The BJS asked a diverse group of scholars and activists to contribute their perspectives on the Black Lives Matter movement. All essays can be found here.
In the days that followed the Michael Brown shooting in August 2014, as shocked and grieving residents demanded answers from the Ferguson Police Department, officer Darren Wilson went into hiding – “absent with pay” – and his electronic footprint was wiped thoroughly clean. Within hours of the 18-year old’s violent death, snarling police dogs on long leads snapped at protestors who had taken to the streets with pointed questions, evoking troubling reminders of Birmingham, Alabama, circa 1963.
Hours after the shooting Ferguson residents marched en masse to the new million-dollar police department where they were reportedly met with indifference by police officials. Several political leaders stood shoulder to shoulder with residents to demand answers, and the seeds of a revitalized civil rights movement took form with an emblematic “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” as its rallying cry.
I watched events unfold with increasing concern as the initial shock that had residents clutching each other in grief turned into a smoldering anger and deep sense of injustice that permeated the community. The shooting was a community tragedy as well as a catalyst that highlighted for residents a long history of police brutality, institutional racism, and blatant inequality. Residents of all ages took to the beleaguered streets of Ferguson, upset but with a sense that they needed to take action. I watched with astonishment and alarm as armored military vehicles rolled down the street just two blocks from where friends and I sang Christmas carols months prior. St. Louis County police launched tear gas canisters into crowds and backyards, using weapons of war against their own frightened citizens. Ferguson was unrecognizable. I was stunned when automatic weapons were levied between the eyes of local residents in this once sleepy suburb. I watched transfixed but horrified as my dehumanized neighbors suffered the trauma and indignity of tear gas. Two images literally took my breath away. In one, a frail, elderly white man marched with protestors alongside a busy road, relying on his walker and the grandson by his side. It was this along with another image – a frail but fearless elderly black man marching with oxygen tubes that maintained his breath through the threat of tear gas and tanks – that pushed me out the door to listen and observe the dynamics between protestors, local leaders, and police in Ferguson.
Saturday, August 9th, 2014 was a day that represented the tragic and senseless loss of a son, grandson, and neighbor, and one that would ultimately become a symbol of demarcation of the before and after in Ferguson. I arrived in town several days later to walk the streets and try to understand events that were rapidly transpiring. Things were oddly quiet on one side of town, but a newly-burned down gas station provided a stark reminder of the seriousness of the community’s response. The burned QT became a place of unity for the protestors until local officials fenced it off from the public.
I visited Canfield Green Apartments where the shooting took place and where silent vigils to Michael Brown are still being constructed and reconstructed. As I silently stood before the stained stretch of road where Michael Brown’s body lay just days before, I looked up and around. The area where Brown had been shot to death provided to Canfield residents the most visible vantage point in the entire complex, and his body lay uncovered by police for nearly 4 ½ hours. Hundreds of residents including many young children had witnessed the brutal shooting and aftermath. Suddenly the terror that so many local children would carry through their lives, the panic that parents must have felt, and the pain that was shared by most of the residents was real and undeniable. That pain seemed largely ignored by much of white St. Louis, but was being expressed every evening in actions that coalesced into organized resistance in Ferguson to the continued and systemic indignities for people of color. Grievances rested on core issues of pervasive institutional racism, sanctity of black life, and also dignity at death, which was not provided to Brown, his family, or the community. It was clear that I would soon be back in Ferguson.
That pain seemed largely ignored by much of white St. Louis, but was being expressed every evening in actions that coalesced into organized resistance in Ferguson to the continued and systemic indignities for people of color
Actions coordinated quickly as national actors and media converged on the suburban town. A protest was coordinated for the wide boulevard of West Florissant Avenue made up of small, old strip malls, fast-food restaurants, office buildings, and gas stations. In this part of town weeds pushed their way up through cracked asphalt to reach skywards. Further up the road newer businesses welcomed drivers approaching Ferguson from Interstate 270. When I arrived people of all ages were beginning to gather as ominous storm clouds above reflected the mood of the crowd, which quickly grew in size beyond what I had imagined. I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of the crowd, and most people carried protest signs. There was a somber mood on the street, although younger protestors were energized and spirited. A solemn dignity was most reflected in the straightened walk of many older black community leaders. Suddenly several anonymous voices shouted for protestors to “make way for the family”, but it was not clear where or when the family would appear. The hushed crowd parted to my right and Michael Brown’s father walked past. He was staring ahead visibly numb with pain, wearing a black shirt that bore the image of his young son. Brown’s mother followed quietly with other family members about twenty feet behind. The crowd quietly coalesced into a wide line of support behind Brown’s family- at the front hushed in tone but further back, more boisterous. The large group followed the family to Canfield Green Apartments where hundreds of people gathered around the memorial site and a noticeable international media presence had become part of the cacophony.
After lingering at Canfield for some forty minutes protestors began to march in an orderly fashion back towards West Florissant. I found myself in the middle of the crowd as we progressed forward. The clouds burst open into a downpour, which seemed to energize some of the younger protestors who began to chant and even sing catchy protest slogans. Many of the young protestors who formed small groups wore tee-shirts that represented new group alliances or newly-energized identity groups such as the Vanguards or GBIM (Get it By Any Means). On West Florissant some protestors- mostly those who had small children or no umbrella- darted to take cover under nearby business awnings or in their cars. The majority of protestors remained however, steadfast and focused, chanting, singing, and barely acknowledging the raging skies as they marched around inconvenient puddles and mud. The strength, focus, and resiliency of Ferguson protestors crystalized for me in that moment.
I struck up a conversation with a young man marching beside me who was getting drenched in the rain. Michael Brown’s violent and sudden death had immediately galvanized in this young man the decision to pursue a career in law enforcement. As he stepped over a large puddle on the sidewalk he explained that Michael was a “good kid” compared to many teens, and that Brown did not deserve to be killed as he had been. I observed a deep sense of hurt and confusion, along with a bit of anger on this young man’s face as he spoke to me so candidly. We arrived to the local park and he disappeared to the front while I moved toward the back where thicker grass prevailed. Speakers including Michael Brown’s family took seats on the wet platform stage as the park filled with a standing audience closely watching the family. The young man that had just walked beside me took a seat on stage with the family. He was a close relative of Michael Brown.
Another young man in long dreadlocks took the stage and identified himself as the subject of what was quickly becoming an iconic photo. He was captured in profile in a flag shirt throwing a tear gas canister — an image that would soon come to be reproduced on small posters and sold on the streets of Ferguson for 3/$10. He stated that the tear gas canister had been launched by police into the crowd landing near several children, so he intercepted and lobbed it away from the crowd. He had not thrown the canister at police, as some in town had been speculated. He received appreciative applause. Another young lanky man took the stage and after a few minutes of discussing with clear conviction the need for a community response he loudly proclaimed, “We are the A.C. generation – the ‘After Crack’ generation! Our fathers abandoned us but our mothers have been there for us. You tell us that we don’t stand for anything. This generation now stands for something!” The audience listened intently and burst into applause.
As I monitored the protest actions over the course of many months, I regularly visited Ferguson and monitored actions for many hours nightly through Twitter, Vine feeds, and Livestream videos posted almost constantly by dedicated supporters who recognized that documentation of events was key to the protection of civil rights and of the protestors’ physical well-being. The young leaders who lead protests (known as the “front line protestors”) were at the protest site daily with a rare evening taken off for “self care”. Other protestors constantly monitored and posted up-to-the-minute information on social media, and their followers grew exponentially in numbers and expanded to distant horizons. I began to notice that the Twitter feeds from the most dedicated protestors reflected what I also observed, and some Twitter sources were far more accurate than mainstream media reports that often missed significant elements of the actions.
On a sunny Saturday morning much like the day that Brown was shot, I approached the sidewalk outside the Ferguson Police Department where protestors were milling around. There was one white protestor in the group of fifteen or so people. She wore a bright bandana that contrasted strikingly with her grim facial expression as she silently clutched a worn-out protest sign. I would come to see this woman frequently on later visits to Ferguson. I watched the woman for a minute and then noticed a young man who was seated alone on a short wall next to the Police Department, curiously observing me as I observed the woman. I introduced myself. Martin, a 28 year-old black man held daily vigils outside the police department since the shooting. Martin was reserved and cautious, clearly noting my status as an outsider. We talked about the protests for about ten minutes until Martin blurted out, “I am scared of the police; I run when I see them.” I asked him why he felt the need to run. He said, “I never want to get caught alone here with a police officer. I don’t think I would ever make it home again if that happened.” This was a common refrain for young men in Ferguson, and they did not hide their fear of violent death by police. The aggressive police response in the days after the Michael Brown shooting instilled that fear even more deeply. There was deep sense of irony when Martin shared with me that he was a former police officer. He explained, “I used to be in those lines”, pointing to the area where police in full riot gear had lined up to face off against protestors the night before. Before taking me across the street to meet another protestor Martin said with some frustration, “I have seen things as a police officer that I would like to forget”. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to Damarco”, he said with a warm smile – perhaps his first of the day.
Martin walked me across the street and introduced me to a young man sporting a floppy green fishing hat, the straps secured tightly under his chin. The young man turned and greeted me with a wide and sunny smile. He seemed somewhat surprised to see a white woman decades older than himself standing before him, but he gave me a quick handshake and then a warm hug. Barriers instantly dissolved. He explained that everyone was welcome to talk to this small group of protestors. Damarco was complex, charismatic, and intelligent, and he had encircled around him a few young men and women whose respect he had clearly earned. In contrast to Darmarco’s extraordinary ease, the other young protestors seemed somewhat nervous and tense. Just one day prior, Ferguson police had raided a tent encampment that protestors had set up behind a vacant restaurant on West Florissant. Police not only took all of the tents and possessions inside, but they arrested two young women, hog-tying one young activist while a distressed four-year old girl watched. A Livestreamer caught the scene on video and immediately uploaded it to Twitter where I viewed it. The protestors were clearly still shaken by the experience. I later talked to the young woman who verified that she had been hog-tied by police. It was difficult to imagine the beautiful and poised young mother who stood before me being treated in this manner, had I not seen the video and verified the events with her. In fact the members of the group that had staked out the parking lot were an interesting mix of youthful personality: gregariousness, charisma, seriousness, focus, reservation, playfulness, and high-spiritedness – the same personality traits that make my college classrooms a dynamic learning environment.
As I spoke to Damarco, another young man circled near us, constantly in motion. He wore low-slung pants and was tall, lanky, and striking. Barely 15 years old, he was part of a youth group that held peaceful protests every evening across from the Ferguson Police Department. Their protests were filled with drumming, smiles, sandwiches, and outbursts of chants when the police took on a menacing presence, which they frequently did. It was this group’s tents that had been confiscated the day prior. The 15-year old suddenly stopped circling and quietly leaned in, explaining with visible disbelief, “they even took my basketball hoop.” He grumbled with disgust and returned to his circling.
According to Damarco, police claimed that he and his group had planned to run from police. Damarco stated with exasperation, “do they think that if I wanted to do anything like that, I would wear THESE?!?” He pointed down. His feet were sliding around in too-large, ill-fitting flip-flops that looked to be borrowed, and provided virtually no measure of protection. He said they were they only shoes that he had. “What do they think I can do in THESE? I can’t run in them; I can’t do anything in them!” He shook his head in frustration and his wide smile was gone.
During another evening visit I inquired with a young protestor why the group was protesting a local pizzeria. She explained that the owner had engaged in racial discrimination by recently not allowing some young black residents into the restaurant. A large police vehicle was parked along the curb of the narrow strip of sidewalk adjacent to the pizzeria, and it held a menacing police dog that continuously snarled and growled at us as we talked. It was difficult for me to not feel threatened by its presence mere inches from our faces, behind a mostly closed slip of glass that maintained the weak boundaries. Its loud presence dominated the crowded sidewalk space and was an imposing threat that I could not ignore. The protestor explained without flinching, “oh, they’re out here all the time with the dogs on us”. Police dogs continued to terrorize protestors, but more covertly after a Ferguson child was allegedly bitten by a police dog and required several surgeries. A federal Department of Justice investigation ultimately found that police dogs were pointedly used by Ferguson police to target African-Americans. The snarling dogs that I observed served as hostile and offensive warnings to people of color regarding use of public space.
I also observed creative young organizers – many just teenagers, and a large number of young women of color, exercise their right to protest peacefully and ultimately galvanize in the struggle
As I listened to experiences of protestors the raw pain, disbelief, and sense of dejection was so palatable that I found a sense of hopelessness creeping into my usually pragmatic thoughts. But I also observed creative young organizers – many just teenagers, and a large number of young women of color, exercise their right to protest peacefully and ultimately galvanize in the struggle. I saw creativity when Ferguson Police insisted that protestors could not stand to converse on community sidewalks, and indeed police arrested black residents for pausing on the public sidewalk. The protestors’ response was to organize a “BYOB” (Bring Your Own Bike) or “Bike for Mike” whereby instead of claiming sidewalk space they could claim the traffic lane on the main boulevard reserved for cyclists, legally barring vehicular traffic from entering that lane. Two young female protestor leaders joyfully rode bicycles up and down the street all day and into the evening proudly proclaiming the traffic lane as their protest lane in response to the police new “five-second rule” regulating sidewalk use. Another day protestors gathered on the sidewalk in front of the discriminating pizza business and ordered a competitor’s pizza to be delivered to the intersection. Protestors proudly showcased eating the competitor’s pizza with exaggerated pleasure and even held up the pizza boxes to passing traffic in a live, ad-hoc advertising campaign for the competition. Protests continued for months and the circle of arena widened to include larger segments of St. Louis and venues such as shopping malls, places of historical significance, and highway overpasses.
Immediately after Darren Wilson’s acquittal by a grand jury, a protest was organized in Kiener Plaza in downtown St. Louis, a public gathering space where similar protests were recently organized. Protests by then had erupted in major cities, and many St. Louis area schools were temporarily closed. On this crisp November day, hundreds of protestors with signs noting, “We Demand Justice”, “Do I Matter?” and, “Police Don’t Stop and Frisk White Girls Like Me”- gathered in the chilly air. There were by now familiar faces in the crowd that marched from Kiener Plaza to the courthouse where Dred Scott sought his freedom and was denied. An impressive young black woman with tremendous presence took the megaphone. All listened attentively to her powerful challenges for justice and call for 4.5 minutes of silence for Michael Brown. Suddenly movement in the crowd caught my eye. I turned to see Damarco quietly bounding up the stairs of the courthouse to join the silent vigil, and when it concluded he turned to greet me with his characteristic wide smile and warm hug. Damarco seemed more confident, mature, and even taller than I had remembered in part because he no longer wore borrowed flip-flops but now had sturdy boots more suitable for protesting in bleak winter weather.
The muted crowd at the Thomas Eagleton Courthouse made their way through downtown streets as onlookers watched with curiosity from windows above and across. National Guard vehicles were parked along the protest route and Guardsmen stood at alert nearby. Clear, steady voices carried messages aloft that reverberated through the city corridors in a uniformed echo of the now-familiar chant, “Black Lives Matter!” The group moved towards the entrance of the Martin Luther King Bridge and about half (numbering at least 60 people) clustered on the first section of the bridge. Protestors held a second silent vigil for Michael Brown and then circled back towards the Interstate 44 overpass, where alongside, police dressed in all-black riot gear had been quietly assembling. They held chest-high transparent riot shields with “Police” written on them in white block letters, and helmets with clear face covers, body armor and black gloves. The officers held nightsticks, service firearms, large cans of pepper spray, and plastic cuffs. The two groups – protestors in bright-colored winter coats and mittens, and police in black riot gear – met face to face at the top of the overpass. Expectations mounted from the crowd below. One protestor, perhaps inspired by recent Hong Kong protests, brought along a blue umbrella. The Hong Kong umbrella protests, I soon realized, were more than symbolic – they were strategic. The blue umbrella was rapidly deployed when police sprayed tear gas into the crowd. Another protestor who was sprayed in his eyes quickly retreated down the hill where supporters poured a milky-mix into his eyes to alleviate symptoms. Several arrests were made after protestors sat atop the overpass.
As early evenings advanced into night police frequently abandoned line formations and moved into the street to push the crowd across and into parking lots
Late-night engagements in Ferguson protests seemed to follow a standardized routine recognized by most protestors and regular observers. Back-and-forth actions between police and protestors seemed choreographed yet also quite fluid, whereby both groups would begin the evening facing each other from each side of the boulevard. After some hours, both groups would begin to advance and retreat from sidewalk to street and sometimes meet in the middle; this would continue for several hours. The police regularly stood in formation in a long line adjacent to the Police Department during the retreat segments of the evening, while protestors milled about sometimes in the street, but usually across the street in the Andy Wurm Tire Store parking lot, which the white owner was allowing protestors to use as a meeting place for nightly actions. The Subway sandwich shop also supported protestors by allowing them to use their restrooms during business hours, and a coffee shop in the Shaw area where protests moved for some time after another death-by-police of a 15 year-old black child later in the fall, provided a safe space for protestors. The coffee shop owner left the shop unlocked and unattended during late night protests so protestors could access drinking water and restrooms. The grateful protestors left the shop untouched after the night of unrest and the owner recounted that not a single cookie was missing. The coffee shop weeks later became a police target when tear gas was purposely sprayed into the building full of protestors and customers.
Daily protests in Ferguson were patterned and predictable to some degree. As early evenings advanced into night police frequently abandoned line formations and moved into the street to push the crowd across and into the Andy Wurm parking lot. After hours of back and forth by police and protestors, astute protestors observed sudden tempo shifts by police whereby they suddenly advanced towards the crowd. Instead of retreating after several minutes as was the typical pattern in early evening hours, an officer would raise his arm and point, singling out someone in the crowd for no obvious reason. Police would rush and surround the individual for arrest, blocking cameras from documenting the scene. Several protestors complained of being dragged off the sidewalk into the street by police, and others reported that they were placed in bloody holding vans to await transport to a neighboring precinct. Protestors called this arrest method “snatch-and-grab”, and no protestor or bystander was safe from snatch-and-grab; at risk were also legal observers, reporters, educators, politicians, and religious leaders. Nevertheless protestors returned every night for months of nightly protests, and many after a full workday. Watching the courage and resiliency of the young activists, initially propelled into action by pain, brought for many a renewed hope in the tumult of a racist and conflicted America.
The mundane and perfunctory took on symbolic meanings in post-Brown Ferguson: borrowed shoes, a basketball hoop, umbrella, shared sandwiches, pizza, bicycles, and lingering sidewalk conversations. They highlight the myriad of indignities and violence that friends of color endure including the pervasive criminalization of blackness and a biased justice system. It begins on a micro level by separating individuals in restaurants and on sidewalks, to the separation of family members and community through death, and on the most macro level in the separation of entire groups from justice, due process, and equal opportunity via systemic institutional racism. This layered issue is not Ferguson’s problem but rather America’s problem, deeply rooted in our earliest historical indignities and injustices from which we have neither recovered nor yet come to terms.