The rage rippling through Ferguson, Missouri, was sparked when a police officer killed an unarmed young black man. But the media coverage of the unrest has highlighted other “crimes:” the “seizure” of a local McDonald’s, the “looting” of a convenience store. These contrasting images—property damage and petty theft versus the theft of black lives and systematic social disinvestment—reveal how America’s color line skews the societal valuation of life and property. Ferguson’s resistance represents both an uprising against the injustice and a reclamation of community space.
While the Ferguson protests revolve around racial strife, the class dynamics of the unrest are unmistakable on the besieged streets; structural racism has been imposed over the years through housing discrimination, massive impoverishment and white-dominated government.
A sense of economic disenfranchisement pulses through the protests, and the militarized police crackdown has only served to highlight the vicious divides of wealth and power that bind Ferguson. Labor activists are now deepening the conversation about what “justice for Mike Brown” should mean for the impoverished community that now grieves for him.
Bringing an economic justice message to the forefront of the demonstrations, activists with the Future Fighters, a millennials-focused offshoot of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have been marching every day, in solidarity with rights organizations like the NAACP and Organization for Black Struggle. The group is devising programs to clean up the streets after protests, conduct know-your-rights trainings for protesters, and assist with coordinating crowds. They also seek to provide basic material support by distributing water, steering people toward safe spaces if they need a break from the protests, or just reaching out and talking to locals, to help them cope with surrounding trauma.
Local Future Fighters Chair Jerry Hart, a hospital tech in St. Louis, says organized labor has a key role to play on the ground, particularly with many SEIU members living and working in Ferguson: “If you’re SEIU, the people that you represent live here. They have to go to work to and from here every day. If you want to call yourself a labor union, you have to be involved in something like this, because it is a labor issue as well.”
The Fighters are striving to keep the climate of the nonviolent demonstrations relatively calm. But while they do not endorse the more severe tactics that damaged local property, they understand the impulse.
Te’Aun Bell, a hospital cook from Kansas City and Future Fighters activist, tells The Nation, “They want peace… The people of the community aren’t okay with the looting, but at the same time, they realize that this is the lash out from anger, from frustration. I’m not saying it all is, but some of it is.”