Ferguson October

Dr. Cornel West takes the podium.

“How do we create the kind of climate where we know how to listen, really listen?” he erupts. A lone finger straggles skyward. Electric.

All eyes in the Chaifetz Arena are on him. His words bend and bleed into one another and there is passion in his diction, big passion. He speaks from the bottom of his gut.

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~

Just before Dr. West was scheduled to take the stage, a group of five youth, spread throughout the audience, aren’t having it. They stand with their backs to the crowd, hoods up.

“We’ve been out there every night. How can you say these things when you ain’t been standing there with us?”

“Who stood up to the tear gas? Who’s been beaten with a club?”

Enough of the crowd cheers that the youth are invited to take over the podium.

A twenty-something man with justified fury lets his voice run free. “You swoop in, all you out there. You think you can make a difference? What the fuck? I am fucking pissed with all this shit.” He grabs at his shirt and lets anger radiate through his chest.

His anger is a bright light in the room, casting a glow on my white face, my female face, my privilege.

A twelve-year-old black girl takes the stand. “Whose streets? Our streets. And don’t you forget it.” She is all sass and confidence, the next generation of leadership. I sink lower into the fold-up stadium seat and let myself cry. What am I doing here?

~

A white woman in a pixie cut and combat boots makes eye contact as we file to the exit. “Are you going to Shaw?” she chimes.

I offer her some of the peanut M&Ms I have been snacking on for dinner.

“Sure.” It seems like the place to be.

Shaw is the location where eighteen-year-old Vonderrit Myers Jr. was shot only a few days before.

The night is cold. We park our rental car a few blocks away from the neighborhood street where local police have blocked off thru traffic with flares. Protesters gather in a huddle, shoulder to shoulder to fight the chill.

A black youth leader with a megaphone divides the group in two. “All of ya’ll come this way, and stay on the sidewalk!” I keep my two companions in sight, and lose them within five minutes. I feel safe in the commotion, carried by the energy of the crowd.

We chant. We march.

“BLACK LIVES MATTER. BLACK LIVES MATTER.”

“TURN UP DON’T TURN DOWN

WE DO THIS FOR MIKE BROWN.”

“NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE. NO RACIST POLICE.”

“HANDS UP. DON’T SHOOT. HANDS UP. DON’T SHOOT.”

“INDICT, CONVICT, SENT THAT KILLER COP TO JAIL.

THE WHOLE DAMN SYSTEM IS GUILTY AS HELL.”

The protest arrives at the Grove, an intersection full of bars and neon lights.

“WHOSE STREETS?” someone calls.

“OUR STREETS.” we respond.

“They think systemic racism is a game?” one of the youth leaders yells. “Well then we’re gonna play games!!!”

A collective cheer sends the stoplights quaking as the leader empties his bag of playground supplies onto the street. Within minutes there are two games of double dutch, a juggling circle with a soccer ball, an animated game of twister in the intersection. I join the soccer circle and chant along with the crowd:

“THEY THINK IT’S A GAME.

THEY THINK IT’S A JOKE.”

Anger has morphed into joy.

“THEY THINK IT’S A GAME.

THEY THINK IT’S A JOKE.”

“TURN UP DON’T TURN DOWN

WE DO THIS FOR MIKE BROWN.”

“WHOSE STREETS?”

“OUR STREETS”

A white girl from an upper-level apartment sticks her head out the window and records us with her iPhone. Members of the press with their bulky lenses don’t participate but look on. Occasionally their cameras are hit with an overhead beach ball or soccer ball as they squat and get in the middle of things, trying to get the best possible shot. I have mixed feelings about their presence. There is so much potential to twist what is happening here.

After an hour or so of playing, we get fall into line and march until we merge with the other half of the group who, we learn, didn’t play games but had a run-in with the riot police on an overpass. I am grateful for the half I was sorted into.

~

Our group, now twice as large, is overwhelmingly loud.

Somehow a collective hush manages to silence us––it takes a moment, but the quiet is almost complete. Someone at the front of the line has a bullhorn face-to-face with a blockade of St. Louis University Police.

“I am a SLU student, and these are my guests!” We erupt in cheers and move through the barricade to #OccupySLU.

As we pass a row of dorms, the crowd chants:

“OUT OF THE DORMS, INTO THE STREETS!

OUT OF THE DORMS, INTO THE STREETS!”

A few students in their pajamas come down to watch. Lights in many darkened rooms flicker on as we pass. It is just past midnight and my voice is getting hoarse from protesting; I find my harmonica in my pocket and improvise elated notes.

We gather at the fountain at the center of campus that, with the water shut off, turns into a kind of stage.

A student comes out with a djembe to give a burst of rhythm to our chants. “People say I’m a sister, but I’m not,” he announces, proud. “I’m a brother!”

Mike Brown’s mother shuffles to the front of the stage. We have four minutes of silence, fists in the air, for the many victims of police brutality.

~

One of the soccer balls has made it to SLU. I join a few others kicking it around to stay warm in the night air until holes in the ground rev up and spew water some twenty feet in the air. Some of us are caught on the inside of the ring of water. The rest of us scatter to the outer perimeter of the fountain.

Minutes later the fountain shuts off and things resume much as they were before, though there is a thin layer of water on the ground.

~

At 3am I join a group of two folks who have ordered pizza for the group of protesters, funded by Occupy Wall Street. We carry the fifty-some pies and crates of coconut water to a bench by the fountain, accompanied by the cheers of many fatigued protesters.

One of the black youth leaders takes to the bullhorn. “Grab a slice of pizza and gather in,” he says. “We’re going to have a group discussion.”

The man instructs us to sit next to one person we haven’t met before and introduce ourselves.

“I want you to both answer these two questions as honestly as you can: how are you oppressed? Who do you oppress? We have to be in dialogue if we want to make changes.” 

~

I slept for three hours that night. Activism is wonderful and exhausting. Soul affirming, definitely, but also exhausting.

~

Hours later I’m at it again, this time gathering at a church a mere minutes away from the Ferguson Police Department. Heavy clouds gather above our heads as interfaith leaders from around the country lead us in prayer.

“We come in peace.”

A sharpie is passed around for us to write the arrest support hotline on the inside of our wrist and ankle. Everyone signs forms with our personal information and the emergency contact info for one other person, just in case we are arrested.

We march in and stand face to face with the police.

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~

I’m not in jail.

It poured the whole time. We stood and chanted and sang outside the Ferguson Police Department for four hours and thirty-two minutes, the amount of time Mike Brown’s body was in the street. Some of us held up mirrors to the lines of riot police, forcing them to look at themselves. Many glanced away. We called for an apology and were met with silence.

I am wet and cold and my sneakers are soaked through to the socks, but there is a fire in my heart.

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ferguson2My heart goes out to the organizers and youth who have been at this fight for months. I hope this is only the beginning of something much bigger. I hope for justice and for peace.

At the end of the action we huddled shoulder to shoulder and looked our neighbors in the eye. “I want you to promise,” a church leader breathes, “that you are in this for the long haul. That you will not stop fighting against racism and oppression. This has to be the beginning.”

“I promise,” I mouth, holding the gaze of a black woman in her thirties. It is all I can do not to fall apart and cry with the still-falling rain.

~

It takes everyone to change everything. Injustice to one person is injustice to us all. As a white woman, what stakes do I have in this fight? I am not black. I am not male. I am not at risk of being shot by a police officer simply for living my life.

Though I marched for the first day of Ferguson October wearing my “tell me a story about water” sign, it felt frivolous to continue to press my own agenda. I took it off and kept it in my bag for the rest of the weekend.

I went to Ferguson to lend my support, my voice, and my heart to this fight––to do everything I can to change the climate of racism and police brutality in the United States. I look on from Fiji with a heavy heart in anticipation of the St. Louis County Grand Jury’s decision on whether or not to levy charges against Darren Wilson.

Injustice against one person is an injustice against us all. Black lives matter.

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