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In Ferguson

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James Cooper/Demotix/Corbis
Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, a leader of the protest movement, kneeling in prayer between police and a crowd of protesters outside the police station, Ferguson, Missouri, September 2014

Forty years ago, in the days of “white flight” from American cities to the suburbs, Ferguson, Missouri was a “sundowner town”—black people did not drive through it at night because they knew they would be harassed by the white police force. Ferguson is now 65 percent black and low income, but its police force is still predominantly white and working class, approximately fifty-three white officers and three black officers. Although black people no longer sneak through town, the police treat young black men as either trespassers or ex- and future prisoners. The hip hop artist T-Dubb-O said that black males throughout the St. Louis area know how old they are from the tone of the police. “When you’re eight or nine, it’s, ‘yo, where are you going?’ and when it’s ‘get down on the ground,’ you know you’ve turned fifteen.”

The St. Louis city limits encompass a small area and Ferguson is one of ninety incorporated municipalities that immediately surround the “Gateway to the West,” each with its own mayor or manager. These local authorities raise money in significant part from fines levied against motorists. A police officer citing someone for a petty infraction is in reality a municipal worker trying to get paid. In addition to the municipalities, suburban St. Louis has a county government, with a council and a county executive. The outgoing county executive, Charlie A. Dooley, is black and a Democrat.

Voter turnout in Ferguson itself is low, but the remainder of North County (one of the four sections of St. Louis County) outvotes St. Louis city. (The city has a population of around 300,000; the county nearly a million.) Hazel Erby, the only black member of the seven-member county council, said that the city manager of Ferguson and its city council appoint the chief of police, and therefore voting is critical, but the complicated structure of municipal government is one reason many people have been uninterested in local politics.

A North County resident of middle-class University City for almost fifty years, Mrs. Erby said that she hadn’t discussed what Ferguson was like with her children when they were teenagers twenty years ago. Her son and two daughters told her not long ago, “We did, Mom.” Her district, which she has represented for ten years, is made up of thirty-eight municipalities, including Ferguson. She said that she never had “that conversation” with her son about how to compose himself when confronted by the police, but her husband recently told her, “I did.”

For the first time in US history, more poor people live in the suburbs than in the cities. In St. Louis County, the “Delmar Divide” (at Delmar Boulevard) separates the mostly white South County from North County where the black towns are. The Ferguson police do not live in Ferguson, and some even live outside the county, in rural areas.

A county council member’s stipend of $11,500 is not enough to live on, but because of her husband’s support Erby has been able to be active in her hometown’s politics. She founded the Fannie Lou Hamer Democratic Coalition, a group of thirty-four black elected officials who endorsed the Republican candidate for county executive in the last election. She was feeling betrayed by the state Democratic leadership over issues such as their failure to help a black high school in her district keep its accreditation or support a bill she sponsored that would give minority contractors in St. Louis County a share of construction business.

Fannie Lou Hamer was a civil rights organizer who caught the nation’s attention when her Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party attempted to unseat the all-white regular delegation at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. The daughter of sharecroppers, Hamer brought a folk eloquence to her testimony before the party’s credentials committee about the campaign of intimidation and violence that was daily life for black people in the South. Erby said the trouble she has had in politics has come more from her being a woman than from her being black, serving alongside white businessmen and attorneys who mistake her good manners for weakness.

In the run-up to the August 5, 2014, primary in St. Louis, the white Democratic candidate for county executive, Steve Stenger, joined with the prosecutor of twenty-three years, Bob McCulloch, who was up for reelection, in saying that they would clean up North County and they did not need the black vote. They won, if not by much. Erby speculates that the arrogance of their position created a sense of “empowerment” among the police that may have contributed to the tragic events of August 9, when a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager, whose body was then left untended for four and a half hours in the street.

People engaged in the movement that has grown in protest against Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown on August 9 often invoke Martin Luther King Jr.’s name. Through Cornel West, I met Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, the pastor “for formation and justice” at the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Boston. A native of St. Louis, Reverend Sekou is currently a fellow at the Martin Luther King Papers Project at Stanford and was in residence there when the Brown killing happened. Six days later, Reverend Sekou was in St. Louis to support the young who are, as he sees them, the leaders in the Ferguson protest. Also associated with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a group that has done peace work in Israel, Reverend Sekou told me that the movement that has coalesced around Ferguson looks especially to Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker, a gay guy and a woman, because as civil rights figures of the 1960s they “incarnate a theology of resistance of the historically othered.”

Rustin, who was a liability in the eyes of traditional black leaders, put emphasis on building coalitions among black groups, white liberals, labor unions, and religious progressives. Ella Baker’s long career as an organizer took her from tenants’ rights in the 1930s and voter registration for the NAACP in the 1940s to setting up the offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the late 1950s and then to urging the youth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early 1960s to broaden their goals beyond lunch counter integration. She warned them not to let themselves be controlled by established civil rights organizations, arguing that strong people didn’t need strong leaders. She was also ambivalent about nonviolence.

The story of the August 9 police killing of Michael Brown had stayed in the news because people had refused to leave the streets. Reverend Sekou stressed that although the protest was one of the broadest coalitions in ages, the protesters themselves were largely young, black, queer, poor, working-class, “unchurched,” or secular, and women. We were about ten miles from Ferguson on the largely white South Side, in MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse, an informal meeting place for organizers, journalists, and protesters owned by a courageous white woman. It was Monday morning, November 24, and the St. Louis police were no doubt preparing for the announcement of the grand jury’s decision. Since the summer the police had been raiding safe houses and churches where organizers were known to work from. Reverend Sekou had already been arrested three times.

The Ferguson movement gathers mostly under an umbrella group, the Don’t Shoot Coalition. It includes tested groups, such as the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS), founded in 1980. Four years ago, Montague Simmons left an investment brokerage firm to become OBS head. Two very beautiful young black women, one with a crown of braids, stopped at Reverend Sekou’s table for hugs. “Young people will not bow down,” he said of them, and introduced Brittany Ferrell and Alexis Templeton. They started Millennial Activists United (MAU) in the days after Michael Brown’s death. In a British documentary about the Ferguson protest, Ferrell and Templeton can be heard discussing how they were going to “change the narrative” of one evening’s action, reminding their peers not to drink, not to play music, and to stay focused. In photographs and news footage, Templeton is the young black woman with a bullhorn, emblematic of protest at the Ferguson Police Department.

Reverend Sekou—everyone was calling him simply “Sekou”—observed that as of the 107th day of protests in Ferguson, these young people had sustained the second-longest civil rights campaign in postwar US history. “Ferguson has worn out my shoes.” They were a third of their way to equaling the Montgomery Bus Boycott in its duration. The young knew the history, he went on, and to know your history is to become politicized. But in Sekou’s view, too much black political capital has been spent in electoral politics. Elections are thermometers, social movements the thermostats, he said, echoing King. They set the agenda, whereas elections merely monitor them.

To Sekou, it matters how we define political participation. “If it’s only the ballot box, then we’re finished.” He sees voting as “an insider strategy,” one without much relevance to a town like Ferguson where two thirds of the adult population have arrest warrants out against them. Things don’t come down to the vote, they come down to the level of harassment as people get ready to vote, he added. Sekou ventured that given the little black people have got for it, voting fits the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and each time expecting a different result.

Then, too, the young are distant from “the prosperity theology” of an already beleaguered black church, Sekou continued. Its social safety net—by which it offers a place to go, food, education, adult guidance, and prayer—is not something they have grown up with; it’s another pillar many young black people have had to do without, like having fathers in jail. Black churches “have become hostile to youth.” But this also means that the young are remote from the politics of respectability and black piety. At previous meetings about Ferguson, the young booed, for different reasons, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and NAACP president Cornell William Brooks. But perhaps the most crucial factor in what Sekou called the “holy trinity of disfranchisement and dispossession” is the economic catastrophe of the past decade and the ongoing deindustrialization of urban centers.

For Sekou, Obama traffics in the language of the movement while betraying it. “Shame on him.” I wanted to say that Clarence Thomas is the race traitor, not Obama. Sekou is forty-three years old, a short, dark, charismatic man with thick, long dreadlocks like those of early reggae stars. He rejected what he called the Beltway strategy of appeasing forces on the right of center in favor of what he sees as the political possibility that has come from the street. He, like the young he counsels, feels that the system hasn’t worked and now needs to be born again. The young demonstrating in Ferguson had faced tear gas and assault rifles. “There isn’t any political terrain for them to engage in other than putting their bodies on the line.”

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Ron Haviv/VII
A gathering of protesters after the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, Ferguson, Missouri, November 2014

Older people were going out of their way to defer to the young in the Ferguson movement, just as I would hear the sort of white people who had no reason to chastise themselves confess to being beneficiaries of “white privilege.” But while Sekou pointed to the young adults who have, he said, discovered something extraordinary in themselves, it was clear what he himself stood for in their eyes. They trusted him and he showed them the affection and approval they needed. “We are,” he said,

at a critical moment in American democracy whereby the blood of Michael Brown has wiped away the veneer and at the same time seeded a great revolution. In a situation like St. Louis, where there has been a cowardly elite, an ineffectual black church, and a dominant liberal class afraid of black rage and public discourse about white anxiety, we have to repent for not being here.

Sekou sees the Ferguson movement and the Don’t Shoot Coalition as an answer to the call made at the National Hip Hop Political Convention of 2004 against police brutality. But this was not the hip-hop culture that celebrated Malcolm X as the black man who refused to turn the other cheek. If anything, Sekou was talking more like the radicalized, antiwar Martin Luther King Jr. whom people tend to forget. The important differences were “attitudinal,” not generational, Sekou said. He identified what he thought was the real issue at stake in Michael Brown’s murder: “What do you fundamentally believe about black people?”

Hey hey ho ho
These killer cops have got to go.

Few in the chanting, placard-carrying crowd across from the police department on South Florissant Road in Ferguson that evening of November 24 expected the grand jury to hand down an indictment. Many expressed the feeling that whereas a grand jury usually takes from five to ten days in its deliberations, this one used up three months so that everyone could say they’d been thorough before arriving at the decision that they had been going to make in the first place: to protect the police. The uncertainty all day long about the time when the announcement would be made was taken as further indication of Bob McCulloch’s manipulation of the whole process. Local news stations were reporting that the prosecutor wanted to wait to make the grand jury’s findings public until after schoolchildren were home.

But the darkness played into McCulloch’s hands as well. The upscale, white shopping centers like Frontenac Plaza were guarded by police before McCulloch addressed the press. There was no police protection in the strip malls where blacks shopped along West Florissant Avenue, which had been a main trouble spot over the summer. These facts suggest that the authorities wanted the nation and the world—the international press waited in parking lots behind the protesters—to see what a lawless community young black Ferguson would be without a firm hand.

The police came out of their Ferguson station gradually, a few at a time, in blue riot helmets and wielding transparent shields. I heard people say that even after a sensational case like Michael Brown’s, the police killing of black youth was going on as if unchecked, in the murder of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, who had an air gun on a playground, in the murder of twenty-eight-year-old Akai Gurley in a darkened stairway of a Brooklyn housing project. I heard someone say that we should not forget Eric Garner, killed by Staten Island police last July. (In early December, a grand jury declined to indict the officer who choked Garner to death though the choking had been caught on video.)

Who shuts shit down?

I saw Alexis Templeton leading the chant-dancing in the crowd, the young black woman with the bullhorn, and a blond youth chant-danced back at her in response.

We shut shit down.

But it was not a party. Solemn young faces peered out from hoodies and more and more handkerchiefs over mouths and noses. I saw masks. The glow of phones was everywhere. The revolution will not be televised, but it will be tweeted, Keiller MacDuff, Sekou’s tireless volunteer communications director, told me people were saying. The night of the grand jury’s announcement, the Ferguson movement did seem to move with the speed of Twitter, but I pressed with others around a car radio in front of the police station. Templeton shifted her bullhorn and helped Leslie McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, up onto the car where we were listening. The group on top of the car held on to her. She had been told the outcome already. As she broke down, it was clear to the crowd what the decision was. I stopped trying to hear what McCulloch was saying as Mrs. McSpadden said to the line of policemen in front of the station, “It’s not right.”

“We’re going to barbecue tonight,” I heard from somewhere behind me.

While Sekou was giving a television interview in the parking lot across from the police station, where the crowd had begun to press angrily against the police line, we heard gunfire. Sekou swept me along with Keiller MacDuff—she’s from New Zealand—and three young white volunteers from Faith and Reconciliation. More gunfire sounded behind us as we reached the Wellspring Church, where Sekou had been a guest before, and we were buzzed in. Sekou and one of the volunteers decided they’d no choice but to get his car parked on the other side of the police station.

From the steps of the church, I heard glass breaking and saw hundreds of people fleeing down South Florissant. The women in charge of the church in the Wellspring pastor’s absence had instructions to lock the doors, turn off the lights, and not admit anyone else. MacDuff was offended that no more protesters would be let in, because there were young people falling in the street, cowering under the church wall.

In the church sanctuary, we watched on a laptop the violence a few hundred yards away. Citizen journalists who streamed what they saw live from their smartphones and iPads had stayed on the street. They have a mixed reputation. Some can say inflammatory things and put protesters in danger or become aggressive, while others understand what it means to have such power in your pocket. People around the world have been glued to live streams from Ferguson ever since the killing. The police have targeted live streamers, who can save lives by keeping the spotlight on police activity when traditional media have pulled back from hot spots. A white girl appeared at my shoulder to watch also. I didn’t realize at first that she’d pulled off a gas mask.

As we left the church, once again, Sekou included me in his group, though there was really no room for me in the car. Out on West Florissant, I saw black youths running out of Walgreens, their legs pumping like marionettes’. I didn’t see them carrying anything, but that does not mean they hadn’t entered the drugstore with the intention of grabbing stuff. A young white volunteer was at the wheel and black youths shouted from the meridian at the driver’s window at every stoplight.

Sekou refused to go inside the MSNBC compound on West Florissant to do an interview if we, his people, couldn’t come in, too. At the sound of gunfire, the MSNBC guards dropped to the pavement with us. Sekou didn’t wait to be turned down by MSNBC again, and walked us to a parking lot in the rear where we remained for two hours, hiding in the dark behind a brick shed. I recall a fire truck coming at one point, but it went away, maybe driven off by gunfire. Buildings burned on either side of us, huge boxes of acrid flame, and what really confused me was the honking. It sounded like a football victory at times. Except for the gunfire.

I was afraid of what the police helicopters with searchlights might mistake us for. And then I was wary of two black youths who seemed to be loping in our direction. They weren’t loping, they were making their way along the sides of the parking lot, looking for shelter from the smoke and overhead buzzing. The one with dreadlocks turned out to be a grandson of a pastor whom Sekou knew. I had to ask myself, When did I become afraid of black youth? How had I, a black man, internalized white fear?

Eventually, a loudspeaker voice told people they had to move onto the sidewalk or else they would be subject to arrest. They had to disperse; they needed to get out of the street. They had to get back into their cars. It had taken the police a while to take back territory. “Riots are the voice of the unheard,” Sekou said, quoting Martin Luther King. I heard many deplore the attacks on black businesses, but those felt random. Glass smashed along a route of panic and retreat. The feeling was that young rioters weren’t after mobile phones; they wanted to burn police cars.

In the days since, people have been blocking highways, shutting down shopping malls, lying in the streets, and walking out of classrooms around the world. Hands up; don’t shoot. The Missouri National Guard stood behind the line of Ferguson police at the station on Florissant the next night and the night after that, the temperature dropping and the crowd thinning. But nonviolent direct action has won out as the defining tactic of the Ferguson movement.

I felt a bond with everyone in St. Louis I talked to about what was happening, and that in itself seemed odd. I met people who had been moved somehow to come and bear witness: the young rabbi from Newton, Massachusetts; the black single mother who works downtown as a food scientist; the white women of a certain age up from their lesbian commune in Arkansas; the black taxi driver who got from his dispatcher, before it was on Twitter, which highways had been blocked; the white middle-aged clergyman from Illinois who normally worked in hospital trauma units; the Japanese-born campaign director of the Right to Vote Initiative who was beaten up a lot when a kid in New Jersey in the 1970s because white neighbors thought his family Vietnamese; the owner of MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse who opened for business Tuesday morning after having been teargassed twice Monday night.

“Just for the record, I am so over being teargassed,” Sekou said. “That’s what tear gas is, it’s just tacky.” This from the man who when the police returned Tuesday night got everyone in the coffeehouse to lock arms and told the police that he knew they weren’t getting everything they wanted either. He’d read their contract. “This is about a heartbeat,” he told them. He got the people inside MoKaBe’s to strike their breasts. The police went away.

Back up back up
We want freedom freedom
All these racist ass cops
We don’t need ’em need ’em…

Following the release of the grand jury testimony, many have argued that McCulloch acted more like a defense attorney than a prosecutor. There have been mutterings about his own history, and a possible connection between the Michael Brown case and McCulloch’s personal tragedy of his police officer father having been killed by a black suspect back in 1964. But what in some ways was even more troubling was Wilson’s ABC interview on the evening after the verdict, for which he seemed to have been well coached, including the galling statement that his conscience was clear. An attorney for Brown’s family observed that this was a poor response to his having taken the life of a young man. In his testimony, Wilson “deployed,” as Sekou called it, every racist trope in order to assert that he was in fear of his life. Brown, Wilson said, looked “like a demon.”

After the Civil War, thousands of black men were on the roads, looking for new starts, but mostly looking for loved ones sold away. Vagrancy laws were passed that said if you couldn’t say where you lived or worked you could be picked up and put on the chain gang. America has always felt the necessity of keeping its black male population under control. Behind every failure to make the police accountable in such killings is an almost gloating confidence that the majority of white Americans support the idea that the police are the thin blue line between them and social chaos. Indeed, part of the problem in several such cases has been the alarmist phone calls from third parties to police dispatchers, reporting any situation involving a black male in a stereotypical and therefore usually false fashion—the police aren’t the only ones to engage in racial profiling. If you are a black man, be careful what you shop for in Walmart.

There is a chance that the federal government may vigorously investigate the Michael Brown case. “Please help us fight these monsters,” the hip hop artist Tef Poe asked the president in a recent open letter. But for decades Congress resisted passing any legislation making lynching illegal. The Congress we have now is not going to convene hearings on our police culture, or pass a comprehensive public works bill.

Yet the Ferguson movement has promised that the situation cannot go back to normal, to the way things have been. Everybody knows what racism is. The problems needn’t be explained over and over. They can’t be deflected by saying that Michael Brown took some cigars from a store, that he broke the law and therefore it was proper to kill him with six bullets, although he had no weapon. This is the kind of thinking that racism hides behind. Ferguson feels like a turning point. For so many, Brown’s death was the last straw. Black youth are fed up with being branded criminals at birth. Ferguson was the country stepping back in time, or exposing the fact that change hasn’t happened where most needed, that most of us don’t live in the age of Obama. “It’s a myth that we’re a fair society,” Sekou said. “We have to take that needle out of our arms.”