I’ve lived in Saint Louis my whole life. Racial tension and issues are a fact of life here as in many other U.S cities. Segregation within the city is stark and can be seen by simply riding the metro for a few hours. At Delmar Boulevard, there is a shocking juxtaposition that represents race and class divisions both nationally and locally: On one block an economically oppressed neighborhood consists mainly of people of color, where police often ignore the community and often take 40 minutes to respond when folks call in distress; on the other end lies an affluent mostly white gated community with ample police protection.
When my sister lived in Ferguson she warned about how aggressive the police were. “They have egos and are rude,” she said. Fortunately, she has the luxury of white skin so has not been harassed by law enforcement like many of her African-American neighbors. This is the kind of police behavior the black community of Saint Louis faces daily.
Needless to say, it did not come as a shock to me that Michael Brown — a young black man — was shot by a police officer (Darrel Wilson) in Saint Louis. It did not come as shock to learn that Michael Brown was unarmed. It did not come as a shock that law enforcement organizations have used everything in their arsenal to slander the character of Mike Brown. It was not a shock to hear whites in my community act as if the shooting was a justified act and use racial epithets to describe people in Ferguson. It was not a shock to witness a more subtle racism occurring, with folks saying things like “What’s the big deal?” “They wouldn’t riot if it was a gang shooting.” “They are the ones making it a race issue.” “Why have they taken this so far?” and “Let’s quit talking about it.”
I’ve become used to people in my community not wanting to sympathize or understand what black communities face. I had become cynical.
But then I was shocked when I went to Ferguson.
There I saw firsthand the resilience of people. They stood together not willing to stand down and allow for another black death to go without justice and without answers. Powerful marches with the refrain “No Justice, No Peace!” happened in the first days after the shooting. People banded together to show solidarity with their community and with the Brown family. People fed each other and stood side by side. They were unrelenting and unwavering.
I met people like Laura Charles. Laura greeted me on Wednesday, August 13th, with a hug and a smile. She thanked Marcus Wildhaber, a fellow SP member and comrade, for joining the protest in front of the Ferguson Police Department and me. She had been there every night since the shooting, from at least noon to 3 a.m. Laura, like many other community members, are fed up.
An elderly Black man walked up to me and shook my hand. He looked me up and down. He noticed my long hair and radical t-shirt and gave a big smile. “With that long hair and socialist shit on they’d shoot you too. They have in the past. But the thing is you can change your clothes and cut your hair, but I can’t change my skin, and these police here make sure to remind me that.” He went on to say “We’ve been here before. It’s a cycle. They hand us something to quiet us down and keep on keeping us down in other ways. We marched for little victories 50 years ago, and where are we now? This is why I’m a Malcolm X man and not an MLK man. The black community has got to change things for itself. We can’t let this happen any longer. We must be militant.”
I saw militancy that night.
But let me be clear: The protesters did not instigate what unfolded on Wednesday, the 13th. The police were the instigators, and they were militant.
While handing out pamphlets issued by the local ACLU by the Quick Trip (the rallying point of most protesters on West Florissant Street), I witnessed the police surround the gas station with armored vehicles and saw droves of assault rifle carrying county and city police. I was standing on the side streets adjacent to the Quick Trip when a phalanx of officers moved up the street to block a crowd of protesters and individuals just trying to get home.
A woman was crying and pleading with the police to let her through so she could go home. She asked, “How can I get home?” And an officer responded coldly and simply, “You Cant.”
The police started screaming at the crowd to move back. Some pointed their assault weapons in our general direction and ordered people to disperse even though they had nowhere to go. My comrade waiting up the street was bluntly told by a county police officer, “Get the fuck out now.”
Back at the police headquarters a crowd of about 25 people gathered. We chanted as we heard the tear gas being shot at those trapped at the gas station.
The solidarity I’ve seen this week can’t stop with Mike Brown, Ferguson or any other case of police brutality. People around the country must stand up to these injustices. Whole communities must come together and fight for their right to live free from the deranged ranks of law enforcement that have been dispatched to control us and keep social unrest down.
We must be on the right side of history. We must be willing to take our streets and hold fast until we bring about change. We must rally behind one another, for only we hold the power to change our lives for the better.