What Have We Learned From Ferguson?

Last August's murder of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson ignited one of the most important movements of our lifetime—a movement we will need for years to come.

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One year after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, the streets are still filled with people, sometimes breathing through teargas, protesting how little has changed.

There had been signs that such a movement would come, if you paid attention. There was the struggle against stop-and-frisk and racist policing in cities like New York and Chicago. There was the anger and pain at the death of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride. There were “I Am Troy Davis” signs. There were the Dream Defenders, camping out in the Florida capitol.

But after Ferguson, no one could claim they didn’t know what was happening. The story was everywhere.

On Monday, as I was writing this, a line of peaceful protesters were being arrested and taken away in plastic zip-cuffs outside of the Thomas Eagleton Courthouse in St. Louis. Floating down the street with their march, past the Gateway Arch and the Old Courthouse where Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued for their freedom from slavery in 1847, is a sign reading “Racism Lives Here. #FightBack.”

The “Moral Monday” action is part of a weekend of events, ranging from protests to film screenings to a concert, marking the anniversary of Brown’s death, the 365th day of protests. Around the country, organizers pulled together solidarity actions that also focus on local issues—in Albany, New York, protesters are demanding justice for Dontay Ivy, a mentally ill man who died after being repeatedly shocked with a Taser by police, and for the release of Marquis Dixon, sentenced at 16 to nine years in an adult prison for stealing a pair of sneakers.

The movement has been led from the start by young people, fed up with the polite way of doing things, tired of being told to vote and then go quietly home. It has been led, particularly, by young Black women, queer and transgender Black women, who have repeatedly demanded that the movement be intersectional, that it take into account the different ways state violence and racism hit different people. In St. Louis last spring, Diamond Latchison told me of her time in the movement, “I don’t have to keep being Black and being queer and being a woman in three different spaces, I can put them all together.”

In St. Louis, everyone simply spoke of “the movement.” It did not have a name or a definition, it was simply a thing they were part of, that they made every day by showing up. In the press, it often gets called Black Lives Matter, the name of a project started by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors. To Garza, the central role of women in this movement is one of the things marking it as different than what came before in the Black freedom struggle. “Our movements that have largely been led by men. Largely charismatic men. Largely men of faith,” she told me recently. “I think what is new in this moment, although connected, is that there is a real emphasis on leaderful events, that have multiple leaders and that also aren’t reliant on the charismatic leader to lead the masses to victory. It is a different approach and it’s a different step.”

Women, trans, and queer women, Garza said, are “the canaries in the coal mine.” The violence and poverty that Black women face, the emotional responsibilities pressed on them, the multiple layers of exclusion—from labor law protections, like the workers Garza organizes with at her day job with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, from the jobs that prefer to hire White men, from the mainstream LGBT movement and the most visible sectors of the left—come back to affect everyone when they are not dealt with.

The movement for Black lives is often characterized, in the shorthand that journalists must use to provide a lot of information in a few words, as a movement against police killings of Black people (sometimes it is even shorthanded “Black men”) but it is so much more than that. In some ways, the fight against police brutality, against the militarized forces bearing down on peaceful protests, is the struggle that makes all other struggles possible—to have a vibrant movement that creates change in the economic structures of our country and our world, people must first be able to speak and gather without fear of violent repression. To become activists for justice, Black people must first be able to live.

White supremacy is a system, in our country entangled with capitalism and patriarchy and so many other systems, maintained day in and day out by a hundred structures and a hundred actions. In Ferguson, we learned, it is upheld by police issuing tickets and arrest warrants for the slightest infraction, locking the Black majority of the area into an ever-escalating system extracting greater and greater fines from them. Racist policing is part of a system that continues to extract wealth from Black people while telling them that poverty is their own fault.

“We can’t just fight for one thing, you’ve got to take the system as a whole, not just part of it,” Latchison said.

As the presidential election threatens to swallow all other political discussions and debates and struggles, we must continue to pay attention to the people in the streets, the myriad ways that political power can be exercised outside of the voting booth. Movements have to last longer than an election cycle, have to push for change that is social as well as political, to create the will for policy change and to create the understanding that leads to its acceptance. “Liberation is not quick, freedom is not quick, there’s levels to this,” Latchison said. “You can’t get everything at the snap of your fingers.”

The picture that haunts me from Sunday night in Ferguson came from Robert Cohen of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, of a mother he identified as Amina Allen, facing down a line of helmeted, vested riot police holding clear shields. Allen’s chin is high, her expression defiant, her arm around her young son, whose face glows in the light from a camera just offscreen. The boy looks worried, his hands together in front of him.

Another reporter tweeted a video of Allen having a talk with her son that Black mothers around the country have with their children. She’s telling him to be careful, because these police with their weapons could take him from her at any time. She brought her son to the protests to learn this lesson, a lesson that is still too necessary after a year of demonstrations, disruptions, demands, and too little change.

As if to underscore her point, police shot a young man late Sunday night. Tyrone Harris Jr. was, according to his father, a friend of Michael Brown’s, and was in critical condition as of press time. Police accused him of firing at them first; they were not wearing body cameras, so the story is likely to remain disputed. 

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