When Mike Brown was shot to death in Ferguson MO last summer, his hands up in surrender, he didn’t know when he awoke that morning that he would die that day as yet another victim of American racism. Neither did Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd or countless others, going back to when the first Black slave was killed for resisting their involuntary servitude.
That we are forced to carry signs that read “Black Lives Matter” in 2014 is a measure of how far the USA may have advanced in years but not in wisdom.
So we gathered once again in mourning and in anger. This time it was in downtown St Louis on October 11, part of a month-long series of events called Ferguson October. I boarded a bus at 4:30 am from South Side Chicago sponsored by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Action Now (a local community organizing group).
By around noon we were on Market Street in St Louis, marching past gray fortress-like court and government buildings that promise to guard justice and democracy, but too often fail to protect either.
The chants echoed through the downtown streets of St Louis from a diverse multi-racial crowd that I estimated to be around 4000-5000:
“Hands Up! Don’t shoot!”
“No justice! No peace! No racist police!”
“Turn it up. Turn it down. We’re going this for Mike Brown!"
“They shoot us down. We shut shit down.”
“We’re young. We’re strong. We’re marching all night long!”
“Ferguson means fight back!”
When Mike Brown was killed August 9, the citizens of the small St Louis suburb of Ferguson launched an uprising that lasted for days. They courageously resisted in the streets against a police occupation army that came to deliver tear gas, arrests and beatings. The people fought back because the institutions that were supposed to support and protect them had failed.
But the people of Ferguson did not have to fight alone. Material and moral support poured in. From far away Gaza came advice on how to deal with tear gas. People drove to Ferguson with much needed supplies and sometimes stayed to resist along side of the residents.
Ferguson fought back. That’s why Chicago sent buses to participate in the St Louis march. That’s why people from across the Midwest also joined in solidarity.
We have to keep the spirit of resistance alive. No locality, whether it is a small suburb like Ferguson or a big city like Chicago can successfully resist in isolation. Police violence directed mainly at Blacks and Latinos is a national problem; as are its close cousins, mass incarceration and the militarization of local police forces.
After the mile long march we rallied at a park with music and strong words coming from the stage. Here are some brief excerpts from the speeches:
"I've been arrested three times since we began protesting. I've spent more time in jail than Darren Wilson. That's ridiculous. And that's why we're here under this arch. So they see us, and so they know we're not going away until they stop killing us. And let's be clear. They WILL stop killing us."
"This is bigger than the police. We shouldn't have minimum wage jobs. We should have living wage jobs. We should have good schools, not un-accredited schools."
"I say we do like Stokely Carmichael. We must organize, organize, and organize."
"The blood of Mike Brown has seeded a great revolution in this country."
On Vonderrit Myers ( a young man shot in St Louis on October 8) : "Our son was not involved in a police shooting. The police shot HIM. There wasn't a shoot out. There was one shooter. That shooter was the police who shot him six times."
A rally speaker from the #Palestine2Ferguson contingent put it this way: "The people of Ferguson are the heartbeat of resistance, not just in this country, but all over the world.”
Our bus departed for Chicago at around 3:30 as the rally was winding down. On the ride back I asked Tanya Cooper, who was sitting next to me what she thought of the protest. The veteran Chicago Public Schools (CPS) English teacher spoke positively about how youth are building a culture of resistance outside of the established political system, being called upon to vote, but to also stay in the streets.
She went on to share thoughts of a more personal nature:
“As a mother of an African American male of teenage years, I really don’t know what it would be like to lose a child to police brutality. A lot times they are innocent victims. So it’s important that we support anyone who is having to go though this issue. Because you never know when it could be our turn and it happens to us next...
...So for African Americans, and it doesn't matter what your culture is, just as an American, the humane thing is to advocate for someone who cannot advocate for themselves because their life was lost to violence. I think in Chicago we need to be proactive and make sure people are educated about their rights.”
Tanya Cooper (right)
We sat in silence when she was finished, the lights of Chicago ahead as we sped along along I-55. I thought of how easy it is to fall into despair. Just thinking about much blood has been shed over the years by police and private security forces can do that to a person.
Many of the the urban uprisings of the of the 20th century began after an incident of police abuse. I’ve been going to hearings, rallies, and marches about police violence since 1970, yet the killings seem to go on and I do sometimes fear that despair might overwhelm me.
But the energy, militancy and commitment of the youth that I witnessed at the St. Louis march and the calm measured words of an African American mother reminded me that despair is a luxury we cannot afford.
A powerful new social movement against racism, poverty, official violence and all of their related social injustices has begun. A lot of the leadership is coming from a new generation of involved Black youth. They have accomplished much.
Beginnings are critical times. They require courage, intelligence and commitment. We can expect great difficulties and sacrifices ahead of us.
James Baldwin once wrote, “This is the charged, the dangerous moment, when everything must be re-examined, must be made new, when nothing at all can be taken for granted.”
There are lives in the balance.
Special thanks to Trish Kahle for sharing quotes from the rally and to Tanya Cooper for allowing me to publish part of our conversation. Many more photos of the march and rally at Bob "Bobbosphere" Simpson's Flickr album Ferguson October