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Dispatches from Ferguson: A Two-Part Account of a Week in St. Louis

by Nathan Watts


January 13, 2015

Dispatches from Ferguson:  A Two-Part Account of a Week in St. Louis

Photo by Gretchen Honnold.

Nathan Watts, a BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz board member, works in Tucson, AZ, as a program organizer with BorderLinks, a nonprofit that specializes in education, immigration justice and social ethics. Nathan was in St. Louis to support Fellowship of Reconciliation representatives (Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou and Gretchen Honnold) who are organizing and training participant protestors in nonviolent civil disobedience.

Part 1: “From Dred Scott to Mike Brown!”

“From Dred Scott to Mike Brown!”

This was our chant as we stood atop the steps of the Federal Justice Building in downtown St. Louis. We were gathered to issue our own indictment, a charge from the people against the government for the powers’ irresponsibility, to affirm the fact that Black Lives Matter, and have mattered, for centuries, for millennia.

These steps were the tactical location for an action of massive civil disobedience the day after the anticipated non-indictment from a grand jury hearing some of the details of the shooting death of Michael Brown, Jr.

We were led to this place by young black women, men and LGBTQ non-gender-conforming community leaders who are filled with a righteous discontent, empowered by their collective conquering of fear, and motivated by the realization that they can only protect their lives by risking everything. Most of the rest of us were eager to follow their impassioned leadership.

“Back up! Back up! We want freedom, freedom!
All these racist ass cops, we don’t need ‘em, need ‘em!
Indict! Convict! Send that killer cop to jail!
The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”

You may find this shocking, but it was the chorus of the people as we marched from the Federal Building through downtown St. Louis to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Bridge that connects Missouri to Illinois.

Hundreds gathered there as we blocked intersections and linked arms, disrupting capital and complacency, directing our outrage and mourning at the police (who were beginning to dress in riot gear—helmets, shields, shin guards, batons, mace—and get into armoured cars) with a simple, humane plea: “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!”

Our next steps were perhaps our boldest that day, a walk up the Interstate 44 off-ramp to publicize our resistance and the power of our unity.

Though the occupation of the interstate by unarmed community members only lasted about 30 minutes, it was long enough for 15 people to be pepper-sprayed, five to be arrested and the crowd aggressively moved by the police.

This brief action sparked inspiration and defiance in more than 130 cities across the United States. This was our response to what we saw as a farce of justice by Prosecutor McCulloch. No one had anticipated the decision being that cold and calculated, that hurtful, embarrassing and remorseless, that shameless.

Is that justice? “JustUS in the US,” spat in the face of a grieving and wounded community. These events truly highlighted the fact that there are at least two Americas—the power structure and the people. Or, more blatantly—those who sanction, perform and defend murder, and those who decry, lament and resist death in all its forms.

And for my week in St. Louis, the gulf between the two were painfully evident, obviously in need of radical amendments and redistributions if a JustUS is actually something achievable or even truly desirable.

Perhaps what grieves me the most is that the physical protection of Black bodies is the base requirement of an ethical and just society. For that to come to pass in this blood-soaked land, it requires the amount of energy and organizing we are witnessing. It requires this amount of collective pain finding expression in marches and disobedience.

But throughout the struggle is also celebration: celebration of Black culture and traditions of intellect and resistance that have provided, for our white-supremacist nation, visions of wholeness and unity and genuine love previously unconsidered and repeatedly denied. This imbalance is shifting before our very eyes, creating us anew in ways we didn’t know were possible, in ways that only the fires of struggle can form.    

Collectively, we are still searching for answers through our tears. But the Ferguson Rebellion has renewed in the courageous hearts of a certain and growing number of folk, that we will work to reclaim what we’ve been told all along is ours—a right to life.

The truth is that all we are all getting is more death, more lies, more hurt. But I heard somewhere that “we who believe in freedom cannot rest!” The ancestors of this unrest awaken at times like now, shake off the dust from their bones, and fill us with courage in the bloodied and terrifying face of hate and empire. They whisper to us that the real fight is in the human spirit, in the decision to rise up again and take a stand. “No justice! No peace! No racist police!”

The young folk who have sustained the Ferguson Rebellion for 117 days and counting are going after the jugular of US empire and oppression. By now you know what that looks like.

There are coordinated efforts of local municipal and federal laws and enforcers that are bent on destroying communities of color, bent on breaking the dissenting will of direct descendants of true American heroes. But now the tables are being turned. Again. “You Can’t Stop The Revolution!” Which side are you on? How will we know? We’ll know.

Part 2. Spiritualizing Rebellion

It is our duty to fight for our freedom
It is our duty to win
We must love and protect each other
We have nothing to lose but our chains

Jesus is a Freedom Fighter. It’s true. Freedom Fighters are willing to struggle and suffer for the beautification and expression of the human spirit and the protection of the physical bodies by which this spirit becomes known. The ensuing struggle towards these ends is daunting, exhausting and fully human.

This is perhaps our one true vocation. The suffering for this right to life is not inevitable, but it is a historic fact and contemporary reality. In First-century Palestine, this struggle and resistance looked like walking another mile, turning over market tables at the temple and claiming a higher authority.

In 21st-century America, resistance and struggle look like civil disobedience, property damage on West Florissant Avenue, and claiming a moral authority directly in the face of those who’d rather see you die and bleed than live and breathe.

Two millennia later, and what’s changed? Capital and property are still prioritized over community and life itself. People are still, still, subjugated—physically, emotionally, mentally—to the belief that some lives matter more than others.

This is a false reality. It claims that, along the militaristic and economic march towards totalitarianism, some sacrifices must be made. Human sacrifices. And bizarrely enough, this false reality actually helps people get through their day. But at what cost? And why fight?

It is our duty, humane and ancestral, to live with integrity—such integrity that, if all of life’s contradictions collapse on you at once, you’ve got a core, a center, that you are able to draw from to get up and get at it again. And when moments of challenge present themselves, we tap into our core and present our resiliency.

Jesus had this core to such an astonishing degree that we still don’t fully understand him. So we try. This is winning. To do it anyway. To know what tomorrow will most likely look like, and to live with integrity anyway.

I believe it is this sense of deep, ancestral, centered integrity that is the strength of the Ferguson Rebellion. People across the nation, and particularly in the St. Louis area, are throwing off the abhorrent chains that have held us in contempt for far too long. We’ve given the oppressors far too much authority over our lives, and now we are in a fight to get it back.

I also believe that God is present in this fight—on the ground in Ferguson and stirring in the hearts and minds of freedom fighters across the US and our broader world. It is now—in this moment—that we must claim our core, and not be so shy about the fact that Jesus is a rebel, still misunderstood, but abundantly alive and well. That is, as long as we continue to fight for freedom anyway.

We have nothing to lose but our chains.


Dred Scott was a slave who successfully sued for his  freedom in a St. Louis court in 1857, only to have the decision struck down by the US Supreme Court. He is buried in St. Louis, near where the Ferguson protests occurred.

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