Angry protests and police violence have continued night after night in Ferguson, Mo., since the murder of an unarmed Black teenager, Mike Brown, on August 9. Despite claims by local and state authorities that they want to respect the rights of protesters, police provocations have grown more intense over the past two nights–with reports on Monday that the cops began their nightly barrage of tear gas hours before a midnight curfew.
SocialistWorker.org writers Eric Ruder, Elizabeth Schulte, Trish Kahle and Donny Schraffenberger traveled to Ferguson to provide this account of a community rising up against police violence, despite a crackdown that turns their city into a war zone each night.
“DADDY, DID they bang-bang Mike?” That was the question Jay heard his daughter ask as she watched the police lift Mike Brown’s lifeless body from the ground where it had lain for five hours.
Jay, a 20-year-old African American resident of the Canfield Green Apartments where Mike lived and died, knew he couldn’t avoid his daughter’s question. She’s three years old, Jay said, and very curious. “She saw him lying on the ground, and it shocked her,” Jay said. “And it shocked me that she knew what she was looking at. So I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘I don’t like the police.’ I said, ‘I don’t either.’”
That was August 9–the day Brown, an unarmed African American 18 year old, was shot at least six times by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
One week later, Jay was standing a few yards from a shrine in the middle of Canfield Drive marking the spot where Mike Brown drew his last breath. He was still struggling to wrap his head around the fact that his friend is gone. “You wouldn’t expect nothing like this to happen to someone like Mike,” Jay said. “I’m just soaking in all the memories we had. That’s about all I can keep right now.”
One week after Mike Brown’s shooting, nearly everyone in Ferguson–or at least nearly everyone who is part of the African American majority in Ferguson–isn’t just chanting the slogan, “No justice, no peace.” They’re living it.
Each day, throughout the daylight hours, the crowds build–in front of the QuikTrip gas station, damaged during angry protests after word spread that police were responding to a 911 call about shoplifting there when they stopped Brown; in front of the police station a mile away; outside the St. Louis County prosecutors’ office in Clayton.
In every direction are masses of people with their arms thrust in the air: “Hands up, don’t shoot!” Eyewitnesses to the murder have described how Mike had his hands above his head and pled for his life as the officer gunned him down. On West Florissant, the main street that curves through the heart of Ferguson, a parade of cars drives through, honking continually, hour after hour, with passengers thrusting their hands out of the car: “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
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MIKE HAD just turned 18. At 6-foot-5-inches, he was known as a gentle giant and someone who wanted to better himself. He was days away from his first classes at St. Louis’ Vatterott College.
“Mike just graduated, and they ended his life before he started it,” said Jay. “This officer better go to jail, and if he doesn’t, you gonna see what’s gonna happen. When that man goes to jail, all of this will stop. That’s what the ‘no justice, no peace’ thing is. This is history right here. This is something I can tell my daughter when she gets older–that I was a part of this.”
That Mike’s life was cut short by police violence has left the community in a state of grief. But it’s the police who are responsible for turning that grief into anger–and then escalating that anger into rage by provoking intense confrontations, night after night. And it’s the epidemic of police violence around the country that has caused the eruption of demonstrations in the St. Louis suburb to resonate across the U.S.
In the week since Mike was murdered on August 9, there was only one night when police didn’t turn out in force–Thursday, August 14. That night passed without any serious incident, according to Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal. “We had 7,000 people out here on that first day of freedom from tear gas,” she explained–but no incidents of “looting” or “chaos” that the mainstream media love to play up.
But after that one Thursday, the police returned–and their numbers build as the sunlight fades. In the late afternoon hours of Saturday, August 16, they strolled with their nightsticks drawn, some of them wearing helmets, some carrying riot shields. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon had just announced that police would enforce a curfew in Ferguson from midnight to 5 a.m., but it was difficult to figure out what this was supposed to accomplish, other than to set a time for when the confrontations would begin.
One young man in his early 20s, who declined to give his name, repeats something we heard many times from Ferguson residents: “It’s always peaceful until the cops show up. You saw it back there–we’re grilling, people having a good time, talking, building community. It’s the police. They’re the ones causing the violence.”
With a blue kerchief tied around his face–soaked in vinegar to protect from the tear gas–and a hood drawn up over his head despite the hot weather, he said he would be out in the streets for a fourth night, curfew or not. “I heard about the curfew, but I’m not leaving,” he said. “They can’t tell me to go inside and then shoot tear gas at us while we’re on our front lawns. So I’m staying out. If they want war, they can have it.”
More police began to show up and unload from buses around 6:45 p.m. Some of the younger children ran away in terror, before their parents could calm them down. One woman, on the verge of tears, started to yell, “Is my son next?” All of the other women around her take up the chant, their voices filled with rage and grief.
Later that night, the streets again became a war zone, with clouds of tear gas drifting through the air. One young man, reportedly a demonstrator, was shot by an unidentified assailant, leaving him in critical condition. The police claim they weren’t responsible this time.
On Friday, the Ferguson police announced the name of the officer who killed Mike Brown. Having concealed this “for fear of the officer’s safety” for nearly a week, the move was clearly designed to placate angry Ferguson residents.
But the cops had another trick up their sleeve. They also released a video that allegedly shows Brown in the act of stealing a package of inexpensive cigars from a convenience store. By Saturday, Ferguson residents were fuming at the transparent attempt to smear Mike’s character and deflect attention from the police who shot him in cold blood in the middle of the street. Minutes after releasing the video, Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson had to admit that Officer Darren Wilson did not know about the convenience store incident and that Michael Brown was merely stopped because he was“blocking traffic.”
As their lawyer Anthony Gray told CNN, the Brown family is “very much distraught by [the release of the video] and it has driven the mother deeper into a state of depression. It has had such a catastrophic effect on her because they think that they’re trying to kill a child who’s already dead. They think it’s completely unfair.”
As for Maria Chappelle-Nadal, she may be a state senator, but she’s angry, and she doesn’t hold back:
This officer gets to exercise his right to due process–unlike the due process that Michael Brown should have had. Even if Michael did commit a theft, it doesn’t justify his killing. He has every right to due process. And these protesters have every right to the First Amendment. And that’s what those fucking police officers are trying to take away from my people…This is a moment in history. This is Watts. This is Rodney King. This is going to keep on going, honey–until there’s justice.
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THEY CALL him Lil Brandon because he used to be really short, but Brandon is 17 now, and he’s not short anymore. He listened quietly while Jay recounted the haunting question his 3-year-old daughter asked–and then he started asking his own questions.
“How did he reach for the gun if the officer fired the first shot from out of the car?” said Brandon. “That’s my only point. I’m not gonna lie–I don’t believe that he attempted to take the gun. I don’t believe that. I don’t know what person in the world would reach for a police officer’s gun.”
Now the FBI, ordered to investigate the shooting on a federal level, is knocking on doors in the apartment complex and asking people to contact them if they saw anything–which prompted another question from Brandon: “But why would we call them?”
Jay takes up the point:
They ain’t gonna do nothing but put it all over the news. It ain’t gonna have no effect, just like the Trayvon Martin situation. Zimmerman shouldn’t have gone home, I don’t care what nobody says. He killed an innocent person who had a pack of Skittles with him…Mike just graduated, and they ended his life before he started it. Zimmerman should have gone down, and this policeman better go down.
For the people of Ferguson, police harassment is nothing new, but the show of solidarity from across St. Louis and beyond is. And so is the vicious police response.
“I couldn’t believe that was West Florrissant,” said Kristian Blackmon, a young woman who was born and raised in Ferguson, referring to the police presence on the main street. “It looked like Iraq. It didn’t look like a street I drive on all the time, a street that I go and shop at.”
For my male friends, getting pulled over for no reason, getting questioned–“Where are you going, where have you been?”–has been a consistent thing that happens. A lot of my white friends I grew up with didn’t understand–and I have to explain to them that this is a problem that we experience, and they should be as outraged as we are about it.
I don’t agree with the looting. However, I understand where the rage comes from because that issue hasn’t been addressed, and it’s boiled over into this. Ultimately, there have been lots of peaceful protesters, and there’s been a lot of solidarity among Blacks, whites, young, old, different nationalities. I want people to know that.
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THE SOLIDARITY on the streets of Ferguson is impressive. Anyone who spends any time in front of the QuikTrip undoubtedly had someone offer them snacks and water. That was welcome as humidity replaced the morning’s rain on Saturday. By late afternoon, five workers from a Ferguson Chipotle location had arrived with more than $1,000 worth of burritos and chips for protesters.
After passing out the food to hungry demonstrators, they joined the march as a contingent and stayed for the evening, still wearing their work uniforms. “This is important, and I don’t want there to be any questions about it,” explained one worker who wished to remain anonymous to protect her from retaliation. “We support the protests.” Her coworker explained that they weren’t the only fast-food workers to bring food down to the QuikTrip. Others, including Pizza Hut workers, had coordinated out-of-town donations, as well as making contributions of their own.
Low-wage workers have been busy over the last year and a half in the Fight for 15 movement. It makes sense that they would respond to the outrage in Ferguson–since the same Black and Brown communities disproportionately pushed into the low-wage workforce are also more likely to be victims of police violence.
In addition to support from local workers, a contingent of Fight for 15 activists from across the mid-south marched on Saturday, representing Little Rock, Ark., as well as Memphis and Nashville. “It’s important for fast food workers to be out here because we need to spread the word,” said Dominique Williams, a McDonald’s worker from Little Rock. “We can’t forget about Mike. This doesn’t just happen in Ferguson. This could have happened anywhere.”
A handful of Veterans for Peace members from St. Louis made up a contingent at the rally that began at 1 p.m. on Saturday at the spot where Brown had been killed. Civil rights movement veteran Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. gave a speech in his trademark call-and-response style, and then led several hundred people up Canfield Drive, past the QuikTrip, and then up West Florissant, to a nearby church for more speeches and direct action training. Along the march route, black rubber bullets used by police during the previous nights’ conflicts littered the street.
As the march proceeded, hundreds of people joined in until it grew to about 1,000–but hundreds more people remained at the QuikTrip, as if to sustain a presence at what had become the central point of Ferguson’s interlocking network of protests.
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FERGUSON’S VERY existence is a product of racism and segregation. Located a 15-minute drive from downtown St. Louis, Ferguson is one of 91 municipalities, ranging in size from a few hundred people to more than 50,000, that break up the St. Louis metropolitan area.
Until the end of the 1970s, racist laws and regulations, such as restrictive housing covenants limiting the areas where Black residents could live, and collusion between politicians and the real estate industry compelled African Americans to stay within the city limits of St. Louis.
When the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and ’70s began to weaken racial barriers to living outside the city, Blacks from St. Louis began moving to places like Ferguson in search of better schools and housing, just as whites had before them. White residents, in turn, moved further away from the city, many even crossing the state line into Illinois.
The existence of a legally separate but interconnected network of townships has had consequences that disproportionately affect African American residents. For one thing, Ferguson’s power structure remains overwhelmingly white, even though the population hasn’t.
In 1980, the population of Ferguson was 85 percent white and 14 percent Black. Thirty years later, the demographics were nearly inverted–white residents made up 29 percent of the population, and Blacks accounted for 69 percent.
Even so, Ferguson’s police chief and mayor are white, only one city council member is Black, no one on the school board is Black, and only three of Ferguson’s 53 police officers are African American. No suprise, then, that in 2013, Blacks accounted for 86 percent of cars stopped by police, 92 percent of cars searched and 93 percent of arrests based on those searches.
The continued reality of racism has left the overwhelmingly Black municipalities of north St. Louis County with high poverty rates. Ferguson, for example, has a poverty rate of 22 percent–fully 10 percentage points higher than the county average. According to the Brookings Institution:
Ferguson has also been home to dramatic economic changes in recent years. The city’s unemployment rate rose from less than 5 percent in 2000 to over 13 percent in 2010-12. For those residents who were employed, inflation-adjusted average earnings fell by one-third. The number of households using federal Housing Choice Vouchers climbed from roughly 300 in 2000 to more than 800 by the end of the decade.
Amid these changes, poverty skyrocketed. Between 2000 and 2010-2012, Ferguson’s poor population doubled. By the end of that period, roughly one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level.
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THROUGHOUT SATURDAY afternoon, state Sen. Chappelle-Nadal paced West Florissant, carrying a massive cutout head of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon with the words “MIA again” emblazoned on his forehead. “I got here on Day One,” she called out to a passerby. “They got here on Day Eight, like George Bush and Katrina.”
Eavesdropping on questions asked of residents by the mainstream media was instructive. Again and again, reporters wanted to know about “looting” and “violence,” entirely missing the main point of what was unfolding before them: every resident, if asked, could have told them about the routine police violence they’ve experienced.
While the media repeated police talking points about “chaos” and “violence,” the truth is that people in Ferguson have shown tremendous restraint, given all the years of mistreatment they’ve suffered. As C.L.R. James put it in his book The Black Jacobins chronicling the rebellion of Haiti’s slaves more than 200 years ago: “When history is written as it ought to be written, it is the moderation and long patience of the masses at which men will wonder, not their ferocity.”
Dawn Weaver works at a day care center just two blocks from the QuikTrip. She expressed the same sentiment that many Ferguson residents voiced:
I wasn’t surprised at all that this happened. There’s a long history of racism by the police here. What shocked me was the national attention that this has gotten. Because racism and violence from the police, that’s normal, that’s what we expect. Now that there’s national attention, we need to bring awareness to this issue. The police have to be held accountable for what they do.
Or as another protester wrote in bold lettering on the sign that she carried: “Human rights is worth the fight.”