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Three Days in Ferguson: Observations from the Rust Belt
By Vincent Emanuele
This article first appeared on Countercurrents.org.
In late August, myself, along with several activists and community organizers, drove from northwest Indiana to Ferguson, Missouri. We, like so many others, felt an inherent urge to join the ongoing protests and lend our support to the local community. After internally processing over a week's worth of coverage, we could no longer bear viewing the events unfold from the comfort of our homes. After all, we live less than five hours from ground zero in what has become one of the most galvanizing events in recent memory.
Ferguson, like many deindustrialized midwestern cities, is littered with strip malls, big-box stores, Chinese buffets, sports bars, truck stops, fast-food restaurants and decaying infrastructure. Located just northwest of St. Louis, Ferguson is reminiscent of the many Rust-Belt towns adjacent to Chicago: Dolton, Calumet City, Whiting, East Chicago, Michigan City and Gary. The houses are falling apart; the lawns are unkept and the bushes overgrown. Unlike suburban-white-America, most blacks living in the wasteland of Capitalism care less what type of lawnmower their neighbor owns, if they can afford one at all. After all, who has time to bother with properly manicured lawns when teenagers are being executed in broad-daylight by racist police?
Of course, Ferguson doesn't have organic vitamin stores or "farm-to-fork" restaurants. Although, no less than four blocks from West Florissant Ave., I observed gentrification in the form of antique bicycle stores, micro-breweries and Euro-bistros. As whites stared through the brewery windows, occasionally glancing at the Cardinals baseball game on the tube, hundreds of protesters marched from West Florissant to North Florissant Ave., chanting "We Are, Mike Brown!" and "Hands Up, Don't Shoot!" I could't help but note that every-single-one of the brewery patrons were white, some smirked as we walked by, others angrily staring, and yet even more refused to acknowledge our very presence.
Upon arriving at the Ferguson Police Department late Wednesday evening, we were greeted by several dozen protesters who had set up an encampment across the street. With bullhorns blazing and protesters chanting, people began to share personal stories concerning militarization, police brutality, racism and poverty. One protester, an older black woman, took the bullhorn and gathered our group in a large circle. Hand-in-hand, black and white, the local ministers led us in prayer.
Honestly, while many of us would rather get our teeth pulled, than pray, the sacred performance allowed an opportunity for total strangers to become immediately intimate. Holding hands is a powerful act, especially in a society as alienated and segregated as modern America. We expressed our love, fear, anger, resentment, solidarity and frustration. During the prayer, Mother Nature decided to cool us down with a nice shower. Some ran to their cars while many continued to pray. Others, including myself, joined a couple dozen protesters who continued to march back to West Florissant Ave. in what turned out to be a quick, yet wicked thunderstorm.
With rain pounding our heads, and lighting stretching from one end of the sky to the other, those marching maintained good morale and jovial spirits. When we arrived at West Florissant, we could see the crowd growing. Several of us stopped for a smoke break and drank some cold water. I have to admit, my initial reaction was that of astonishment, the police presence was unusually overwhelming, even for a militant protest. Cops, like the military, itch to use their weapons. And you could see it in their actions, tapping and twirling their batons, cleaning their assault rifles and adjusting their body armor. Most of the police officers looked to be under 30 years old, the vast majority of whom were white, and scared, as expected.
Much of the local community participated in Wednesday night's events from the sidewalks and parking areas parallel to West Florissant. The marchers largely consisted of local ministers and those who traveled to the event from out of town. The local community reluctantly got involved in Wednesday night's actions, largely due to the state-sanctioned violence the police unleashed on protesters the week prior. Dozens of people were shot with rubber bullets, sprayed with tear gas, beaten and arrested. In short, the local community needed to regroup, recover and reflect.
For those who are wondering, local community members were absolutely happy that we came from out of state to show our support and solidarity. There is somewhat of a myth that, "Outside agitators are ruining the situation in Ferguson." Yes, there are minor problems, with various groups opportunistically seeking membership and/or to alter the path of the ongoing protests, but their influence is limited by the sheer resilience of the Ferguson community. The local protesters quickly challenged those who sought to co-opt events in Ferguson. And the oh-so-powerful unions were nowhere to be found. Politicians stayed away. Thank God.
I will say that the only real tension, outside of the obvious dynamic between the protesters and cops, concerned the ongoing debates between black nationalist groups, the New Black Panther Party, local ministers and community members. Conversations surrounding strategy, tactics and objectives raged through the night. It was quite exciting to witness Occupy-style debates taking place in Ferguson. The biggest difference between the movements, of course, is the fact that Ferguson is dominated by black citizens, whereas Occupy was largely dominated by middle/upper middle-class whites and those who already self-identify as "lefties."
After marching with a raucous crowd up and down West Florissant, I made my way to the media tents. Anderson Cooper, Van Jones and the usual suspects from CNN frantically paced the roped-off parking lot, tweeting and texting. Some protesters yelled profanities, others sought out selfies. From what I could tell, a good portion of the local community is quite distrustful of the mainstream media, and rightly so. The corporate media control a good portion of the negative messaging surrounding events in Ferguson. After over six hours of protesting and talking with local community activists, I gathered our group and headed back to a local Motel 6 for some rest.
The next morning, without knowing what to do, or where to go, largely because of a lack of organizational structure on the ground, my friend Jonathan and I grabbed some breakfast and decided to visit the neighborhood where Mike Brown was killed. When we arrived at the Canfield Green Apartments, people were scattered throughout the complex, having conversations, mourning at the site of Brown's murder and either interacting with or ignoring, the massive media presence.
Immediately, Jonathan and I encountered a rousing talk by a black nationalist elder from the local Ferguson community. He spoke of America's imperialist and capitalist foundations, its rancid political system and corrupt institutions. Afterward, people strolled about the area, smoked, debated the previous talk, and nervously enjoyed beers on their front porches while undercover police gazed from unmarked SUVs. Other community members took pictures at the scene of Brown's murder, which has been transformed into a community memorial, decorated with stuffed animals, posters, candles and various gifts.
Interestingly, Jonathan mentioned that during the height of lynching in the South, many victims were intentionally left hanging, sometimes for days, sending a clear message to fellow blacks, this could be you. The fact that Brown's body was left on the smoldering blacktop for over four hours, his brains gushing from his skull, then carted off like road kill, only reinforces the notion that execution style murders serve the same purpose in 21st Century America. The horror inflicted on those who were forced to witness the murder, and its aftermath, will be seared into their collective memory forever.
Indeed, our time at the Canfield Green Apartments was fascinating, humbling and utterly educational, on many levels. To me, it was the most interesting experience of the entire trip. As expected, I learned that an inordinate amount of the local Ferguson population endure prior convictions, largely drug offenses. Clearly, this element plays a detrimental factor in the ability of black communities to openly challenge police officers in protest situations, or even take to the streets, for that matter. When the police-state enacts mass-punishment on blacks, the results devastate political spaces.
As the day went on, I listened to dozens of stories concerning police-brutality, corruption, disenfranchisement, poverty and lack of opportunities. Undoubtedly, the Ferguson community is hurting. Years of neoliberal economic policies, the war on drugs, segregation and white supremacy have devastated Ferguson. Numerous people openly asked the question, "How much more of this shit can we take?" That question, in my thinking, will be answered if, or more likely, when, officer Darren Wilson avoids conviction. I have to say, there's not much hope in the local community that justice will be served. Unless activists can organize a movement large enough to begin dismantling America's police-state, why should the residents of Ferguson believe otherwise?
A young man named Darin told me, "Shit will get real if this motherfucker doesn't serve time. The community is sick and tired, man. And now we're ready to fight. This whole city is going to pop-off if he gets away with this shit." According to Darin's friend, Russel, some of the looting could be attributed to "outsiders." But one aspect remained clear: the QuickTrip gas station engulfed by a massive fire, was set ablaze by two white kids. Provocateurs? Possibly. But that wasn't Russel's opinion. He thinks the owners are responsible for the inferno. To them, it's yet another example of a completely corrupt media that paints blacks as the enemy, and whites as innocent bystanders.
Later Thursday afternoon, we headed back to West Florissant. That night, the crowds were significantly larger than our first night in town. Once again, protesters marched up and down the street, while dozens of local folks stood in parking lots, sat in cars and sold t-shirts to benefit the Brown family's legal fund. Some community groups set up voter registration and ministry booths. Many of the younger protesters hesitated to partake in such activities. It became quite clear that there is a significant generational divide in the black community.
The younger protesters in Ferguson were militant, they wanted confrontation and were fired up to challenge the cops. Older ministers attempted to pacify crowds and heeded the orders of local police officials. Older black leaders called the looting "unacceptable" and "disgraceful." Young blacks informed me that the objective of the looting was to hurt the city's revenue and to send a message to local business owners: hire young blacks. Elder black leaders called some of the protesters' actions "violent." Young blacks told me they were simply "defending themselves." The younger generations are starting to recognize that those working within the establishment have positions, salaries and careers to protect. Young blacks are lucky to have a job, let alone one that pays a living wage.
When the night ended, I felt like two semesters of African American studies courses had been crammed into three days. Every local community member I interacted with expressed their gratitude that we came out to support the protests in Ferguson. Interestingly, the first question I was confronted with throughout the week was, "Are you a reporter?" I'm assuming that's because I was one of the few white people participating in the Ferguson protests who wasn't associated with the media, police or street medic teams.
As usual, many questions will remain once the protests end. The immediate question being, what to do next? Immediately, the community needs training in basic political organizing techniques, strategies, and tactics, how to develop campaigns, etc. They need tools to fundraise, run media operations, create operational infrastructures, organize the local community and the list goes on. In this sense, I think it's absolutely essential for people around the country to lend a hand on the ground in Ferguson. The struggle in Ferguson will continue for years, and some of those lessons, strategies and tactics could be used as a template for future actions around the country.
To me, it was somewhat discouraging to see such a lack of white solidarity at the Ferguson protests. In the view of many, white solidarity was quite impressive, but not enough. Where are my progressive friends? Are those who consider themselves socialists, anarchists, radical environmentalists and even liberals, too scared to work in black communities? Many times, I think it's true that white activists are reluctant to organize in communities of color. This dynamic has to change. The people of Ferguson, Gary, Flint, and elsewhere, need committed organizers, from diverse backgrounds, to support their ongoing struggles against police repression, militarization and neoliberal economic policies.
Constant talk of "changing the whole damn system" resonated with many folks, myself included. The people of Ferguson hope recent events serve as a spark for a new movement, a movement focused on systems of domination in our society, not singular events and issues. It was refreshing to hear activists connect struggles in Afghanistan and Palestine with those in Ferguson. I am routinely inspired to hear stories of resistance and struggle. As things continue to transpire in Ferguson, I encourage activists, journalists and academics to travel to Ferguson, if possible. People of color from marginalized communities need whites to operate with a sense of urgency and unwavering solidarity.
Events in Ferguson provide a grand opportunity to build genuine solidarity with marginalized communities. It's our job as activists to seize the opportunity, and cultivate new possibilities for social transformation.
Vincent Emanuele is a combat veteran, community organizer, radio host and writer who works and lives in the Great Lakes region. He can be reached at email@example.com.