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.”
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 East 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 power in the St. Louis region 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 9 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 e-mail, “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.