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20 Dec

In Ferguson

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In Ferguson

Darryl Pinckney

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 2014Forty 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.

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 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.”

 

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