Jacqueline Michael Whatley, Photo by Leroy Hamilton
By Jacqueline Michael Whatley
"The “Black Life Matters Freedom Ride to Ferguson” is a call to action, a slogan under which Black people can unite to end state sanctioned violence both in St. Louis, but also across the United States of America. In addition, it aims to end the insidious and widespread assault on Black life that pervades every stage of law enforcement interactions; be it in custody or in our communities." –Black Lives Matter Coalition
In a September 4th press conference, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice will launch a full and independent pattern or practice investigation into the entire Ferguson Police Department and others in St. Louis County in which officers have been found to have repeatedly violated residents’ civil rights.
The Ferguson Police Department — which has received widespread attention for officer Darren Wilson’s gruesome August 9th execution of unarmed Black teen Michael Brown — employs a total of 53 officers (four of whom are African-American) to serve a population that is 67% African-American.
During his visit to Ferguson, Holder was vocal about his own experiences with racial profiling and mentioned that residents’ accounts of their experiences with this practice were “consistent” and compelling. This is no small matter. America’s first Black Attorney General holds the power and authority to begin the process of making long-term, fundamental changes in the manner in which police officers interact with the citizenry. This could mean a meticulous re-evaluation of what behaviors qualify as protocol, the possible removal of some officers and the introduction of routine and thorough federal-level oversight of police departments nationwide.
While the DOJ’s promise to implement a strategic, comprehensive plan to address these matters is a giant step in the right direction, there is still more work to be done by Blacks all over the nation. Blacks are obligated to use this historical moment to unite across “gender”, class, “race”, religious, spiritual, generational, political and other boundaries to mobilize efforts that might complement those of the DOJ in yielding the radical changes that we wish to see in our police departments and communities at large.
During the tail end of what had thus far been a very revolutionary Black August, I departed from Mercado La Paloma with the Los Angeles contingent of the Black Lives Matter Coalition on a Civil Rights Era-inspired freedom ride to Ferguson, MO. My journey to — and experience in — Ferguson was transformative in many ways and quite difficult to attempt to unpack comprehensively in a single essay.
While in Ferguson, I learned about what St. Louis groups like the Organization for Black Struggle, Lost Voices and others are doing to ensure that racialized police violence and all state-sanctioned violence against Blacks ceases. I witnessed Ferguson officers project palpably hostile attitudes toward Black demonstrators–a large number of whom were women and children. For the first time, I encountered a predominately Black Christian church that was totally welcoming of — and loving toward — LGBTQ Blacks. I was informed of insensitive remarks that were shouted at freedom rider Cole James by a curious demonstrator (also Black) who was visibly bothered by Cole’s androgynous appearance. I heard accounts from young St. Louis-based sistas discussing the sexual politics of the movement in St. Louis, explaining that many of their Black male counterparts (many of whom refused to join them in face offs with officers at demonstrations) advised them to “go home” and let the men handle it.
Hazelwood officers at Ferguson Police Department Demonstration, Photo by Jacqueline Michael Whatley
During the August 30th march and rally at the site of Michael Brown’s execution and a later demonstration at the Ferguson Police Department, I spoke briefly with many Ferguson and other St. Louis County residents. They all expressed some level of disgust with the continued racialized hostility toward them from White officers all over the region. They shared instances in which they — or their children — had suffered profiling, harassment, threats, taunting or excessive force by White officers throughout the St. Louis region, especially those from Ferguson PD. Residents discussed the refusal of many Whites in Ferguson and surrounding St. Louis County municipalities to acknowledge and to challenge their White privilege. Many St. Louis County residents warned of a general reluctance among Whites to engage in explicit public dialogue about racism and the role that it plays in the treatment of St. Louis County’s Black residents by the police.
Another common theme that surfaced in every strategy meeting, group discussion and discussion panel in the basement of St. John’s United Church of Christ was the need for anti-racist White allies to come fourth and to lead meaningful dialogues with racist Whites on what they can do to challenge their White privilege and to end their participation in the anti-Black racism that is literally killing us.
Many a brilliant Black thinker, including dream hampton, Dr. Brittney Cooper of Crunk Feminist Collective, Ebony’s Jamilah Lemieux and representatives from The Dream Defenders, the Black Youth Project 100 and St. Louis’ own Organization for Black Struggle engaged participants in both proactive and electrifying commentary on how we can best mobilize unified multi-level actions in our own cities that can affect the changes we wish to see in our own police departments. Later in the evening, local and visiting artists performed moving poems and songs. Drum ‘n’ bass/electronic music legend King Britt performed an original set, with visual accompaniment, on the topic of Michael Brown’s execution. I witnessed healers from all over the nation perform intentioned prayers over those whose spirits were cracking under the pressure of what the weekend’s events forced us to confront. We heeded their pleas to engage in loving and healing ourselves–a critical component in our efforts to mobilize mass actions that will facilitate the changes we wish to affect in our communities. We told them our fears. My most profound revelations came after I witnessed the courage that many St. Louis county residents displayed during the August 30th demonstration at the Ferguson Police Department.
On that day, the humidity was thick enough to portion and the heat beat down on our heads and bodies with the oppressive force of a million high-noon suns. We stood in the cul-de-sac on Canfield Drive: the site of Michael Brown’s execution. A powerful rain had begun just seconds after Patrisse Cullors (coordinator of the Black Lives Matter Freedom Rides and weekend) led the group in a powerful prayer to the ancestors. Drenched, many of us saw the rain as a confirmation from the ancestors.
After about an hour, members of the Los Angeles contingent made our way to the headquarters of the Ferguson Police Department. Upon arrival, we marveled at the sheer number of people there: students from schools across the nation (including Howard University), human-rights observers, journalists, videographers and a bevy of Black residents from Ferguson and surrounding towns. They filled the front entrance of the Ferguson Police Department and proceeded to face off with about 30 or more armed officers from the opposite side of the flimsy yellow caution tape.
All of the officers were armed and some wore body cameras. Many did not sport nametags or badges. I witnessed demonstrators stand face to face with Ferguson officers demanding that Darren Wilson, who is still on paid administrative duty, come out and answer the public’s questions about his actions toward Michael Brown.
A woman said directly to one Ferguson officer, “With that gun, you tough, but put that gun down and see don’t I whoop that ass.” A Black mother made direct eye contact with an officer and kindly requested that he take off his sunglasses while she asked him a few questions. He pathetically answered her, saying, “The sun is too bright for me to do that.” Black boys fell to their knees with their hands in the air, begging Ferguson officers to stop the slaughter against them. A number of concerned Black fathers asked all Ferguson officers in sight to reconsider their use of excessive force against Black people–especially those who pose no legitimate threat and who visibly surrender. Black women — young and old — questioned and taunted Ferguson officers to their faces in what appeared to be an attempt to publicly shame the officers for engaging in unethical and unjust patterns against them and their loved ones. They had done so for weeks already, to no avail.
Capt. Ron S. Johnson, Photo by Jacqueline Michael Whatley
Cops — mostly White and male — smirked at demonstrators and clutched their guns and tasers as if preparing to respond to some eminent threat. Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron S. Johnson shook his head at demonstrators in a disapproving manner. A White female officer looked uncomfortable and conflicted when one demonstrator asked her, “What if it was your kid? How do you sleep at night?”
Ferguson Police officers at Ferguson PD demonstration, Photo by Jacqueline Michael Whatley
Beverly Jones, a St. Louis County resident and concerned grandmother, explained that this tension between White cops and Black residents in the St. Louis County region has always existed. She explained, “This issue is not new, it’s just that now it has come to the forefront…I have noticed that there are so many different groups, the leaders of all of those groups need to sit down at a round table and get organized. We cannot give up. I have a grandson who is only three years old. In fifteen years, he’s gonna be an adult. What’s gonna happen to my grandson? Legislation needs to be passed to allow people with felony convictions to vote too, cause if you notice, that’s the reason why a lot of Black folks are unable to vote. It keeps us out of the political process. This is an issue that needs to be dealt with across the country, not just here in St. Louis.”
After word from a Portland comrade that some Ferguson officers grew tired of the public’s taunting and donned riot gear, we were handed masks by other demonstrators and instructed to have them ready in case the Ferguson PD decided to teargas us. That didn’t happen and we stuck around for at least another hour to observe the scene, which became further enlivened by St. Louis residents shouting demands over their bullhorns to the Ferguson officers.
While our face-off with the Ferguson PD continued, other freedom riders were assigned to canvas the neighborhood of Kirkwood –home to St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCullough. The canvassers attempted to educate Kirkwood residents about the Michael Brown killing (something about which many of the locals claimed to know little or nothing) and why it would be best for McCullough to recuse himself from the case. They also provided Kirkwood residents with the option to sign a petition that called for his dismissal.
During a strategy meeting after the day’s demonstrations, we learned that many Kirkwood residents were so uncomfortable with the voter-education effort — which necessitated a discussion of racism — that they threatened to call the police, even after they were informed that a permit is not required of people who are carrying out voter-education efforts.
Two Black women from the New York contingent who were part of the canvassing effort came to the conclusion that it is simply impossible for Blacks to reach racist Whites and instead, charged anti-racist Whites with the task and responsibility of attempting to educate and reform the racists. In the strategy meetings held on Sunday August 31st, we heard from anti-racist White ally and Western Carolina University sociology professor Heather Laine Talley. She addressed the need for anti-racist Whites to be courageous, to face and to acknowledge their White privilege and do all that they can to support the strategies of organizers of color who are working to challenge state-sanctioned violence against Black people.
Three Black female St. Louis County residents alleged that in remarks to the media, Capt. Ron S. Johnson denied that Ferguson officers often terrorized protestors at evening demonstrations with tear gas and intimidated them with militarized gear such as tanks and assault rifles. That morning, I received a text message from a Bay Area comrade. It was a photo of three members of the St. Louis-based activist group the Lost Voices. They were pictured with a noose that had allegedly been thrown on them either by White residents or Ferguson police officers.
Ferguson Police officer wearing a body camera at Ferguson PD demonstration, Photo by Jacqueline Michael Whatley
After more afternoon strategy meetings, a healing workshop and a powerful sermon that even some atheist comrades said appealed to them, it was time for the Los Angeles contingent to depart. I felt sad to leave St. Louis because being amongst the residents helped me to feel fearless. Everything about my experience there has changed me. I will never be the same. I will not forget the bonds that I established with my fellow riders or with the courageous Black people that I encountered in St. Louis County. I came to St. Louis deeply troubled about the types of sacrifices that I would have to make toward my own liberation and that of my people. I left St. Louis feeling energized, unafraid and fully intent on returning to my city to mobilize actions around the following Black Life Matters Coalition demands:
- Help develop a network of organizations and advocates to form a national policy specifically aimed at redressing the systemic pattern of anti-Black law enforcement violence in the U.S.
- Call on the office of US attorney general Eric Holder to release the names of all officers involved in killing black people within the last five years, both while on patrol and in custody, so they can be brought to justice–if they haven’t already.
- Advocate for a decrease in law-enforcement spending at the local, state and federal levels and a reinvestment of that budgeted money into the Black communities most devastated by poverty in order to create jobs, housing and schools. This money should be redirected to those federal departments charged with providing employment, housing and educational services.
Most important, I left St. Louis truly understanding what liberation entails and what it requires: releasing people from situations or circumstances — as is the case with state-sanctioned violence against Black people — that restrict their liberty. I left St. Louis understanding that liberating ourselves from such oppressive strictures requires us to risk something. I left St. Louis with the intention of getting free and unafraid to risk anything, even my own life, trying.
Los Angeles Freedom Riders @ Mercado La Paloma, Photo by Leroy Hamilton