Is the outrage over injustice in Ferguson leading to a movement, or just a moment? I traveled to Ferguson over Labor Day weekend as a member of the Black Lives Matter Ride. Watch the video above to hear my experience working on the ground in Ferguson with Dr. Marshall of Street Soldiers Radio, and read the highlights below to learn about the moments of both deep frustration and hope that I experienced on my journey.
I’m sitting in a circle with over 30 strangers, and we are each sharing our reasons for deciding to travel to Ferguson with the Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride. I share that I grew up in inner city Chicago, that my friends and I were harassed by police in high school because of the neighborhood we were from, that I have lost friends to gun violence. One young man’s story will always stick with me. "I joined the ride because I’m tired of wearing t-shirts with my friends’ faces on them," he said. "I’m tired of burying my friends. I’m tired of my community being incarcerated and persecuted. I am joining this ride because I believe in change, and I believe unity can create that change."
We passed drivers on the road who made gun symbols with their hands and started ‘shooting’ at us. These moments made it clear that as much as our trip was about unity and solidarity, it was also about acknowledging that racism is alive and well across the country.
Arriving in Ferguson
We were greeted by local organizers who had been working on the ground since Mike Brown’s murder. The stories they shared were quite different from what I had heard reported in the media. One story that stuck with me was about the now-iconic image of a young man wearing an American Flag and launching tear gas at police. (See our picture together on the right). The local organizers shared that there were kids in the crowd behind this young man, and that he was throwing something that had been thrown at him. He had a bag of chips in his other hand. He was not in riot gear. It was about protecting himself and the people behind him, who you cannot see in that image. Something else that you would never be able to see in that image is that in picking that canister up, he was burning his hands. He was hurting himself to protect his own. It was humbling to hear the unreported realities of what the Ferguson community had been through.
I took refuge from the hot, stinging rain under a voter registration booth right in the middle of the street, and I saw a little girl standing in the rain holding a sign with an arrow pointing towards the tent. She was absolutely drenched and her poster was bleeding paint. I asked her what she was doing and she said “I’m helping register people.” The girls’ mother and grandmother were there in the tent – three generations of women working to empower the community through voter registration. I found out a little later that the girl’s grandmother, Malvada Jones, is a local alderwoman and community leader in the voter engagement effort.
Challenging the Police
In front of the protestors, fifteen or twenty Ferguson police stood in a straight line. There was one African American cop. We have all read the statistics about Ferguson police, but to stand in a crowd of black people and be faced with a line of white officers went beyond anything I could understand by reading a number.”
The protesters called across police tape to the officers, asking “Why are you doing this?” “Why don’t you answer my questions?” Sometimes the questions were directed at specific officers: “Why aren’t you wearing your name?” “Why can’t I see your badge number?” Several hours later, Captain Ron Johnson arrived and the community had questions for him, too. “Please tell me,” they would say, “what is procedure, what is protocol when someone has their hands up?” It was a powerful display of a community challenging the system that had caused them so much hurt. But they didn’t get any answers from the officers, who remained straight-faced and would not talk or engage.
I wanted to lift up the work of local leaders working towards civic empowerment in Ferguson – leaders like Richard Jackson and his Mannesah Ministry, who were walking the streets during the march, reaching out to young people and challenging them to learn about their history. Leaders like the Organization for Black Struggle (see our photo on the right), Alderwoman Malvada Jones and her family, who were tackling the voter registration movement head on, rain or shine. These forces of empowerment and change were most inspiring to me, and I saw it as my role to amplify their work.
With all the pain the community has gone through and everything they continue to deal with, it seemed that the last thing many people wanted to hear about was politics. There is still intense distrust of the political process, which was encapsulated for me when an older woman walking by the voting booth with a group of young people turned to them and said "We can’t listen to them, they’re just trying to get themselves elected."
We have to realize that the stakes of allowing Ferguson to be just a moment are far too high. One young woman I met in Ferguson said to the riders “Why y’all here? You’re going to leave.” I heard the pain in that. She wasn’t unwelcoming, she was vulnerable. Her experience with having organizers come in is that they always leave. The morning that we left, some of the young locals we had been working with decided to go camping, and woke up to a noose at their campsite. The riders were already gone by the time this happened, and it was so painful to realize that these young people had to go through that without the support system we had been able to give them just a few hours before. If we don’t truly commit to building a new system in Ferguson, we risk contributing to a feeling of distrust and alienation, especially for Ferguson’s young people.
A Movement Divided
Sadly, just as there is a divide between black and white and between police and community in Ferguson, there was also a divide within the movement for change in Ferguson. As a Latina, I was questioned by other activists who felt I wasn’t Black enough to be a part of the space. They asked me why I had come, and even said I made them uncomfortable. As painful as it was for me to be questioned in that way, I understood their pain and I could pass no judgment for it. All I could do was to listen and show that the movement was deeply personal for me in the same way it was for every rider.
As much as I understand the discomfort some riders felt in my presence, I also feel strongly that this cannot be just a Black movement. It has to be inclusive of all people who identify with the struggle and who are invested in changing the system. The movement gains power with the involvement of allies from every community. After all, “mind your own” was what we were told by the white man at a gas station who couldn’t understand why we wanted anything to do with Ferguson. It’s an attitude that works in favor of the status quo.
I felt great hope for a unified movement towards the end of the trip, when the riders who had questioned me and challenged my decision to join the ride embraced me and told me how happy they were that I had come. There is every reason for us to feel hurt and distrust when it comes to racial injustice and oppression, but I saw through this trip that we can begin to heal when we are willing to stand up for each other’s humanity.
The Road Home
As we began to drive away from Ferguson, we passed through a storm. Each time the sky was illuminated by a bolt of lightning, the words on the bus windows – “Justice For Mike,” “Black Lives Matter” – would cast shadows on the faces of riders around me, many with tears streaming down. We didn’t have to say anything. We rode in silence away from an experience that we all knew would shape our paths and our purpose for the rest of our lives.