It was Sunday evening and we were on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, where community members gather in mourning and protest every day, a few blocks from where Michael Brown was killed. Their demands are basic; the T-shirts simply say, “Stop killing us.” The protesters want an end to racist police practices, an end to the criminalization of being black and an end to the killing of their friends and children. They want Michael Brown’s killer indicted. And they want to be able to exercise their right to voice these demands vigorously and loudly to their government.
As I looked around, I saw people from all walks of life on the avenue; young people and elders; preachers, teachers, and veterans. While each person expressed it differently, all the protesters were unified in their anger over Brown’s death. I joined the march next to a large family in orange T-shirts. They were in Ferguson for a family reunion and decided to come out and march together. As I took out my phone and started to tweet, “Justice is a family affair,” we were tear-gassed.
There was no warning. It was three hours before the state-imposed curfew. The demonstration was peaceful, yet all of a sudden police began throwing tear-gas canisters. People scattered in different directions. I saw two young shirtless men racing a woman in a wheelchair out of the tear gas. Someone screamed, “They gassed my baby” and another exclaimed, “They’re treating us like animals.” Spots that were considered safe, like the press area, were hit repeatedly. Police threw tear-gas canisters at fleeing crowds. There was no safe place to run to. There is no safe place for the people to assemble. The town of Ferguson is under siege.
This is what is happening every night.
As I ran from the tear gas, eyes burning and throat closing, I remember desperately scanning the crowd for my coworkers. My eyes briefly connected with dozens of people. I looked into their eyes and I saw the sense of betrayal at being attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets, simply for lamenting the loss of one of their sons. I felt years of grief and trauma from being made to feel disposable and worthless. I started sobbing.
Mainstream media headlines obscure this reality. They talk of “unrest,” a nebulous term that implies some kind of wrongdoing on the part of the people protesting. In truth, thousands of people are gathering peacefully and lawfully every day and every night in the face of armored vehicles and drawn guns. The reports of violence and looting function exactly like the store surveillance video that police trotted out to smear Michael Brown. As it turns out, no one from the store ever called the cops, police issued warrants for the video days after Brown’s murder and the unedited video shows Brown at the cash register paying. There is minimal looting and provocation by the people of Ferguson. In fact, the community peacekeepers are out on the streets on a daily basis, keeping people calm and organizing youth to stand in front of stores to prevent looting. Protesters need to stop being blamed for the police’s violent response. The people in Ferguson have shown incredible restraint in the face of tremendous police provocation. The “unrest” is caused by the police.
Americans need to understand (white Americans—Americans of color know this all too well already) that Brown’s murder is but the tip of the iceberg. The execution-style killing and the response of authorities, from the governor to the police, have laid bare the cheapness of black life and the systemic discrimination and brutality directed at black- and brown-skinned people. Brown’s name has now been added to an all-too-familiar roll call of black men killed by cops. It’s important to understand as well that there is a continuum of injustice that runs from racial profiling to police violence. In Missouri, blacks are 66 percent more likely to be stopped by police than whites. In New York City, police stopped more than 2,200 people a day at the height of the stop-and-frisk program that a federal judge ruled last year was racially discriminatory and unconstitutional. Ferguson is not an aberration; Ferguson is America.
That is why the uprising in Ferguson is so critical. It is why I and two of my colleagues from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Chauniqua Young and Jessica Lee, went to Ferguson last week to support the organizing on the ground being led local community groups. It is why other national rights organizations have also sent staff to help the grassroots response. It is why the media must stay, more independent media must come and people must hold the media accountable by reporting, recording and publishing what is going on in real time.
The response to the murder of Michael Brown and the uprising against police violence in Ferguson will determine what we stand for as a nation. Since returning to New York, I have had trouble sleeping. I close my eyes and see the faces of mothers watching their children being tear-gassed and young people realizing their lives are considered worthless by the police. Every morning, I wake early and anxiously check my Twitter feed, worried that more people in Ferguson may have been hurt, arrested or worse. Being in Ferguson was at once one of the most devastating and one of the most inspiring things I have ever experienced in my life. People there are united in their rage and their determination to demand change; they are fearless and they are organizing. At the same time, officials at all levels have responded with repression and senseless violence.
Everyone in America ought to have trouble sleeping.