Strength. Dignity. Power.
These are words that come to my mind in the images from Ferguson October, the recent days of action protesting the August 9 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
From Ferguson October we’ve seen images of thousands of people marching with signs saying “We Are Human,” “From LA to Ferguson,” and “Hands Up Don’t Shoot”… images of young Black women chanting and carrying “Racism Kills” signs in a suburban St. Louis shopping mall … images of Black and White people standing up to sing the “Requiem for Michael Brown” to a stunned audience at the St. Louis symphony … images of a “Black Lives Matter” banner televised nationally as it unfurled on Monday night football … images of young and old people boldly defying police through civil disobedience.
And Ferguson October gave us the unforgettable image of Nigel, the little boy in the red cap, standing proudly in the street, pausing as the historic Ferguson march begins.
Like all photographs, the Ferguson October images are also about the moments behind the moments: the years (and years and years and years) of Black organizing in Black communities that keep tiny sparks of justice glowing when no television cameras are there to film it; the hours (and hours and hours) of listening and dialogue and reflection that build the trusting relationships that make collective action possible; the lifetimes of unsung leadership by people who step up every day for their children, their coworkers, their neighbors.
Like #Black Lives Matter, an on-line forum begun after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin (and deeply engaged in Ferguson), Ferguson October is “rooted in grief and rage” –the logical, healthy, and necessary responses to the daily brutality and inhumanity Black people face and that we as a society allow and perpetuate. Ferguson October teaches us how this deeply rooted grief and rage can be, in the words of #BlackLivesMatter, “pointed toward vision and dreams.”
As I await the reflections of those who gave over their hands and hearts and minds to make Ferguson October happen, I offer my first thoughts on some of the lessons that their work demands us to learn and remember.
- Black Lives Matter. At its core, Ferguson October is about defending the humanity of Black people, recognizing Black experience and leadership, and understanding that, in the words of Scot Nakagawa, “anti-Black racism is the fulcrum of White Supremacy.” “When Black people cry out in defense of our lives, which are uniquely, systematically, and savagely targeted by the state,” writes Alicia Garza, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, “we are asking you, our family, to stand with us in affirming Black lives. Not just all lives. Black lives. Please do not change the conversation by talking about how your life matters, too. It does, but we need less watered down unity and a more active solidarities with us, Black people, unwaveringly, in defense of our humanity. Our collective futures depend on it.”
- Organize Before the Moment. Ferguson October brought together local and state work by Hands Up United, Organization for Black Struggle, and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) with nationwide organizing efforts such as BOLD (Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity), a national training program developed “to help rebuild Black (African-American, Afro-Caribbean, African, Afro-Latina/o) social justice infrastructure in order to organize Black communities more effectively and re-center Black leadership in the U.S. social justice movement.” Before Ferguson October came the Black Lives Matter Rides which brought Black communities and organizations together in Ferguson to support the people there as an extension and strengthening of the work they are doing in their own communities. To state what has been said, and ignored, over and over by so many people: continuous and on-going organizing creates the possibility for moments to become movements.
- Creativity Over Control. Ferguson October was striking in the diversity of its actions: those who wanted to march could march; those wanted to pray could pray; those who wanted to sing could sing; those who wanted to shut down city hall could shut down city hall. While I’m sure this array of action was incredibly hard work and rife with the conflicts found in any collective human endeavor, the movement building message it sends is one of creativity, not control.
- Synergy Across Movements. Ferguson October received the endorsement of the AFL-CIO and SEIU, galvanized a climate justice contingent, and spawned the shut down of a local Walmart to underscore the connection with the police shooting of Michael Crawford III in an Ohio Walmart in August.
- Expand Possibility and Hope. When police shot Michael Brown and left his body lying for hours on a neighborhood street, the ceaseless and excruciating police killing of Black men, women, and children had already left many overwhelmed with outrage. “Ferguson is our breaking point,” wrote Professor Robin M. Boylorn in August:
The death of Michael Brown, emblematic of countless others, and the collective loss, grief and justified anger of people (of color and allies) who are tired of being terrorized and victimized by injustice requires that we say something. But I don’t know what to say. I don’t know where to begin.
Ferguson October gave many the support they needed to say something and the strength to begin again. As Peniel E. Joseph wrote today, “There’s a social-justice movement taking hold across the nation. Michael Brown’s death, which turned Ferguson, Mo., into a battleground this past summer, has helped catalyze a larger struggle for racial and economic justice in America.”
- Demand Support for Black Communities, Organizing, and Infrastructure. Ferguson October moved forward with an outpouring of small grassroots donations, but few significant donations and no foundation grants – at an extraordinary level of volunteer leadership and self-sacrifice. There are important lessons in philanthropy still waiting to be learned.
“We are in a movement moment,” proclaims Ferguson October and I believe it.
We have been here before, when Black communities have risen up with strength, dignity, and power to assert their basic humanity. “The Emmett Till case was a spark for a new generation to commit their lives to social change,” scholar/activist Robin Kelley observed in a documentary film interview. “They said, ‘We’re not gonna die like this. Instead, we’re gonna live and transform the South so people won’t have to die like this.’ And if anything, if any event of the 1950s inspired young people to be committed to that kind of change, it was the lynching of Emmett Till.”
Moreover, says Kelley, “Black people in Mississippi itself were the ones who were going to make that change. And the great thing is that the change that they made, the extension of citizenship to all people, is a change that affected all of America, not just black people, but whites, Latinos, Asian Americans. It extended democracy to the country when democracy had never been extended to everyone before.”
“We will gather in Ferguson,” says Ferguson October. “But the world will hear our call for change.”