don’t shoot” t-shirt. She was headed there too, and we talked about the injustice to Michael and his family, and the fact that brown and black people are killed because the skin we’re in makes some white people fearful.
When I arrived to the church parking lot I saw a crowd that was diverse in age: kids, teens, babies, elderly, 20 and 30 some-things, and middle-aged. There were at least 200 to 300 people outside the church in an overflow crowd. There was no way to get in; it was packed. I hung out with the crowd participating in chants of “No justice, No peace.” I took pictures of signs and talked with folks. And, no, the gathering was not violent or unruly. All was peaceful. It was a crowded space, and I didn’t see or experience anything other than cordiality, friendliness, and openness. I don’t say that because I expected anything else, but I say it because there is a false narrative about the people of Ferguson circulating, collectively describing protesters (read Black protesters) as violent and unruly. It’s, in fact, maddening to write this, having to provide this kind of testimony to combat the racist rhetoric surrounding the protests. In fact, just a few days ago, (August 20, 2014) my local paper the Columbia Daily Tribune published a cartoon by Gary McCoy with racist images of Black people holding signs saying, “No 60” plasma TV no peace” and “steal to honor Michael.” Simply disgusting. You can see it here. The response to complaints of racism by the Columbia Tribune is no better. You can see their response here.
Having said that, I’m also not interested in establishing a dichotomy of “good” versus “bad” protestors. While I do not condone destruction of property and looting, I do understand it. Frustration doesn’t begin to capture what happens to communities of color when Black and Brown people are killed and murdered because of skin color. When systematic racism exists throughout institutions: educational, political, legal, etc. And to think that the history of Civil Rights in this country was all about peaceful compliance and protest is to believe in a myth. The complexity here it too much for this post, but I want to be clear that I’m not interested in engaging in a respectability politics to frame protest.
One of the first signs I spotted was one that said, “I’m a black PhD student and I fear police brutality on me.” A young woman was holding the placard high on a stick, and she was standing next to a young man with a sign that read, “Let your voice be heard #Time4change #studentsvoices. I was curious about their fields of study so I approached them, and we began chatting. It turns out that they are graduate students studying social work. Like everyone I spoke with, they said they were there to support and to demand justice.
I met a child and his grandmother. She was carrying a sign with a picture of her son that read, “Justice for Michael Washington. No justice. I love my son too…” Her grandson’s sign: “My dad was killed. We are his children he left behind. He left 2 girls 5 boys.” His sign had a picture of all of the siblings. He is the youngest of seven and was just a baby when his dad was killed. His grandmother explained that her son was not killed by a police officer, but by another Black man. Her reason for being there was to make known that she has still not received justice for her son who was murdered 8 years ago in 2006. She feels the police have not done enough to bring justice to her son’s killer.
Another woman was carrying a sign that read: “1 shot stops you from reaching for his gun 10 shots stopsyou from telling yourside of the story.” I asked if I could take a picture of the sign. She agreed and asked her son to hold the sign. She said, “He’s my son. It could have been him.”
There were various groups chanting, “No Justice. No Peace.” One man was letting children take turns at his bullhorn to lead the chants. I thought of that as both a somber and hope-filled lesson on political participation and civil rights activism. A number of discussions that I heard as I walked around talking to people were about political activism and changing the local level politics and structure. See videos here:
http://instagram.com/p/r0LjM2E6lO/ and http://instagram.com/p/r5vsT3E6m9/
Another woman invoked Trayvon Martin and asked those around her to “wake up!” See video here: http://instagram.com/p/r5wIbiE6ng/
Other pictures at Greater Grace Church:
I left the church at around 7 p.m. And by then there were just a few handfuls of people. A crowd had gathered around MLK III, who stayed for quite awhile taking pictures with folks and doing media interviews. He was one of the last people to leave the area. I was fortunate to meet him as well and shake his hand before I headed over to W. Florissant and Ferguson, where the street protests were taking place.
One of the first groups of people I saw was celebrating a family reunion. There were about 15 of them, and they all had orange matching shirts with their reunion family name. I asked one of the women in the group why it was important for them to be here, and she replied, simply, “to support Michael’s family.” I got to talking and she explained that they had also buried a loved one that day. It was a day of family coming together for them, and also a day of mourning. Yet, they felt it important to come to the area to show their support. As we were talking a man walked by and chanted, “Let’s keep this going. Let’s march in Clayton.” As he continued walking the woman who I was chatting with said, “Why should we go there? This is where he died.” I understood that for her, her presence was more about paying respects to Michael in terms of a memorial. The man who passed by us had in mind a broader agenda about seeking justice from the powers that be—Prosecutor Bob McCulloch—in Clayton.
And then there is the little girl who is pictured at the beginning of this blog. I asked her mom if I could take a picture of the sign (“I stand with Michael Brown. Police need to protect and serve”), and her daughter posed for me. It struck me that so many kids were present learning a very visceral lesson about civil rights and social justice. They may not have known a lot about what was going on, not old enough to cognitively digest it. But I believe, for many, their senses captured something of that moment. That sweet child’s face, with the expression of ages, stays with me.
The story of Lawrence Jones stays with me as well. He and his mother were near the street in front of Ferguson Market. He had a sign that read “Victim of Ferguson” with 11 pictures on it documenting his injuries. I asked Mr. Jones what had happened, and he said that he had been pulled over by police and asked to get out of the car. When he did, he said the police put a police dog on him. His mother explained that he had been driving her Porsche, and said that her son had been racially profiled. Lawrence described his injuries from the dog as occurring on both of his legs and his left arm. This happened on July 21, 2013, and his mother said that they have been seeking justice since then but to no avail. They were both wearing t-shirts they had made to bring attention to his plight. They read: “Stop K9 and Police Brutality. Justice for Lawrence. Stop Racial Profiling.” Mr. Jones’s mother said they had been able to speak with some of the journalists around the area, and she would continue to try to get justice for her son. When I asked Lawrence how he is doing today, he said we was doing better but still feeling the effects of the attack in his arm and legs.
Protestor walking down W. Florissant with his hands up:
Police lined up on W. Florissant:
I had a two-hour drive ahead of me so I left Ferguson around 8:45 p.m. I was alone and parked a ways down Ferguson road, which was poorly lit. I had a flashlight, but, as a woman walking alone, I was uneasy. I saw another woman walking my way and asked if she wanted to walk with me. She said her ride was waiting for her, but they’d follow me to my car. And they did exactly that. They stayed with me for quite a while (I was parked far away). I kept waving and thanking them. After seeing that I still hadn’t reached my car, she rolled down the window on her passenger’s side and said, “How far are you parked? Just get in and we’ll take you to your car.” I happily jumped in the back seat, and thanked them profusely for the ride. That was the type of kindness I’d been experiencing all day in Ferguson.
By the time I got on the highway it was after 9 p.m. I later learned that there were confrontations between protestors and police, and tear gas was fired. More police had also been called into the area. That night I saw images on TV that looked vastly different from where I’d just been. Things seem to have devolved pretty quickly that Sunday night, with many arrests and tear gas canisters fired.
I went to show my support for Michael Brown and to the people of Ferguson. I also went to be part of a movement that doesn’t let up on ensuring that the lives of people of color in this nation matter. As the sign being held by that sweet child in my photo says, “I stand with Michael Brown. Police need to protect and serve.”
This quote by Audre Lorde also keeps playing in my head:
“When I envision the future, I think of the world I crave for my daughters and my sons. It is thinking for survival of the species — thinking for life.” — “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response,” Sister Outsider