By Alicia Garza
Since the first week of August 2014, a rebellion has grown in St. Louis, Missouri sparked by the murder of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson. This is a rebellion fueled by state and police violence in working class black communities and its character demonstrates some very important shifts. Black youth are working diligently to re-calibrate this country’s moral center: building from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, they have created their own historical identity, rejecting respectability politics, embracing direct action, and tackling new forms of anti-black racism rooted in old forms of slavery. As the black youth in Ferguson are innovating movement vision, practice and purpose, will the rest of us in the progressive movement be able to catch up?
In 1963, James Baldwin, having returned from Europe to participate in the Civil Rights movement, penned the powerful narrative The Fire Next Time1 which offers poignant thoughts on how to bring forth a world free of racist terror and violence. Baldwin asserts that black people, given our social, economic, and political positions, are uniquely positioned to re-humanize America and predicts that we “can make America what America must become.”
As of November 2014, at least three black youth under age 25 had been killed at the hands of police in St. Louis over a 100-day period. Every 28 hours, a black person in this country is murdered by police or vigilantes2. There are more than one million black people in prisons and jails in the United States. The fastest growing population in prisons and jails is black women who are imprisoned at nearly three times the rate of white women.3 Over one million currently under state supervision—largely penalized for crimes of poverty and hetero-patriarchy. Among black transgendered people, one in three has been arrested or held in a cell.4
Even as black communities are targeted for state and vigilante violence, they are increasingly denied access to a strong democracy. Voting restrictions, redistricting, and segregation ensure that black communities do not gain sustained political power. In Ferguson, 68 percent of the city’s 21,000 people are black but only one official on the City Council is black, there are no blacks on the school board, and just three out of the 53 police officers are black.5
Against a state apparatus that targets black people in particular for profit and control, progressive movements and institutions are still largely ineffective. But young black St. Louis residents have been on the frontlines of a growing and unique rebellion providing uncompromising leadership that’s in sharp contrast to previous forms of leadership. Then, we fought for a seat at the table, now we are fighting for the table.
The Fire This Time Is Different
More than 40 years after Baldwin wrote those profound words, black people in America are creating new tributaries in the ebb and flow of the Black Freedom Movement. A generation of young blacks is becoming radicalized through its experiences of fighting white supremacy in the form of hyper-policing and criminalization of the poor and working -class communities. Black women in particular are standing at the intersections of white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and capitalism, leading the movement for a new democracy and a new economy. From underground, a rumble is growing and ruptures happening, demonstrating that a new movement is on the way. This movement will not look like the ones that have come before, but will build itself from the best strategies and tactics adapted to the realities of our time. St. Louis and the growing movement to end state violence in all of its forms is taking center stage.
The fire this time rejects respectability politics, values militant civil disobedience and direct action, unites across identities with black lives at the center, and is led by young people under the age of 35—from 15-year-old Low-Key of the Lost Voices to Ashley Yates and Tef Poe. Every night, newly formed black youth organizations, such as the Freedom Fighters, Tribe X, HandsUp United, Lost Voices, and Millennial Activists United (MAU), some of whose members are queer, demonstrate before the Ferguson police department and on the south side of St. Louis where Vonderrit Myers was killed. In fact, the founders of MAU became prominent on social media platforms like Twitter, through their participation in and documentation of the early stages of the Ferguson rebellion.
The rejection of respectability politics has accelerated in Ferguson, making it the only predominantly black city in the last 50 years to reject an assumption of leadership by traditional civil rights leaders and institutions. When Michael Brown was murdered, the Reverend Jesse Jackson traveled to Ferguson eight days later, allegedly to work with local clergy to increase voter registration in the area and join community members who were demonstrating, demanding justice. After talking with community members in a McDonald’s parking lot, Jackson made the grave mistake of asking for donations for “the church,” and was promptly booed. And Al Sharpton recently did an event in Ferguson with talk show host Iyanla Vanzant, which garnered little media attention, despite their recognized name brands. Neither Sharpton nor Jackson have assumed prominent roles in Ferguson, as they may have been accustomed to doing in other instances. As one man asked Jackson: “When are you going to stop selling us out?”
In contrast, on the day after Michael Brown’s death the Canfield Green community reportedly solicited donations for his family6 and had a large plastic bag full by day’s end. Today, a shrine to Brown remains in the middle of the street where his 18-year old black body lay for more than four hours just steps away from his home. Cars respectfully slow down as they pass. Residents passing by will upright a fallen teddy bear or clean up any debris around the memorial. In a city where the per capita income is around $20,000 per year, the community has clearly spoken about where its allegiances lie.
Even clergy are being radicalized by the young black leaders in St. Louis. During the initial stages of the Ferguson rebellion, many clergy and civil rights leaders advocated for “peaceful” resistance, and in doing so, implicitly and explicitly supported methods of resistance that they deemed appropriate. However, that type of leadership has been rejected, meaning that even some religious leaders have had to change their approach if their participation was to be accepted.
Young Blacks Re-Humanizing Society
The relative silence from some areas of the progressive movement is notable, but many of the young leaders—such as 15-year-old Shermale Humphrey and 18-year-old Jeanina Jenkins—on the frontlines of the nightly Justice for Mike Brown demonstrations, were also previously involved in the “Show Me 15” movement. Some organizations, such as MomsRising and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, have been vocal and visible in bringing together the impact of state violence on women and children. When AFL-CIO President Richard Trumpka delivered a groundbreaking speech7 at the Missouri convention of the AFL-CIO, calling for organized labor to step up and join the fight for justice and accountability and an end to racist policies and structures that keep people poor and disenfranchised, he also noted that Brown’s mother, a deli worker and member of UFCW, and Officer Wilson, a member of the police union, were a part of the same family, adding: “Our brother killed our sister’s son.”
Still, an overwhelming silence around anti-black racism envelopes an already fragile movement. A recent labor newsletter8 photograph showed the president of the Missouri AFL-CIO with the St. Louis Chief of Police, Sam Dotson—just days after Myers was killed—at the Ferguson October national convergence to build a movement against police and vigilante violence. In the newsletter, the state labor president praises Dotson for making sure that the demonstrators were kept safe, when just the night before, demonstrators were pepper-sprayed.
Johnetta “Netta” Elsie and DeRay McKesson have created a daily newsletter, This is the Movement, which carries news about the Ferguson rebellion and notable efforts in other parts of the movement. They offer analysis, humor, photos and videos and are clear about their reasons for being involved and about what comes between them and freedom. As one young woman involved in the Show Me 15 movement told me: “I used to think that all police were generally good with just a few bad ones. But since I became involved in this movement, I noticed that not one officer came forward to say that what Darren Wilson did was wrong. It really shows you how they think about us. What they think about us.” She begins to cry softly, adding: “I been tear gassed, been shot at, been arrested. But at the end of the day, I’ve spent more time in jail than Darren Wilson!” Given that viewpoint, it’s unlikely that we will see photos of demonstrators posing with police officers.
Black youth in St. Louis have certainly sparked the fire this time, breathing new life into James Baldwin’s words about black people being uniquely positioned to re-humanize this country. An uncompromising leadership, a new call for black power, an approach that has changed our hearts and minds—one hundred days after Brown’s death, they are blazing new trails that took the progressive movement more than three decades to wrap its head around. Those of us who are paying attention aren’t only asking what we can learn, but also, perhaps more importantly, how we can catch up!
View From the Street: October 8th
Wednesday, October 8, 2014. Night has fallen in St. Louis. The air is electric with grief, rage, and tension. A few hours earlier, 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers was killed by an off-duty St. Louis police officer working a second job as a private security officer. Initial reports of yet another death of a black youth at the hands of the police spread like wildfire, quickly turning into calls for protests.
When I arrive at the location where Vonderrit was killed, there are approximately 150 people, mostly between the ages of 15-35, milling around. Some had come from Ferguson, the community where Michael Brown was killed just shy of a month earlier.
The tone is at once angry and somber. Vonderrit’s home is surrounded by yellow caution tape that has fallen to the ground. The crowd is comprised largely of black youth from Ferguson and neighboring areas, officers from the St. Louis City police department, Vonderrit’s grieving family and loved ones, clergy and religious leaders, and local activists and organizers. Across the street is the liquor store where Vonderrit spent the last moments of his life. The lights are on but the door is closed as the crowd grows and their impassioned murmurs crescendo into a determined call-and-response chant:
Hey hey! Ho ho! These killer cops have got to go!
The tone gets angrier and emotions intensify. Local clergy and religious leaders walk slowly through the crowd, shaking hands and consoling grieving family members and loved ones. A local community organizer moves through the crowd with a clipboard, stopping short of her plan to recruit. An older activist with another local organization attempts to calm the crowd, but a child has just been murdered. Some police officers are talking with a handful of clergy, while family members sob in each other’s arms.
Somewhere, the sound of glass shattering is immediately followed by cheers from the crowd whose intensity is increasing rapidly. The dull thud of feet kicking a police car gets louder as the number of feet increases. Police officers in the crowd surround the police chief and retreat to the nearest intersection, but not before being surrounded.
One black youth with his head turned to the sky is screaming and crying. He lowers his head, and staring directly into the face of an officer whose expression barely hides his disdain, yells: “Ya’ll got guns! I’m just talkin, but ya’ll got guns! What the fuck are YOU scared of? You gonna shoot me? Shoot me! Ya’ll got guns!“
Amidst the obvious tension, the chief gives the order for officers to leave the area and they walk slowly to their cars and start their ignitions. Other cars attempting to make it down the street are generally allowed to pass if they go slowly, or demonstrate some level of support for the crowd. The ones trying to move faster through the crowd are stopped by the bodies. One such is a police car with a black officer at the wheel. With windows rolled up, he inches forward too quickly for the crowd’s liking and a young black woman becomes incensed. “Where the fuck are you going?” She cusses at the car and a few others surround it. The woman circles around and lies down in front of the car, sayng: “Try to leave now. Ya’ll ain’t going nowhere!"
View From the Street: October 12th
Saturday, October 12, 2014. A few nights after Myers was killed, protests in both Ferguson and in Myer’s neighborhood known as “Shaw,” continue. The youth have decided to keep applying pressure by bringing demonstrations into communities that don’t normally see protests. They are committed to making people uncomfortable. On this particular evening, St. Louis City police respond with pepper-spray. As a result, at least one activist is hospitalized for shortness of breath and seizures.
My heart is pounding as I stand locked arm in arm with strangers who have become family.
Officers in riot gear line the streets, ostensibly protecting private property in the restaurant district. On a street off the main thoroughfare, a line of officers blocks a smaller group of demonstrators from joining another group across the street. A group of about 50 people is milling around, while another 20 or so form a line facing the police line.
Ashley Yates (29), Brittany Ferrell (25), and Alexis Templeton (20), pace back and forth between police and demonstrators. Both Ferrell and Templeton are wearing t-shirts that read “Unarmed Civilian,” and Ferrell tells the police: “We love you, even though you don’t show love for us. Did you think when you signed up for this job, that this is what you’d be doing?” Meanwhile, Templeton begins to lead the crowd in a call and response:
It is our duty to fight for our freedom
It is our duty to win
We must love and support each other
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
They are chanting the famous (at least in activist circles) quote from Assata Shakur. I watch the officers ever so slightly shift their stance and it seems that for just one moment they, too, are mesmerized by the power of this young leadership. Ferrell and Templeton lead the crowd through the chant, at times loudly, at times in just a whisper, 62 times—once for each day since the killing of Michael Brown. At one point, a single tear slips down the face of one of the black officers. Moments later, an armored car resembling a tank arrives and stops directly in front of an upscale fast food restaurant.
“This is the St. Louis police. This is an unlawful assembly."
Alicia Garza is the Special Projects Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. In 2013, Alicia co-founded #BlackLivesMatter, an online platform developed after the murder of Trayvon Martin, designed to connect people interested in fighting back against anti-Black racism.
1 Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time.