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September 9, 2015
I traveled to Ferguson to witness and gain insight from activists' work of resistance against state violence. I left inspired and encouraged to re-focus on the black and brown bodies being killed. We speak their names:
The list of names on this roll of victims grows each week. Their murders reflect a continuum of white supremacist violence that has kept brown and black lives in danger since 1492.
I remember being in the living room of the Amen House in St. Louis on August 7 when I heard about 19-year-old Christian Taylor’s murder in Texas. I had arrived in St. Louis just two days earlier, and had already attended several nonviolence and direct action trainings. We had come together to resist the systems that enabled these kind of injustices, but became re-traumatized by another report of a young Black man’s death at the hands of an agent of the state.
Our wounds are raw. We are still grieving the victims of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal terrorist shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. I find myself in a constant state of pain each time I hear of another black person killed by police or white vigilantes; it is scary to realize I am living in a country that doesn’t value black lives.
There is always some justification by police for brutalizing black bodies. Black and brown women and men are seen as a threat in American society without warrant and are believed to be inherently criminal: our music is always too loud, we look monstrous, we lack innocence, and we are always to blame somehow for why we are shot down like animals.
In contrast to this negative experience, I saw love being expressed freely.
Witnessing the organizing and love shown by young and old activists alike, I learned from being in Ferguson that I need to speak truth about the condition of my people who are oppressed and terrorized by the state. Being able to see the activist work that MORE (Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment), Hands Up United, the Deep Abiding Love Project, and other organizations are doing was truly transformational. Having activists such as Nabeehah Azeez show me so much love really made me feel welcome as a learner of what democracy in action looks like.
It has troubled me that people have not paid enough attention to the frustration and anger of the people living in Canfield Green community and the family that is grieving the loss of their son, Michael Brown, Jr. It is emotions like frustration and anger that push youth to block highways so that Americans will become alert; it seems that seeing black lives brutalized on television every 28 hours is not enough to pause people’s typical way of moving about in the world.
On Sunday evening, August 9, as we were preparing ourselves for the next day’s #MoralMonday march, we went to Greater St. Mark’s Church to hear Bree Newsome, Dr. Cornel West, and local clergy members speak about the role of the black church in supporting the Movement for Black Lives. Afterward, several of us decided to go into central Ferguson to join the vigil on the night of the anniversary of Brown’s death.
The young people that night decided to block that main street with their bodies.
Photography has a power to create a narrative. It is important to critique images of us that don’t serve the narrative we support. Three of us – myself and Rev. Kim Jackson from the Atlanta FOR community, and Rev. Kadia Edwards, a member of the BPFNA delegation to Ferguson – were on West Florissant Avenue, and saw a battalion of police fully armed in military gear. We stopped there because the flow of traffic was so slow because of the roadway being blocked by young protestors.
I believe the police were in that gear to create an illusion of threat. They tried to create a narrative for the photographers that would evoke suspicion in the eyes of the public. Images have the power to influence narrative. Seeing police in full riot gear would suggest that “rioters” are armed and explosively dangerous. However, the protesters were few in number. There were about 60 protesters gathered. There were far more police gathered. In my opinion, adding this amount of police in this protest situation purposively escalates situations.
Reverend Jackson and I decided to get into the street with the young people to witness alongside them. As we gathered, shots rang out across the street from where we stood. (The shots sounded like fireworks.)
Initially, I thought the shooting was the result of an argument between local Ferguson residents. Later, we discovered a young black man, Tyrone Harris, had been shot and critically wounded by plain-clothed police officers. Framed within the context of a wider movement, the violence reminded me of the violence between police and local citizens in Memphis, Tennessee in the late 1960s during the Poor People’s Campaign garbage sanitation campaign. [Editor’s note: A photo taken immediately after the shooting of Jackson holding and comforting the sister of Harris, accompanied by Johnson and Edwards amidst a hazy background of tear gas, appeared on the front-page of the Aug 10 edition of The New York Times.]
Many other thoughts swirled through my mind that night. I considered the way we privilege certain kinds of people. Typically, the professional class – e.g., clergy – have received more respect than working-class people; yet it is those individuals, whose lives are rooted in the struggles of daily existence, whose communities are at highest risk of violence by vigilantes and police. It frustrates me that practitioners of “respectability politics” often look down on protests that don’t include white people or clergy. I believe that the violence on Sunday was intended to undermine the nonviolent organizing efforts that had been happening all week.
The following day the #MoralMonday action took place; many Ferguson and St. Louis activist leaders participated, and dozens were arrested. We shut down the Department of Justice. White officers had wide smirks on their faces. A lone female black officer was among the police ranks, and I saw a supportive look in her eyes. But I also realize that her job feeds her family; even though this was a situation where she had to arrest us, that needs to be understood.
As I looked at officers’ faces, both black and white, I wanted to know if moving people emotionally was enough to get them to support a move towards justice. Specifically, I had these questions about white folk. Is an emotional response enough for white people to use their white privilege in a way that supports the movement for black lives? This is a movement that recognizes and supports the truth that black people are human, too. The ideology of white supremacy threatens our humanity everyday and denies that that humanity exists.
I remember being photographed and videotaped by police officers and random civilians alike as we protested in front of the Department of Justice, and even after we left, there were men with cameras pointed at us, all without our permission. (This experience triggered a memory in me of a time when and a friend and I were photographed by random men as we left the NetRoots Nation Town Hall meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, where Governor O’Malley and Bernie Sanders were.) Black people in working class and low-income U.S. communities are being surveilled in this American police state. This looks like racial profiling to me. While everyone in our country is now the subject of video monitoring and surveillance, black poor and working-class people – like those living in Baltimore, Ferguson, Cleveland, and Los Angeles – are those being targeted.
It was deeply transformative for me to travel to Ferguson and St. Louis to learn about nonviolence protest and direct action organizing and to see the work of young activists up close. I believe we need to do the work of creating a community-centered culture, in which we really take the work of justice-building to our families and ask those close to us: Are you on the side of self-determination and freedom or injustice?
In conclusion, I would like to thank Trina Jackson for telling me about the work of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Ferguson. I am also deeply grateful to Gus Kaufman of the Atlanta FOR chapter and Kimberly Jackson of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta for making my journey possible. And I appreciate the Amen House of St. Louis for offering myself and other interfaith nonviolent protestors shelter during the #UnitedWeFight week.
Roman Johnson is currently a second-year Master of Arts student in African-American Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a member of the Atlanta chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and loves justice. This piece was originally written for the Fellowship of Reconciliation and will be published in the Fall issue of the Fellowship magazine.