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 unmistakeable 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.”
Drawing from his experience as a native St. Louisan, Hart has a grasp of the frustrations driving some protesters to lash out. He has family members who are “out looking for a job and can't find one, because in some cases, they may have a [criminal] record, or just minimal education. So those two things play [into each other]: you have nowhere to go, no education, no job. Because your back is against the wall, you're willing to do anything to survive.”
When he’s on the streets with the other demonstrators, he adds, “There’s so much emotions going on out there. As soon as you step out there, you feel it. You can feel the tension. Not just Ferguson, but the city is hurting [over] this.”
Future Fighters also wants to launch a grassroots media project to document and record stories from Ferguson for broadcast outlets, with the aim of shifting the media lens toward the everyday struggles of local residents, rather than just images of conflict in the streets.
Hospital tech and Future Fighters member Loreal Cornell hopes the Ferguson protests galvanize political action that could lead to a more accountable government and police force.
“We have a lot of youth who don't know who their alderman is, or what a mayor does, or what a governor assists us with,” she says, because young people are not learning in school about how the political process relates to their lives. For long-term political change, “we want to most definitely educate people on their rights, but also on how… we can elect officials who can [address] the things that we complain about... who are going to do the right thing and get our community to where they're uplifted and they're growing."
Labor and racial struggle have always braided together in St. Louis’s history. The St. Louis race riots of 1917 erupted when white workers attacked black migrants from the south who were seen as scabs. In the following decades, black workers consolidated their organized labor and brought it into the foreground of civil rights struggles.
Today in Ferguson, the struggles of the working poor take a different tone. Segregation has shifted from Jim Crow to the structural exclusion of the racial wealth gap. Poverty has soared in Ferguson while jobs and public services have eroded. Since 1983, Missouri's union membership rate has dropped by half to under nine percent, below the national rate.
The economic violence enveloping Ferguson will continue to challenge activists after the street clashes and tear gas have dissipated. Bradley Harmon, local head of the Communications Workers of America, tells The Nation via email, “Once the immediate issues of justice for Mike Brown are off the table and his killer is convicted, we still have a community divided by race, still deindustrializing, with a public infrastructure falling apart. We still have a decline in the standard of living for the vast majority of working people.”
Noting that labor is “probably the most racially integrated social force in St Louis,” Harmon says Ferguson could catalyze entwined struggles for economic and racial justice: “I think if we're going to reverse the decline of organized labor, we're going to [have to] take on the systemic poverty and exclusion and withdrawal of public services that made Ferguson happen.”
As part of a broader community resistance movement, Cornell says, Future Fighters are using union organizing tactics to help empower working people, by “getting the message to people in a different type of way and asking them, what would this situation look like if we actually won this movement? How would our community look? How would Ferguson be built up? And that I think is the question that gets minds rolling… This could be exactly what this community needs."
Missouri labor groups have many fights ahead of them—organizing workplaces, pushing the “Fight for 15” to raise fast-food worker wages, and demanding equitable funding for public services. But a first step would be to reclaim Ferguson's streets: from there, the community could demand justice and reparations, for the dignity that the state, the corporations and history have stolen from them.
Read Next: Strange Fruit in Ferguson.
The people of Ferguson, Missouri have rallied and marched and protested for eleven straight days and nights. They want justice for Michael Brown, the 18 year-old unarmed black boy killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. They've been met with tear gas, assault rifles, rubber bullets, armored police cars, dogs, and the National Guard. And they show no signs of letting up.
I've been trying to figure out why so many people have had such a strong reaction to Brown's killing. Because this isn't new. His death is tragic, but fairly ordinary in the course of black people's interactions with the police. We deal with this all the time.
On her MSNBC show this past Saturday, Melissa Harris-Perry demonstrated just how ordinary it is. She read a list of names of unarmed black men killed by police in the last decade alone, and it was chilling, to say the least. "Timothy Stansbury, unarmed. Sean Bell, unarmed. Oscar Grant, unarmed. Aaron Campbell, unarmed. Alonzo Ashley, unarmed. Wendell Allen, unarmed. Jonathan Ferrell, unarmed. Eric Garner, unarmed," she said, before adding, "From 2006 to 2012, a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in this country."
Twice a week. It's business as usual for police to kill black people. And those are only a few names—many more black men and women have been killed by police. Many of them were also unarmed. Many were around the same age as Michael Brown. So what makes him special? Why did his death elicit such a strong reaction?
Of course, there are several factors to consider. That he was a young black man and not a young black woman is part of it. Black women/girls are often forgotten as victims in the discussion of police violence. That he was regarded as a "gentle giant" (Brown was 6'4" tall and close to 300 pounds) and a prospective college student are relevant. His image as "harmless" and "respectable" makes him more sympathetic to some people. That a mostly white police force routinely harasses black residents of Ferguson matters. And the fact witnesses say at the time of his shooting Brown had his hands up in the air, surrending, also matters. It makes the six bullet wounds he suffered appear even more callous.
But for me, the detail that sticks is that Brown's body was left in the street for at least four hours. Not only did people in the community witness the shooting, they were forced to look at the aftermath. For hours, they had to see Michael Brown's bullet-ridden, bloody body lie rotting in the street.
It's not unlike Henry Simmons's bullet-filled body being hung from in tree in Palm Beach, Florida in June of 1923. Or that of William Turner, whose body was hung, then cut down, then hung again before being burned in a bonfire in Helena, Arkansas in November 1921. There was also Jim Roland, shot and killed by a mob in Camillia, Georgia, after having refused to dance for a white man who was pointing a gun at him in February 1921. And also Frank Dodd, shot and hung from a tree "in a negro settlement on the outskirts of DeWitt" Arkansas in October 1916. And so many more.*
They were lynched. They killed and displayed publicly for the amusment of the lynch mobs and other white folks, and for the further terrorization of black people.
The police didn't hang Michael Brown, but they made a public display of his killing. They left his body lying there for all to see. The psychic toll that exerts on a community calls to mind the eerie words once sung by Billie Holiday: "Southern trees bear strange fruit/blood on the leaves and blood at the root... here is a fruit for the crows to pluck/for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck." But for Brown and Ferguson, the "poplar trees" were replaced with a city street.
It is an injustice that Michael Brown was killed. But injustice alone doesn't move people to action. His killing is one of many. But Michael Brown's body being left in the middle of the street is the closest this generation has come to seeing, in real life, the strange fruit of which Holiday sang. That's an image you just can't shake.
*Each of these lynchings is documented in the book "100 Years of Lynchings" by Ralph Ginzburg.
Clayton, Missouri—Police arrested two protesters on Tuesday during a demonstration outside a government building, adding to a growing list of civil disobedience arrests related to the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a police officer earlier this month.
Roughly sixty demonstrators gathered in front of the office building of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch in Clayton, a wealthy city bordering St. Louis, about ten miles south of Ferguson. On a humid afternoon, the protesters chanted “Black lives matter!” and “Move Bob, get out the way!” A line of police officers guarded the building’s entrance, demarcating a no-walk zone directly in front of them.
Two protesters, Jamelle Spain and Alexis Templeton, peacefully approached the police officers. Officers then placed the two in plastic handcuffs and escorted them into the building. Spain and Templeton were both charged for failing to obey a police officer and will be released, according to a spokesperson for the Clayton Police Department.
Jeffrey Hill, 24, of the Organization for Black Struggle and Rasheed Aldridge, 20, of Show Me 15 protested in Clayton on Tuesday (Photo by Steven Hsieh)
The demonstrators demanded McCulloch step down from the Michael Brown investigation. They also called for the county to appoint an independent investigator to take over Brown’s case. Some residents of St. Louis County say McCulloch harbors a pro-police bias. McCulloch’s father, a police officer, was killed by a black man in 1964. McCulloch also harshly criticized Governor Nixon’s order last week to turn over the Ferguson protest jurisdiction to Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, a move that was praised by community leaders and local politicians.
“We don’t feel like McCulloch can do this accurately. We feel like there’s a lot of emotions tied into everything he does when it comes with dealing with black people,” said Jeffrey Hill, a 24-year-old protester from North St. Louis County. Hill led chants through a megaphone and wore a surgical mask strapped to his head, noting the possibility of tear gas later Tuesday night.
A spokesperson for the county prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the protest. Reports say prosecutors will present evidence to a grand jury on Wednesday, who will decide whether to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot Brown.
The crowd began dispersing around 3:40 pm. As protesters headed across the street to a parking lot, they chanted, “We’ll be back! We’ll be back!”
For the first time since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, his family has a scrap of solid information about his death: the number six. That’s how many times Brown was shot, at a minimum. According to Michael Baden, the former chief medical examiner of New York City who conducted a private autopsy at the request of Brown’s family, one of the bullets, probably the last, entered the teenager’s skull at an angle that suggests he was leaning forward.
The stark detail of the preliminary autopsy, complete with a diagram of a man that Baden marked in black ink to show the bullet holes, stands in sharp contrast to the selective way that the Ferguson Police and the St Louis County Police have released information. “Troubling,” is the word that Attorney General Eric Holder chose on Monday to describe their conduct. So far, local officials have offered details that seem intended to smear Brown while hiding others that might clarify the circumstances of his death.
After refusing for days to name the officer who killed Brown, Ferguson police finally identified him on Friday as Darren Wilson. Wilson himself has skipped town, and police still have not released his or any other official report of the shooting. That silence enabled an anonymous account of the shooting from someone claiming to have heard it from Wilson’s wife to get traction in major media outlets, even though it closely resembles another account, originally attributed to Wilson, that had already been dismissed as fake.
What officials did deem appropriate to share—despite the Department of Justice’s objections—was a report of a man stealing cigarillos from a convenience store, and a video of the theft that police say implicates Brown. No one has offered a cogent explanation for why the report of the robbery warranted a public airing while those of Brown’s death do not. Two such reports exist, one written by the Ferguson Police Department, and another by the St. Louis County Police. Both are cited in the account of the convenience store robbery: “It is worth mentioning that this incident is related to another incident detailed under Ferguson Police Report #2014-12391 as well as St. Louis County Police Report #2014-43984. In that incident, Brown was fatally wounded involving an officer of this department.”
Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson was at best unclear, and at worst misleading, about how the robbery and Brown’s death are related. Several hours after announcing details about the convenience store theft in a way that insinuated it had prompted Wilson to engage Brown, Jackson clarified, “The initial contact between the officer and Mr. Brown was not related to the robbery.” Then Jackson refined the official story yet again, telling reporters that Wilson “made the connection” to the theft when he saw Brown carrying a box of cigars.
St. Louis County is also sitting on basic findings from the official autopsy. Yet a very selective scrap of information was leaked to The Washington Post on Monday by two sources familiar with that county report: that Brown had marijuana in his system when he died, meaning only that he’d used it sometime in the last month. Predictably, right-wing commentators seized on this information to vilify Brown.
Officials have chosen particular details about the protests to highlight. At a press conference early Tuesday morning, Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson set a couple of handguns and a Molotov cocktail on a table beside him, and said they’d been taken from “violent agitators” the night before. The optics served to justify the aggressive responses from police that have served only to embolden the minority of protesters engaging violently with police.
In the ten days since Brown was killed, law enforcement have tried to quell protests with rubber bullets and tear gas, with at least four different police forces, with a charismatic captain, with a curfew, by forcing protesters to walk, not stand, and finally with the National Guard. On Tuesday, Johnson said police would again try a “different operational plan,” which seemed to amount to “hoping that protesters will stay home” at night.
There’s been a lot of talk about trust, and its absence, in Ferguson and elsewhere. “In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” President Obama said Monday. The mistrust in Ferguson is rooted in history, but it’s also being deepened in real time. History tells us that justice is unlikely to be served in this case; the conduct of the local officials charged with investigating Brown’s death only signals to the community that this time will not be different. In that context, not staying home at night seems like the only way to ensure that it will be.
Read Next: Alex Vitale asks how we can end militarized policing.
A couple of years ago, when I was newly pregnant and reporting in the West Bank, some of my local colleagues insisted that I skip covering a protest at an Israeli checkpoint. At first, I was resistant to letting pregnancy stand in the way of my work, but they knew from experience that there might be tear gas, and tear gas, they said, causes miscarriages.
They were right: though rigorous studies are few, there is evidence that tear gas is an abortifacient. In 2011, Chile temporarily suspended its use after a University of Chile study linked it to miscarriage and fetal harm. Investigating the use of tear gas in Bahrain in 2012, Physicians for Human Rights found that local doctors were reporting increased numbers of miscarriages in exposed areas. And UN officials have connected tear gas to miscarriages in the Palestinian territories.
This means it’s likely that police in Ferguson, Missouri, have been spraying abortion-causing chemicals on crowds of civilians. Recently at TheNation.com, Dani McClain wrote about the killing of black youth as a reproductive justice issue, one that goes to the heart of the rights of parents to raise their children in peace, safety and dignity. She’s correct, of course, but if the anti-abortion movement were actually concerned about the well-being of the unborn, then the violence in Ferguson would be a pro-life issue as well.
Leaders in the contemporary religious right have long argued that they’ve transcended their movement’s racist past. “The white evangelical church carries a shameful legacy of racism and the historical baggage of indifference to the most central struggle for social justice in this century, a legacy that is only now being wiped clean by the sanctifying work of repentance and racial reconciliation,” Ralph Reed wrote in his 1996 book Active Faith. They have tried to align themselves with the African-American community by calling abortion “black genocide.” Now, in Ferguson, they could take a stand that is genuinely pro–civil rights and anti-abortion, by demanding an end to the use of tear gas on a traumatized community. At a time when some erstwhile small-government conservatives are openly supporting the mad excesses of the police state, they might even have an impact. So where are they?
When residents of Ferguson, Missouri, took to the streets to protest the killing of teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, they were met with assault weapons, armored vehicles, tear gas and police decked out in full riot-gear. A community already suffering the loss of one of its own found their town occupied by what appeared to be a paramilitary force.
If the police looked ready to fight a war, it’s because that’s what their equipment was designed for. Much of it came courtesy of the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which sends “surplus military equipment” to police departments. Since 1033 was introduced in the late 1990s, the federal government has sent $4.3 billion worth of military hardware to local and state police forces. The program has a particularly brutal effect on communities of color, as it is used primarily to execute the disastrous and racist “war on drugs.” While the images in Ferguson have just recently become familiar to many, police have long used SWAT teams outfitted in military gear to serve warrants for arrests for minor drug crimes, terrorizing whole communities and sometimes injuring or even killing people in the process.
This fall when Congress is back in session, Representative Hank Johnson will introduce the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, which would end the federal government’s policy of sending military equipment to local communities. Write to your representatives and demand that they fight to end the militarization of the police. Then, to help people in Ferguson right now, donate to one of a number of worthy causes: you can help the Brown family collect the funds needed to pursue justice for their son, contribute to the bail or legal fees of protesters who have been arrested or pay for food for children of Ferguson who may go hungry while school remains canceled. There’s also a campaign to fund independent journalistic coverage of what is happening on the ground in Ferguson and CREDO is raising funds to keep up the progressive livestream it has launched with WeActRadio. You can also call the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office and demand that he take action against Officer Darren Wilson. (The good folks at Bolder Giving compiled much of this information on an excellent resource page.)
At The Nation, Alex S. Vitale argues that at the root of militarized policing is “a cynical politics of race that has perverted criminal justice policies” that focuses on “the management of poor and non-white populations through ever-more-punitive practices.”
While it is crucial that we demilitarize the police, law enforcement doesn’t need tanks and body armor to terrorize communities of color. On her show on MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry reminds us how familiar Michael Brown’s story is, as she gives voice to nine black men recently gunned down by police officers and points out that between 2006 and 2013, white police officers killed a black person at least two times a week.
St. Louis—In the second week of protests over the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer, St. Louis Metropolitan police on Monday arrested nine protesters for blocking the entrance of a state office building.
Among those arrested was Hedy Epstein, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives in St. Louis.
“I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90,” Epstein told The Nation, as two officers walked her to a police van. “We need to stand up today so that people won’t have to do this when they’re 90.”
Roughly 125 protesters marched to the entrance of the historic Wainwright Building, which houses Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s downtown office. They demanded Nixon withdraw National Guard troops from Ferguson municipality, where peaceful protests throughout the week were disrupted by late night riots. The protesters also called for a special prosecutor to lead the investigation of Brown’s death, as well as an expansion of the Department of Justice’s existing investigation to look into patterns of civil rights violations across North St. Louis County.
The crowd kicked off the two-block march singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round.” Participants took turns addressing the crowd, using a megaphone. The demonstrators chanted “Hey hey! Ho ho! National Guard has got to go!” and “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
Ebony Williams, 22, addresses a crowd of protesters outside the Wainwright Building in downtown St. Louis. (Photo by Steven Hsieh)
Nine demonstrators linked arms in front of security guards at the building’s entrance, as police officers watched from inside. At around 4:20 pm, a police officer informed the nine that they each faced arrest for blocking the doorway. Shortly after, police escorted each demonstrator away in plastic handcuffs.
St. Louis police charged the nine arrestees with failure to disperse. All but one of were released, according to Jeff Ordower, an organizer with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment.
The rally was organized by the Organization for Black Struggle. A Facebook page for the action reads, “Effective policing does not need to include masses of military equipment, intimidation, and denial of constitutional rights.”
Police also arrested Ebony Williams, a 22-year-old from St. Louis. Williams, who is pregnant, earlier told the crowd that she worries about raising her son around police officers that could target him because of his race.
“I’m out here standing up for what’s right. What they did to Michael Brown is not right,” Williams said. “We have to have justice. We want justice now.”
CORRECTION (8/19/2014 3:06 am): An earlier version of this post stated that eight protesters were arrested in downtown St. Louis on Monday. In fact, nine were arrested.
This article originally appeared in Generation Progress and is printed here with permission.
While the voices of those in office have risen to the forefront of the border crisis, the child migrants and their families are the ones actually being affected by the shifts in policy, and ultimately, any decision made impacts their future first and foremost.
These children chose to leave their home countries in Central America because they were fleeing poverty, violence and, in some situations, death.
“I am afraid to go back to Guatemala because I am afraid that there is no one to protect me,” 15-year-old Dulce Medina said during an ad hoc press conference organized by the House Progressive Caucus on the influx of unaccompanied migrants from Central America.
Along with debate surrounding their future in the United States, their temporary status has been challenged, as many have been threatened with immediate deportation. Throughout the crisis, there have been reports of states not using shelters, US officials closing shelters previously used to house migrant children, along with unfounded accusations that the children may have Ebola.
On Tuesday, officials in Massachusetts said they will not need to open up shelters for unaccompanied children. According to officials, “fewer children have been caught while crossing the border illegally over the last month and the government has expanded capacity at existing shelters in other states.”
But there are many stories of children in Central America who have become victims of the extreme gang violence. Reports of missing children whose remains are later found buried in an abandoned field are common.
During the ad hoc press conference, 12-year-old Mayeli Hernandez recalled witnessing two separate homicides in Honduras prior to fleeing. She said “it was very ugly to see the blood running on the ground.”
The immediate response from many lawmakers has been to send these kids back as efficiently and quickly as possible, but the question of their fate after returning to the very country they were fleeing from is rarely part of the conversation.
When the fact is that the violence children are fleeing is not just murder but brutal murder, where children are “stabbed to death, cut into pieces or tortured,” the question of what children are returning home to needs to be a part of the conversation.
With Congress having just entered a five-week recess, the pressure to have these voices heard lies on the shoulders of President Obama. And while shelters are closing or are no longer planning to accommodate migrant children, violence continues on in the countries of origin, without any guarantee as to when the increasing number of migrants coming across the border will come to a comfortable stop.
Read Next: StudentNation on reflections from the brick wall
This footage, which All In producers filmed, shows the police loudly threatening Chris Hayes and his media team as they attempt to film the chaos in Ferguson. As Chris Hayes approached the scene with cameras, police threatened to mace them—one officer shouted, “Hey! Media! Get behind us! Do not pass us! You’re getting maced next time you pass us.”
—Hannah Harris Green