After police shooting of unarmed black teen brought forth new human rights movement, activists gather in flashpoint town to commemorate and organize
One year after a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri shot dead unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown, the residents who protested his death–and, in doing so, swiftly ushered in a human rights movement that took on the banner Black Lives Matter–returned to the small St. Louis suburb to memorialize Brown, organize continued anti-racism actions, and attempt to heal.
On Saturday, Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., led a march through Ferguson from the scene of the shooting near Canfield Apartments to Normandy High School, where his son had graduated just weeks before his death.
He urged organizers to step up their efforts in reforming the justice system which led both to Brown’s death and the non-indictment of the officer who shot him, Darren Wilson, who was cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury in a case tainted by muddled testimony, conflicting evidence, and a controversial prosecutor.
“I see things moving in a positive way, but I don’t see enough,” Brown said on Saturday ahead of the march. Referring to organized actions that emerged from initial outrage over the shooting, Brown added, “We all came together. Every set that was out here, everybody who had problems with anybody–it squashed all of that. We just came together to make a movement, and that was beautiful.”
Brown also spoke of his unending grief over his son’s death. “I hurt every day,” he said. “I have to stay moving, going, running, just to keep me from going insane.”
Rallies and marches that took place over the weekend in Ferguson were mirrored in cities throughout the U.S., particularly those which have seen their own episodes of turmoil over the deaths of black men and women in police custody–such as Baltimore, Maryland, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray was killed after his spine was severed during an arrest in April.
Colleen Davidson, one of the organizer’s of Baltimore’s action, told the Baltimore Sun on Saturday that the events of the weekend aimed to fuel the momentum of the movement. “We want to show that there are still people that care and who are fighting back, to let the community and police know that we’re not going to stop, we’re not going to slow down.”
In New York, activists gathered to pay tribute to Brown as well as Eric Garner, whose high-profile death in police custody–and the subsequent non-indictment of the officer who killed him–also became a flashpoint in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We won’t stop talking about this until people understand we have rights,” one organizer, Elsa Waithe, told Al Jazeera. “There’s police out here who knowingly violate your rights because they think you’re a person of color and your life doesn’t matter.”
In the aftermath of Brown’s death, grassroots action began to take effect in policy. An election in Ferguson last year saw voters begin to chip away at the disproportionate number of white representatives in the majority-black city. A landmark Department of Justice investigation published in March exposed the racist institutions trapping the city’s low-income residents in a cycle of debt, poverty, and criminal treatment.
“I think we’re going to come out of this, and eventually we’re going to come out of it even stronger, in my opinion,” Wesley Bell, an attorney and college professor recently elected to the formerly white-dominated Ferguson city council, said on Saturday.
Over the past year, the call to action born in Ferguson sprouted in cities around the world and helped inform actions that followed subsequent police shootings and other deaths of black Americans in custody. What began as a series of slogans–”From sun-up to sundown, we do this for Mike Brown”; “Hands up, don’t shoot”; “I can’t breathe”; “Black lives matter”–elevated a call for racial justice into a nationwide human rights movement. In Maryland, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in May announced she would file charges against all six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death; in doing so, she explicitly acknowledged the role of the protesters who demanded accountability and reform.
“To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America,” she said during the press conference announcing the charges.”I heard your call of ‘no justice, no peace.'”
And in North Charleston, South Carolina, where 50-year-old Army veteran Walter Scott was shot in the back by a white officer during a traffic stop, a grand jury indicted officer Michael Slager on murder charges just days after the killing.
The early uprising in Ferguson “was just the beginning of hyper-focus on a place that would become Ground Zero for a fully intersectional social justice movement focused on the dismantling of white supremacy and its attack dogs, police departments across America.,” writes Kirsten West Savali of The Root.
As many in black America sought solace in each other, vestiges of self-hatred were shed and we (re)learned to love our blackness, and each other, more completely. We dismissed the right-kind-of-victim fallacy and told the world that wearing hoodies and sagging pants, free-styling and code-switching don’t foreclose on our right to live free in this country. We became less concerned with winning acceptance and more determined to win our freedom.
….[W]hat makes this iteration of black resistance different from the Civil Rights Movement is that the spirits of Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Assata Shakur and Malcolm X are moving through with a blazing fire that can only be contained by full systemic recognition and respect for black humanity.
This time, it’s not about being treated civilly, it is about the right to navigate the world being both human and black without a permanent target being positioned center mass on our chests.
DeRay McKesson, an activist whose steady presence on social media helped organize and inform the movement, writes for the Guardian:
We did not discover injustice, nor did we invent resistance last August. Being black in America means that we exist in a legacy and tradition of protest, a legacy and tradition as old as this America. And, in many ways, August is the month of our discontent.
This August, we remember Mike Brown. But we also remember the Watts Rebellion, and the trauma of Katrina — three distinct periods of resistance prompted or exacerbated by police violence.
Resistance, for so many of us, is duty, not choice.
….We seek justice — not an abstract justice, but a living, breathing, tangible justice. Justice is a living Mike Brown. Justice is a playing Tamir Rice. Justice is Sandra Bland at her new job. Justice is Rekia Boyd with her family. Justice is Mya Hall with her friends. Justice is no more death.
We did not start this. We have never started any of it. They kill(ed) us. They creat(ed) systems to harm us. We did not start this. We are fighting to end it.
We are, and have always been, more than our pain. We will win.