Documenting and Participating in History in the Making

Victor M. Rios

Soon after the killing of Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson, several scholars formed the Ferguson Research-Action Collaborative. The aims of the project are twofold: To study protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, and thus to contribute to the struggle for racial justice in the US.

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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

On a crisp October morning in 2014, at the height of the unprecedented protests demanding justice for Michael Brown, a group of sociologists and criminologists convened at Cathy’s Kitchen in Ferguson, Missouri, a modest diner with a 1960s sensibility, with a warm crew and a lively mix of friendly patrons. It was early and the café was filled with the friendly aroma of sizzling sausage and freshly-brewed coffee. We convened in a place of symbolic significance: this Black-owned café was located down the street from the Ferguson Police Department and just a few miles from Canfield Green Apartments where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer in the summer of 2014. Two members of the group of scholars lived in St. Louis. The rest had traveled from Kentucky, Michigan, Colorado, and California. The goal was to observe, listen, and document history in the making.

The group of scholars came together when a local sociologist, Lisa Martino-Taylor, invited Victor Rios to Ferguson. Martino-Taylor had been engaged in Ferguson protest events since early August and believed that Victor Rios’s book Punished was applicable to what was taking place. Rios agreed to travel to Florissant Valley – near Ferguson – to talk to students at St. Louis Community College. Rios also wanted to document the history that was being created by everyday people. To do so, he invited a group of critical scholars who engaged in social justice promoting research to participate in a collaborative research project. What came to be known as the Ferguson Research-Action Collaborative (FRAC) included Jennifer Cobbina (Michigan State University), Michael DeValve (Fayetteville State University), Kishonna Leah Gray-Denson (Eastern Kentucky University), Hillary Potter (University of Colorado, Boulder), CheyOnna Sewell (University of Missouri–St. Louis), and Jason M Williams (Texas Southern University), along with Rios and Martino-Taylor. The goal of the collaboration was to respectfully and ethically document the experiences of Ferguson residents after the killing of Michael Brown. The FRAC team believed that it was important for scholars to take a stand in the movement for racial justice that had emerged with Brown’s death. We believed that quality research and social justice work were not mutually exclusive enterprises; research could be used to support the community in Ferguson. Some of these scholars have contributed pieces to this forum.

That morning, which started at Cathy’s Kitchen, soon became an invigorating and inspiring 15-hour day that included interviewing protestors and local youth about their motivations and clashes with local law enforcement. Several of the FRAC team returned to Ferguson to continue those discussions; meanwhile, others would later land in the center of the community for the first time. Along the way we met extraordinary community members, like Chris Philips, a Ferguson-based filmmaker who documented the movement from the day that Michael Brown was killed. He has also contributed a piece to this volume.

In 1903, W.E. B. Dubois encouraged the world to “listen to the striving in the souls of black folk.”[1] Although people of color have made measured strides since then, historical racism casts a long shadow. Today, a movement is still compelled to remind people that racism endures, and that color-blindness displaces (rather than conceals and perpetuates) inequality and racism. In the aftermath of Brown’s death, the echoing chorus of “Black Lives Matter” beckoned the world to listen to ‘the striving in the souls of black folk.’ It demanded that Americans consider how difference is perceived, treated and reproduced.

In the aftermath of Brown’s death, the echoing chorus of “Black Lives Matter” beckoned the world to listen to ‘the striving in the souls of black folk.’ It demanded that Americans consider how difference is perceived, treated and reproduced

This forum on Ferguson considers how responses to perceived injustices develop in local contexts in response to police violence. Individual responses to injustice are often triggered by a “moral shock” that becomes a catalyst for action by those who are typically non-political agents.[2] Groups begin to form, collective goals emerge, sustained actions arise from new linkages, and those actions take on new meanings within the institutional structure of the community. This is what happened in Ferguson.

Concerned individuals and small fragmented social groups came together out of a shared outrage at Brown’s violent death. They convened and soon public spaces became arenas for the expression of grief, anger, and distress. These early relationships eventually became solid protest partnerships, particularly as the state tried to suppress lawful public protest. Collective anger was further stoked by the fact that public officials did not explain or atone for what had happened.

Protestors and observers were stunned by the jolt of the state’s tear gas. But the police’s aggressive response also spurred small protest groups to shift away from their street-side pockets of safety to more confrontational, direct action that was grounded in both old and new networks. The initial Ferguson protest groups were small, lean, flexible, and able to act and react immediately to rapidly-changing events. Technology and social media were instrumental: the use of Twitter in the early protests and later Vine videos and Livestream camera feeds offered protestors some protection. Indeed, as one protestor tweeted, “And if it were not for Twitter STLC [St. Louis County Police] would’ve slaughtered us dead by now. Believe that. #Ferguson”.[3] Twitter provided a minute-by-minute documentation of the protest and police activity and offered a community perspective that was not filtered by institutionalized media. Even though many Twitter followers were not directly experiencing protest events in Ferguson, it provided a sense of immediacy, urgency and shared experience. Followers felt a sense of virtual connectedness, as if they too were personally experiencing the indignities of a repressive state system in Ferguson.

This protest identity was instrumental for the formation of a movement in Ferguson. “I didn’t know I was an activist before but I want to continue to be way more involved” one young woman stated.[4] Similarly a 19-year old college student recognized that the protests had provided her with a newfound sense of meaning and identity. She tweeted, “I just met Mike Brown’s mother & finally got to tell her that her son saved my life”.[5]

What began as a grief-filled community response to a moral shock rapidly evolved, over the course of several weeks, into empowered, protest identities, new networks, and an organized social movement.

The very tactics that the state used to repress collective action on the streets – tear gas, Long-Range Acoustic Riot Control Devices (LRAD), military-style armored tactical vehicles, M-4 carbines and similar weapons, police dogs, Marine-style camouflaged personnel, and lines of riot-geared officers—may have in fact hastened social movement formation. Perhaps, without the state’s aggressive intervention, what began as a largely disorganized group of non-political community actors coming out onto the streets, would have stayed just that—disorganized. But as has pointed out elsewhere, social movements of the new millennium grow stronger as the punitive state cracks down on the masses.[6] The provocative state response to Brown’s death created small pockets of resistance in Ferguson. Then, each state crackdown galvanized the resistance further.

What began as a grief-filled community response to a moral shock rapidly evolved, over the course of several weeks, into empowered, protest identities, new networks, and an organized social movement

The process of social movement formation in Ferguson was nevertheless not an entirely smooth one. It took place over several weeks. A variety of actors (in particular old heads) initially jockeyed for the leadership positions that would direct the formal community response.  Nevertheless, a strong and resilient youth movement quickly emerged. The youth coalesced together thanks to their savvy use of social media and the nightly protests that solidified their roles as leaders in the movement.  Older and more established religious, political and secular leaders in the community assumed (some perhaps reluctantly) a variety of supporting roles. These older leaders stepped in during sporadic hiatuses in youth leadership, such as when the police arrested and jailed several youth protest leaders at the same time. Other community-based groups also filled gaps important gaps: they provided civil disobedience training as well as resources for healing, information, and fellowship. Local institutions and businesses even came to support the movement by holding job fairs and job training programs and scholarships for local youth, scheduling regular conversation spaces, fostering community-cleanup efforts, legal-observer training, and making restrooms and phone charge stations available to protestors. Local institutions also hosted the U.S. Attorney General and other federal officials. Like many towns across the U.S., the sleepy, nondescript suburb of Ferguson, Missouri did not have any unique characteristics to suggest that it would stand out in any significant way. Nevertheless, the desperate call for justice resonated with similar communities across the country. This community’s response captured the world’s attention in ways that hundreds of similar cases had not. What was unique about Ferguson and the Michael Brown case that allowed Ferguson to successfully captivate the collective consciousness?

Local protest organizers described the Ferguson movement as an awakening of a slumbering Civil Rights Movement. One of the earliest Ferguson organizers and a prolific Tweeter, DeRay McKesson described it this way: “When you look at protests across America, you are seeing a generation awakening into its power, into its promise.”[7] Johnetta Elzie, another high-profile protest stalwart tweeted a similar sentiment: “Watching the awakening of people via Twitter is amazing”.[8] To some degree, Ferguson activists wrapped themselves in the blanket of history, seeing their own movement as continuing the struggles that had started with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. But they also boldly and fearlessly extended earlier civil rights struggles, bridging old with new, and successfully incorporating technology as an organizing tool to a degree that even surprised them. The spirit of the 1960s was certainly there and the respect for civil rights pioneers was beyond any doubt. But the new activists wanted to design their own creative responses, and consequently, they established their own identities as leaders in a new Civil Rights era. They refused to be defined by the previous Civil Rights Movement because this was their movement. For example, Hands Up United!, a coalition of Ferguson-area groups that supported legal protest and mentored young black leadership, immediately established and maintained a small library of books related to African-American history and critical theory in their organizing office. The library was significant both in a practical and a symbolic sense; this was a collection of material that was accessible to everyone and that outsiders could not control, remove, or rewrite. Protestors in Ferguson had a strong sense of and respect for history, but they were also acutely aware that they themselves were part of making history.

Protestors in Ferguson had a strong sense of and respect for history, but they were also acutely aware that they themselves were part of making history

The Ferguson Movement was very inclusive. Most of the leadership welcomed all volunteers, including white allies who had limited roles but who frequented the protests, often “Livestreaming” these occasions. What was originally a tenuous tie to local clergy (both black and white) took on new meaning and dimension after a brutal night of protest. Several people, including protestors and observers, were snatched and arrested in a fairly aggressive police sweep. Following the sweep, a diverse group of local religious leaders established an arm-linked buffer line between police and front-line protestors in order to protect the protestors. The clergy participated in this kind of direct action on multiple occasions. In so doing, they earned the trust and respect of many protestors and secured a place of legitimate leadership in the community.

Local supporters and institutions were instrumental in keeping the Ferguson protests going. After all, protestors poured into the streets every night since Brown’s death and continued to do so well into the winter months. The local community sustained the protestors in various ways. As one member of the Ferguson group Lost Voices explained “there are roles for everyone. You can cook, help each other, watch kids. Some people don’t want to be on the front lines. You do have a place in the movement; there is a place for everyone. This is about the nation changing, literally. We’re not backing down.”[9] Protest leaders were adamant that nothing would stop them from continuing to engage in political action, and this required a strong and sustained support network. DeRay McKesson pointed out, “see we’ve protested in every season. It was 100 degrees when we started. And now it’s frigid. And we are still here.”[10] Evening protests typically began with a delivery of sandwiches or pizza. Cold drinks were distributed during the summer and hot drinks in the winter. Everything was donated and delivered by local supporters who would often linger for hours in the back of the protest line. During these long and exhausting hours, conversations took place and social networks developed . Many of the protestors and their supporters worked or attended college during the day; many also held professional positions in the St. Louis area. Places like Andy Wurm’s Tire Store, located directly across the street from the Ferguson Police Department, became a “cosmopolitan canopy” or public place where diverse groups came together, listened to each other, and forged relationships based on common understandings.[11]

Although there were various reasons why individuals engaged in sustained activism in Ferguson, it is clear that the triggering event was the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. The immediate community response was wrought with collective pain and outrage. In this forum, Martino-Taylor documents early movement dynamics as small groups aligned and coalesced into a powerful local and national movement. Cobbina explores perceptions related to policing and race in Ferguson. DeValve and Koehne examine how police make sense of their work. Kulick and Carney contemplate what it means to support movements for social justice from the “ivory tower” and what role scholars should play in advocating for social change. All of these scholars explain important dynamics that help us to understand what transpired and why it was Ferguson, rather than hundreds of other U.S. cities where young Black and Latino men have been violently struck down by police, awakened the sleeping giant of civil rights and allowed them to emerge as the linchpin for work begun by their grandparents’ generation, and to inspire new protest coalitions throughout the nation. What began as individual outrage over a shooting by police and an unorganized group of individuals wrestling with larger social issues and systemic indignities that constrained and concerned them, emerged as a highly resilient and resourceful youth coalition with an important message for the world. Despite the amalgamation of complex structural issues encompassing and impacting them, the Ferguson activists were able to creatively turn grief and anger to passion and focus. The young protestors resolutely declared that “Black Lives Matter”.

A brilliant choir of voices emerged from our encounters in Ferguson. We met poets, mothers, high school students, filmmakers, preachers, librarians and waitresses. They were all more than willing to share their stories. One such individual was Damarco Smith, a young man from St. Louis.[12] His story epitomizes a central process that unfolded in Ferguson: the development of a political conscience aimed at dismantling the punitive state.

Damarco Smith had never participated in political organizing, protests, or civic engagement. Yet, he would eventually be featured in multiple national media venues as a key leader in the Ferguson Movement. He explained to Rios his reasons for getting involved:

“…it came like a, like a thief in the night. It really did, like, that knowing that uh…a young…a young man that was gonna go to college and, um, in less than two days, and feeling… possibly be someone great…knowing that, um… he finished school, him being a young black male in a poverty stricken community where the graduation rate is not that high.”

Damarco explained that even though protestors may not have known Mike Brown in life, his death marked an important turning point for many people:

“…the people that been coming out here protesting, and people out here marching, they probably didn’t even know Mike Brown personally. They didn’t know his mother. They probably didn’t know his father. They didn’t even know he existed. But his death… brung so many people across the world together. And it changed they lives…for the better. And the reason I say change lives for the better because they raised awareness in they conscious and in their hearts that something has to be done. Something has to happen.”

Damarco described his hopes for transformation:

“I think to myself, I say, “Why don’t we change the system at hand? Change the people that are policing us. Change the officers that are surrounding our community. Why not put officers in the community that know the community, that know the young men or the young women, that are not scared or putting their head down when they see the police officer, or they don’t got this type of mental impact in their brains where they hear sirens saying police lights, you’re scared, you’re fearful, and your heart get to racing fast and your adrenaline get to pumping for what reason I still don’t understand something unconscious, it’s an unconscious thing that sits in your brain and… that sits in your mind telling you that you see a police, run. That’s not right. But it’s been instilled in the brain so how can you change the mentality of the brain? And that’s what I’m focused.”

Damarco’s ultimate goal is to change the way the system perceives his community. He is actively seeking practical solutions that bring about justice:

“Because it’s like peoples’ brains have been washed, been brainwashed even dealing with looking… somebody looking like me. I got tattoos all over my face and everything. But at the same time, you cant judge me on how I look and not of the characteristics that I have inside of me, that intelligence that I have inside of me. You know, you not even give me a chance to even show… prove myself that I am a worthy young man, that I am a righteous young man, that I am trying to make a difference you just go stereotypically, ‘Oh, this man is no good. He’s up to no good, I’m not gonna deal with him.’ That’s not right. So, I speak.”

Damarco and many, many other community members from all walks of life spoke to the collaborative research team that traveled to Ferguson. It is these voices, experiences, and outcomes that we seek to understand in our collaboration and in the pages that follow.

References and Footnotes

  1. DuBois, W.E.B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg and Co.
  2. Jasper, James. (1997). The Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography and Creativity in Social Movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. McKesson, DeRay. (DeRay McKesson). “And if it were not for Twitter…” 8 December 2014, 8:13 a.m. Tweet.
  4. Givens, Kacey (pseudonym). Personal interview. 23 October 2014.
  5. Templeton, Alexis (Alexis@MusicOverPeople). “I Just Saw Mike Brown’s Mother…” 18 December 2014; 8:31 a.m. Tweet.
  6. Rios, Victor. 2011. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. NYU Press. P. 159.
  7. McKesson, DeRay (DeRay McKesson). “You are seeing a generation awakening…” 9 December 2014. Tweet.
  8. Elzie, Johnetta (ShordeeDooWhop@Nettaaaaaaaa). “Watching the awakening of people via Twitter is amazing”. 8 December, 2014. Tweet.
  9. Givens, Kacey (pseudonym). Personal Interview. 23 October 2014.
  10. McKesson, DeRay. (DeRay McKesson). “See, we’ve protested in every season….” 4 December 2014. Tweet.
  11. Anderson, Elijah (2015). ”The White Space,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 2015, Vol.1(1) 10-21.
  12. This is a pseudonym to protect confidentiality.