Since the smoke and tear gas have cleared from Ferguson skies, the world’s eyes may have turned their gaze elsewhere, perhaps to coverage of other conflicts. However, Patrisse Marie Cullors-Brignac along with other organizers of the Black Lives Matters (BLM) and leaders across the country continue to seek justice for Mike Brown and resist injustice and violence that disproportionately target people of color.
When St. Louis Native and activist Netta Elzie headed to an open mic night last Saturday at St. John’s United Church of Christ, she didn’t expect that the room would be filled with BLM riders from all over the country. The resilience and action of people like Elzie, who immediately took to the streets to support a grieving community and demand justice for Mike Brown, inspired over 450 people to board buses to visit Ferguson Labor Day weekend. BLM arrived in Ferguson and built bonds with groups on the ground like Organization for Black Struggle, Hands Up United, and Lost Voices.
“No one knew I was from St. Louis when I entered the church,” Elzie said.
“People were reflecting on what they saw during the day. It was very interesting to hear them talking so freely. You could tell that everyone, after being in Ferguson for the day was impacted by what they saw. They took the walk of Mike Brown from the Ferguson Market to Canfield and saw the memorial. It was just beautiful. We told them our first-hand accounts of what happening during the first days after Mike Brown’s death. Apparently our version was totally different than what they saw on the news. Our version further solidified their impression of what they saw in Canfield.”
According to Elzie, the BLM riders came just in time to encourage organizers to keep moving forward.
“When I entered the church, there was a comforting feeling like when you go home and your grandma’s there and you didn’t know she was coming over, like a good hug from Grandma fixes everything, which is not to say that meeting with Black Lives Matter is going to fix everything that is going on in Ferguson but it definitely rejuvenated our spirits because we’re tired- we’ve been doing this for a month straight with maybe a few days off,” she said.
It’s tiring; it’s draining. They were the burst of energy we needed. It was overwhelming to know I was in such a safe space with so many people that genuinely care because there were so many vultures down here that it’s hard to tell who is genuinely here for the people and who is here to make a profit. Black Lives Matter was clearly here, genuinely for the people…I don’t think any of us expected that people would care this much or still care after so long, it’s still shocking that we’re still trying to keep the momentum going and busloads of people are coming from LA, driving 36 hours to get here. That’s dedication. I wouldn’t have imagined that people would still feel impacted by tweets, just by Twitter to come and see it for themselves.”
Continuing a tradition
Back in 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.) boarded buses and traveled throughout the south to challenge systemic racism and inequality, focusing on segregation in interstate travel. The Freedom Riders were met with hostility at every stop. After facing extreme violence from a mob in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Martin King Jr. urged the Kennedy administration to intervene and bring in the National Guard to protect riders. The National Guard was recently deployed and posted in the Ferguson Target parking lot for weeks. Additionally, SWAT teams and police created a hostile and militarized environment. The use of tear gas, rubber bullets, sound bombs, church raids and random arrests attempted to intimidate protesters and suppress civil disobedience in the midst of tragedy.
The Black Lives Matter riders illustrate parallels between the past and present and beg the questions, ‘How far has American come? How far does it have to go? What will it take to get there.’
Building a national intersectional, inclusive movement (ignited the by bold resistance of St. Louis youth) would be BLM riders’ response.
Cullors-Brignac, founder of Dignity and Power Now that works to end sheriff violence in jails, and Darnell L. Moore, Managing Editor for The Feminist Wire and co-founder of the LGBTQ organization YOU Belong were two of many concerned black leaders from around the country that began discussing ways to address recent cases of black youth being murdered across the country.
“I had this idea that was inspired by a friend, filmmaker Darius Clarke Monroe,” Moore said.
“He texted me in the early morning and said he couldn’t sleep. He said we should ride to Ferguson. Patrisse said she’d been thinking the same thing and we thought we should go together. I’d never organized anything massive like this and she hadn’t either; we decided to co-organize. It happened in a little less than two weeks. We were guided by the spirit of the people in Ferguson- their work on the ground called us together. While some of us were in NY talking about the death of Eric Garner and people in Detroit were fighting for justice on behalf of Renisha McBride, and folk in LA were thinking about the death of Ezell Ford, we knew this wasn’t an isolated issue. We’re seeing the continued deployment of state-sanctioned anti-black violence that we wanted to respond to that.”
“Since the rebellion started in Ferguson until now, Ferguson has been all I can think about. The murder of Mike Brown and that collectively as black people we’re still mourning Trayvon and Renisha, still mourning black trans women that have been murdered by vigilantes- this level of blacks people dying viciously and the reaction to Mike Brown’s death was a deep affirmation of a call to action for black people to anti-black racism and I immediately said I want to go down, I had this pull to go to Ferguson to be with my folks.”
It’s all a part of the piece that denies people humanity, this myth of the criminal. The moment we get brutalized people assume they were a criminal and dangerous. When people think of criminals, they always think of black people because of deep seeded racism. Part of Black Lives Matter is us trying to dispel this myth of the criminal, that black people are criminals that are deserving of our deaths and that we’re not deserving to live healthy lives, to have access to food, to have a living wage, to have shelter. That’s all under state violence and the most egregious act is killing us prematurely.”
Moore explained how BLM stood out to him as a unique coalition compared to his past activism experience:
“This is a very different racial justice collective. We started about by clearly stating that when we say all black lives matter we mean all blacks lives. Traditionally racial justice work and framework has been centered around the work of black straight men and focuses on black boys and men. Over the weekend, we had a coalition of black men, a lot of women, LGBTQ folk, people of various places and income levels- it was remarkable to see an expanding of racial justice work,” Moore said.
“Patrisse and I, as co-organizers, are a man and a woman both queer-identified and I think that’s important. This is very different, we don’t have to hide our identities to work on racial justice. We asked that it be a space where all black bodies have a voice, are seen as part of the struggle and that we develop a racial justice framework that takes into account the different ways that black bodies are impacted under the system of white supremacy.”
Cullors-Brignac followed Moore’s sentiments.
“Never in my life have I showed up to a city where all black people are talking about on a daily basis is the state of our children, how we’re going to save our lives. Never in my life have I heard mainstream radio talking about how Robert McCulloch the persecutor needs to step down. I’ve never been to a city when even as destruction, folks have reclaimed Ferguson in a way that they have deep agency. There’s marches and live art projects- everyone is talking about Mike Brown and the fate of black people. We rarely have the opportunity to do that. There’s this sense of urgency that comes from our desire to live and it’s really inspiring.”
BLM organizers reflect on their interactions with groups in Ferguson:
“This was a mostly youth-led, youth-inspired movement that happened in Ferguson. These young folk literally are saying I’m ready to die for justice. They’ve given us a model, not only to think of how we can do coalition work locally but how to fight against anti-black violence nationally,” Moore said.
Additional National Efforts
Black Lives Matter is one of many strategic initiatives that stems from Ferguson. The National Bar Association is pushing for access to police brutality records in 25 US cities. This invaluable data because will allow communities to contextualize their experiences and understand the depth of the problem. The cities included are: Birmingham, AL, Little Rock, AR, Phoenix, AZ; Los Angeles, CA; San Jose, CA; Washington, DC; Jacksonville, FL; Miami, FL; Atlanta, GA; Chicago, IL; Louisville, KY; Baltimore, MD; Detroit, MI; Kanas City, MO; St. Louis, MO; Charlotte, NC; Las Vegas, NV; New York City, NY; Cleveland, OH; Memphis, TN; Philadelphia, PA; Dallas, TX; Houston, TX; San Antonio, TX and Milwaukee, WI. Again, this is not just about Ferguson.
Dream Defenders, a Florida-based organization that activated around Trayvon Martin’s murder, has been involved in the fight for justice for Mike Brown since the beginning. DD raised legal funds for those arrested in Ferguson and continues to fight for social justice and increase political engagement among youth of color. They are currently working on a campaign called the “Bloc is Ours” to increase voter turn out and thus dismantle discriminatory policies and practices.
The discrimination and criminalization of black youth desensitize the public to the loss of black life and silence questions around racial profiling and police brutality. Killers are vindicated before they even go on trial. In the midst of tired and misleading narratives of black criminality and black on black crime, there is a pressing opportunity to confront America’s racism and hold leaders accountable. Coordinated acts of solidarity with Ferguson remind America of black communities’ collective and uncompromising power. This isn’t just about Ferguson. A budding national network echoes Ferguson’s cries and concerns and it’s only getting louder.
To read more about BLM ‘s efforts, click here and follow #blacklivesmatter on Twitter
For ways to support Ferguson check out http://www.handsupunited.org/
Michelle Zei is a freelance multimedia journalist. Her interests include HIV/AIDS, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, millennial activism and immigration. She believes in the power of the pen and the web to educate and unify communities. Connect with her on Twitter @michellezei