On The Ground In Ferguson: Is The Movement Working?

Michael Brown Memorial Plaque

Michael Brown’s memorial plaque

On Sunday, August 9th – the date marking the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death – police in Ferguson, Missouri shot a man, later identified as 18-year-old Tyrone Harris, Jr., after he reportedly opened fired on them.

I heard about the incident not on the news, but on Twitter. And as I would soon find, the decentralized organization of the Ferguson protests would be both the impetus of me making a trip to Ferguson to support the movement and also the cause of the disappointment that weighs on my mind now as I reflect. What follows is an account of my experience in Ferguson on August 10th, the day following the shootout with Tyrone Harris, Jr.

Deciding to go to Ferguson

Back in Little Rock, Arkansas on the night of August 9th, I had just finished watching “The Last Dragon,” a Motown-meets-Kung Fu cult classic friends had recommended earlier that day, when I tapped open my Twitter app to find that #Ferguson was trending. It wasn’t the community gatherings and memorials in honor of Michael Brown that caused the trend, though; the first words I read within the hashtag were “man shot.”

My heart sank, my throat locked, and I clicked the first piece of media I saw: a video by Black Lives Matter activist Tony Rice (AKA Twitter user @Search4Swag). It documented the scene immediately after the shooting, showing a handcuffed, bloodied man lying facedown on the pavement behind a chainlink fence, with cops standing nearby, and a policeman in a bulletproof vest pushing the videographer away from the scene, while someone off camera, who I assumed was Rice, yells, “We see he’s still breathing. He’s still alive. Get him some help.”

“What the fuck is going on in Ferguson?” I texted the two friends who had recommended “The Last Dragon” earlier that day. “I leave reality for an hour and everything is fucked up,” I continued. “Can we please do something about this??” As the next few hours rolled on, I followed tweets from users like Pastor Cori Bush (AKA @Ps_Cori) broadcasting distressing messages such as the one she sent at 3:07am, “WE ARE BLOCKED IN AND THEY KEEP TEAR GASSING US AND SHOOTING RUBBER BULLETS. HOW DO WE GET OUT??”

By the time I read that tweet, I was pacing in disbelief, having resolved that I couldn’t sit and watch injustice play out before my eyes without taking action. Coming from a journalism background, with a vested interest in the protection of First Amendment rights, I was particularly disturbed with the police’s handling of the protests.

I grabbed my backpack and began stuffing in items I knew I’d need for a protest, as I texted friends in Little Rock and a group of colleagues in Memphis to see if anyone would join me on a trip to Ferguson. By early morning, my colleague, fellow Education Pioneers Fellow, and social justice advocate Jacquelyn Martell, had accepted. I picked her up in Memphis, and we typed our destination into Google Maps: “Ferguson, MO.”

Arriving in Ferguson

Ferguson protestors

Ferguson protestors

Jackie and I pulled up to Google’s “pinpoint” on the map. We had been expecting that it would take us right where we needed to go, but instead, it had pitted us in the center of an unassuming apartment complex somewhere seemingly far from the action. It took another guess on Google Maps to find our grounding; we directed ourselves to “West Florissant and Canfield,” street names we had seen non-stop in the media.

We had found it, and the spattering of protesters was our confirmation. Small groups of five or six protesters were strewn about — one group on the roof of a building, another in front of that building. A handful of people in the middle of the street. Others across the street. It was about 7:00pm on Monday, August 10th, and the group had not yet coalesced.

Don’t just sit there. Don’t just watch. We need you. Get out here!

Uncertain what we should do and finding no direction on Twitter or other social outlets, we parked, took out our posters and markers, and penned our signs: “New York stands w/ Ferguson,” and “Little Rock stands with Ferguson.” Like new kids at a high school lunch hour, we wandered up to a small group of inviting-looking people and wielded our signs, hoping to fit in. It had begun.

The first person to greet us was a local radio host. He saw that we were from out of town, given our signs, and came over to welcome us. He said he’d be back in the evening, recommended that we visit Michael Brown’s memorial three blocks away, and pointed us in the right direction. Making it there just before sunset, we read the plaque placed in a nearby sidewalk in Brown’s memory and saw the re-paved section of the street where his body once laid for four and a half hours postmortem. It was now lined with stuffed animals placed neatly in the yellow median between two traffic cones.

Michael Brown's memorial

Michael Brown’s memorial

In the distance, a number of stuffed animals had been placed on a street lamppost, as if the toys were climbing playfully up to the light. Crickets and frogs chirped, and the four others who were visiting whispered respectfully. Jackie and I posted immediately to Instagram, because these were the images we had not yet seen of Ferguson. We had seen violence and chaos, but not much hope and healing.

As we made our way back to West Florissant, the sun set and the crowd grew. Dozens of protesters had arrived in the short time we were gone, and the number rose steadily until about 200 participants gathered, half of which participated as the others looked on from parked cars in the adjacent strip mall, in what appeared to me to be a tailgate-party fashion.

At one point, throughout the evening, I recall one of a handful of the most vocal protesters on a megaphone shouting to the onlookers, “Don’t just sit there. Don’t just watch. We need you. Get out here!” Some people shuffled about, but most people stayed seated atop their car hoods and roofs or gathered in circles, chatting.

Confusion and Moments of Hope

Monday’s protest was deemed “decidedly” smaller and calmer than others on recent nights,” by the Associated Press. Fox reported an “uneasy calm” that night; USA Today pointed to “some arrests” that took place; and CNN headlined with news that the county had declared a state of emergency.

What I saw, though, was ups and downs. Instances of tense confrontation, followed by moments of extreme hope, and a mix of confusion among protesters – including myself – throughout.

Protest leader in Ferguson

Protest leader in Ferguson

By 9:00pm, a megaphone-wielding protester had taken the lead, initiating the first round of chants as the group marched from one side of West Florissant to the other, where about 50 police officers stood in formation, fully suited in riot gear, head-to-toe. He was shirtless, wore loose jeans, white high-tops, a white headwrap, and a gold chain. He also had a number of tattoos that I now wish I had asked about. I admired his ability to excite the crowd. He led the most voiced chants of the night: “Fuck the police,” “Fuck 12” (which refers to unit 12 of the police force: Narcotics officers), and “Who shuts shit down? We shut shit down.”

He led the group to the other side of the street where officers were stationed. Protesters confronted police with these chants, and with arms raised to the sky, incorporated the “Hands up, don’t shoot” mantra that originated from the shooting of Michael Brown and had become a marker of the fight against police brutality, particularly against unarmed black men and women.

A few protesters continued moving, but most stayed in face-off-mode in front of the police. I began to worry about the protest and its purpose. Had Jackie and I joined a protest focused solely on showcasing dissent? Or was this a part of the larger movement towards an end to police brutality and the rise of racial equity?

Ferguson police in riot gear at protest

Ferguson police in riot gear at protest

Suddenly, hope sprung. Another protester with a megaphone appeared and yelled to protesters, “Why you standing in front of the police? Fuck the police! We’re over here. You can stay over there with the police, or you can join us over here! Fuck them.” Amazingly, within a short while, he had corralled everyone back on the other side of the street. From there, the night waned from low point to high point — from “fuck the police” bouts to empowering chants like “We are the revolution. You can’t stop the revolution.”

More of This, Less of That

Jackie and I saw so many scenes that did not get translated into the news or social media. We saw volunteers handing out water, pizza, and respiratory masks. We encountered a lawyer who wrote the phone number for jail assistance on our arms, in case we were arrested. These were surprising visuals, given that I had not seen such instances in media. These were some of the moments that inspired me while in Ferguson.

On the flip side, we encountered a number of issues at the protest. As reported by multiple outlets, “frozen water bottles and bricks” were thrown at officers. I didn’t witness bricks, but I saw three water bottles launched from our side of the street towards officers. The first one caused a stirring and led to the first arrests we saw that night. Everyone had rushed the streets, causing officers to take action.

I saw what looked like a cylindrical object thrown into the air, and seeing that people were running away, I thought it might be a tear gas canister. Jackie and I ran — someone pushed me, and for an instance, I thought I might fall. Turns out, it was a water bottle. And within those few minutes, some arrests had gone down. Jackie and I re-evaluated our support — were we willing to face potential police retaliation based on one dissenter’s actions?

Luckily, protesters self-policed, with some taking it upon themselves to educate the group that throwing items at the police was counterproductive. And police stayed calm. Again, a moment of hope. It was those aggressive moments, when protesters threw bottles, for example, that the protest seemed to lack direction. We were protesting against violence, yet some within the group employed it.

Being two of the only outsiders at the protest – we didn’t see or meet anyone else from outside Ferguson and the St. Louis area – we felt semi-lost in the happenings. Though we looked on Twitter, though we tried to follow the quickly changing leaders on the megaphones or otherwise, I felt a sense of confusion in the happenings. Sometimes the group was aligned in chants. Other times, we dispersed alongside the sidewalk, waiting for the next call to action. Even our arrival pointed to the lack of structure around the protest — there was no site to read where to meet, what to bring, what time to show up.

Just before 10:00pm, it was unclear whether there was a curfew in place or not — an activist we met at the protest informed us that there was a 10:00pm curfew and advised us to have an exit strategy, warning that the police would likely spray tear gas if we didn’t disburse promptly. Seeing the three helicopters and drones above us, I heeded her advice but searched on Google to confirm, finding that there was, in fact, no curfew.

These are the small details that make or break a protest, that confuse or empower a protester.

Reflections on the Movement in Ferguson

Erica Swallow and Jacquelyn Martell in Ferguson

Erica Swallow and Jacquelyn Martell in Ferguson

The little time I had in Ferguson was eye-opening. I saw a lot of positive, but I also saw issues.

What I would have liked to see in Ferguson was an extension of the baseline infrastructure volunteers had put in place when they were handing out supplies, such as water and masks. As travelers joining the protest, we could have used information about meet locations and timing, for starters.

The protest itself could have used infrastructure, as well — instead of leaving chants up to the crowd, and coming out with “Fuck the police” as our key message of the night, what would the outcome be if we spent time defining the problems we see in the system? “Hands up, don’t shoot,” for example, points directly at a problem, but it was only chanted for a few minutes on Monday. If ending police brutality is our message, why was that chant barely voiced?

Likewise, most of the protesters in Ferguson are from the area. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the world is arriving in droves to support the cause in solidarity. We should be, but I encountered only locals this week. Is this an opportunity to reflect on how to mobilize more people to Ferguson? Or is physical attendance even important in this era of technology? If not, how do we mobilize people’s digital voices with greater effect?

We may not see racial equity in our days, but while we are all here, we can work towards it.

While people may not be flocking to Ferguson, there is massive support from outside — we need greater infrastructure for those supporters who may not be able to travel to Ferguson, but are willing to donate funds or send needed supplies. The pizza and water needs to be funded by someone — there isn’t consistent messaging or an updated platform for people to lend a hand financially.

Much like #Occupy, the #BlackLivesMatter movement prides itself on a lack of leadership in the traditional sense — it is a viral movement. Much of the protest at Ferguson was rolled up under the #BlackLivesMatter umbrella, it seemed. For an outsider, it was inspiring, but hard to get up-to-speed.

My Unsolicited Thoughts on Moving Forward

I’m not a protest organizer, nor am I black, so let me check my privilege and inexperience. But I am a concerned world citizen and an American with a hope that one day racial injustice will be an issue of times long gone. I speak also as a Southerner who made the drive from Little Rock to Memphis, and then Ferguson to stand in solidarity, to stand up for my beliefs and the rights and safety of my neighbors in Missouri and elsewhere.

We may not see racial equity in our days, but while we are all here, we can work towards it. I may be overzealous in wishing goal-oriented, solutions-driven productivity on all of Ferguson’s protests. Admittedly, there is certainly a place for pure expression of internalized oppression. Ferguson, as the rest of America, has a history of systemic racism — If I were black, growing up in the impoverished and undereducated, underemployed city of Ferguson, I would likely be downtrodden, too. And “fuck the police” might have become my mantra of choice, given those experiences.

Furthermore, I respect the brave men, women, and children of Ferguson and the surrounding area who I had the honor to protest alongside. I chanted with spirit when I believed in the message. And when I didn’t, I stood quietly in support as others spoke their truths. It’s not my place to condemn another person’s or people’s experiences or expressions. I can, however, disagree on tactics and point to potential strategies for more effectiveness. If we are to push this movement forward, we need greater infrastructure and a clearer message.

Police brutality is tyranny

Photo courtesy of Flickr / Christian Matts

Today is not the civil right’s movement of the mid-1900s, and the visionaries who led that movement aren’t here to lead this one; nor do we need to recreate those structures. But when a decentralized movement is happening in one of America’s most watched cities and traveling protesters can’t find the basic information necessary to make it to a protest, we have a problem.

When supporters from other states and countries can’t donate to the cause, because they’re uncertain where to do it, we have a problem. When half of a protest’s attendees are disengaged or inactive and many others don’t know what they should be doing for half of the gathering, we have a problem. When we have protesters purposefully agitating and throwing objects at riot police, we have a problem.

Currently, Ferguson sets the tone for America’s conversations on race and justice. It is the center of media attention regarding police brutality. Ferguson has the ability to change the conversation – to showcase to the rest of America and the world that this movement has a direction. It’s up to us to define key problems within the system, suggest solutions, and spread the message.

Let’s continue to use Twitter, Instagram, Periscope, and other platforms to distribute information. Let’s continue to organize volunteers to power key events. But let’s also build new foundations for even bigger impact. Let’s think about the message we want to send and align on it. There is strength in numbers. There is strength in unity. To quote one of the chants of the night, which made its way from ancient Greek literature to a megaphone held in Ferguson, “United we stand. Divided we fall.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s