January 13, 2018
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“Until the killing of Black men (Black mothers’ sons) is as important as the killing of White men (White mothers’ sons) we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon
I was sitting outside in the St. Louis neighborhood of Tower Grove South speaking with one of the Ferguson organizers about the theory of panopticism, which in short says that people will alter their behavior if they think they are being observed. “This is one problem with the body camera idea,” she said. “But unfortunately the bigger issue is that, until there is an outcry from the general public about what’s happening to black and brown bodies, police behavior is not going to change.”
From August 6-12, 2015, BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz sent a delegation of 10 to St. Louis in response to a national call put forth by Ferguson Action for participation in #UnitedWeFight, a week of training, education, and direct action during the anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder in August 2014.
Going into this experience, I didn’t know what to expect. Even though it was a national call put forth by activists in St. Louis, many locals were skeptical and distrusting of outsiders coming in. And rightfully so. These are the folks, mostly young, who have sacrificed so much – their bodies, jobs, wellbeing, livelihood, relationships – for the past year to fight back against the lack of accountability in state violence toward black bodies. If outsiders come in and create a mess, these are the people who have to clean it up. These are the people who face the consequences. Outsiders get to leave.
I’m also white. As a white person, I don’t have to think about race on a daily basis. Except for the occasional times I’m reminded of the one minority strike against me (I am female, after all), I usually feel comfortable in the spaces I inhabit. The system created by white people overwhelmingly benefits white people. I benefit at the expense of my black and brown brothers and sisters.
The Black Lives Matter movement is forcing white people to think about race. Through nonviolent direct action, activists are seeking to change the narrative. Actions like blocking interstate highways (which symbolically represent freedom and the ability to escape – especially if you’re white); shutting down political rallies when candidates refuse to address issues affecting black lives; or dropping Black Lives Matter banners and singing “Requiem for Mike Brown”* at the St. Louis Symphony – a space that’s predominantly affluent and white, make it so white people can no longer ignore what’s happening to people of color.
But being white, I still have a choice in what I do with that information and how I move forward.
Toward the end of a direct action training, one of the coordinators turned and said, “To all the white people in here, you’re going to be fine. They’ll reach over you to get to the black people, so don’t worry, you’ll be just fine.” I could feel the anger and frustration in her voice. Again, rightfully so. As someone on the front lines for the past year; as someone personally abused by the state – with rubber bullets, tear gas, jail; she knows that as a white person, I have the privilege to participate in the Movement without facing many actual consequences. I have the privilege get my “movement high” and go home.
I have the privilege to stop caring at any point I choose.
So as a white outsider, why do I care about Ferguson?
There is a quote from Lilla Watson that has stuck with me since college. Watson, an indigenous Australian (or Murri), said the following while addressing the 1985 United Nations Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
We humans are bound to each other. Ferguson is everywhere, and no one is free until the systems that continue to overwhelmingly oppress people of color are dismantled. Everyone’s participation is necessary.
Overall, Ferguson taught me to do my own work; to look inside myself and become more aware of my own prejudices and privileges. Ferguson taught me about recognizing institutionalized racism and systems of white supremacy that still dictate much of what happens in the US. Ferguson taught me to ask more questions.
Ferguson taught me about sacrifice:
In the form of the MAU- (Millennial Activists United) led action of blocking interstate traffic with their own bodies and risking arrest. Or one young girl who chose to be at the actions instead of in school because “how can I be in school when these injustices are happening to my people.”
Ferguson taught me about hypocrisy:
In the form of white “Oath Keepers” on West Florissant fully displaying automatic weapons while the police do nothing, yet even the hint of a gun on a black person (whether (s)he actually has one) provokes an often violent and traumatic reaction. Or that the media’s attention tends to automatically focus on the protesters throwing rocks and water bottles while neglecting to mention the tanks, rubber bullets, tear gas, and riot gear possessed by police.
Ferguson taught me about fear and control:
In the form of a state of emergency being declared in St. Louis County because of peaceful protests and nonviolent actions, causing people to ask exactly “which emergency” they were referencing. Or in the form of police gripping their guns when confronted with unarmed protestors and when asked, “Why is your hand on your gun? This is a peaceful gathering,” responding by smirking and gripping them tighter.
But Ferguson also taught me about community:
In the form of the organization Help or Hush holding a “People’s Brunch” free for anyone who wished to gather together and share a meal with neighbors. Or the willingness of people to donate toward others’ livelihoods – such as to help one activist avoid eviction from her home.
Ferguson taught me about gratitude:
In the form of friends able to provide comfort, care, and support in times of crisis. Or in those arrested who were able to build community even in jail; a place that aims to devalue and dehumanize (and also keep their senses of humor, for example, with chants of “No pizza, no peace” when the guards did not provide them with dinner).
Ferguson taught me about empowerment:
In the form of empowering the most vulnerable in our communities, which in turn, empowers us all.
I leave you with a quote from Assata Shakur -- written from her jail cell in 1973. While in St. Louis, we recited her words to each other almost every day.
It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
As I write this, news is coming in of another young man, a black teenager named Mansur Ball-Bey, killed by St. Louis police. Please keep the communities that have experienced so much trauma in your thoughts and prayers.