December 12, 2014, by Guest blog

Race and Rights: Ferguson Part 2

Post by Timo Schrader

Below is the second of a multi-part series responding to events in Ferguson – the protests and civil disorder that began the day after the fatal shooting of an African American man, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, and continued after the decision on November 24, 2014 by a grand jury not to indict the police officer. Nottingham’s Race and Rights cluster and postgraduate reading group, based in the Department of American and Canadian Studies, examine Ferguson through the lens of their research. In this second posting, Timo Schrader looks at Ferguson in the broader context of sustainable activism by communities.

“As Christians, our church encourages us to be engaged in the life of the city, the life of our community,” Rev. Shaun Ellison Jones of the Mount Zion Baptist Church-Christian Complex in St. Louis urged his congregation in the wake of the grand jury decision to not indict the police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. While the eyes of the world are once again set on the racial tensions in the United States, the media tends to focus on the ongoing protests on the streets of Ferguson, mostly overlooking what has been bubbling beneath the surface in the Ferguson community. While the death of Michael Brown is one more in a long list of unjustified killings at the hand of those that are supposed to protect us, and not even the latest one, and clearly speaks to a much larger problem of police brutality towards African Americans, here I would like to take you beyond the constant stream of social media images and show you what has been happening in Ferguson over the past months to help support and improve the black community in Ferguson after the media will have jumped to the next big thing.

In my own research on the Puerto Rican community in the New York City neighbourhood of Loisaida, I look at the efforts of groups and institutions, showing how this community engaged in sustainable spatial activism, a kind of activism that seeks to improve the community and make it more resilient against urban economic forces such as deindustrialization; disinvestment; and gentrification. Though my project focuses on a different locale; time period; and economic context (an urban one), the concept of sustainable activism also helps to view Ferguson through a different lens. As we zoom in on the black community in Ferguson and leave behind larger questions of U.S. police brutality and racism, we get a much clearer picture of the support system that has the potential to improve the community in the long-term.

Let me then introduce you to Hands Up United, a community organization co-founded by St. Louis resident Tory Russell, the Organization for Black Struggle, Lost Voices, and rapper Tef Poe. Besides its broader concerns for police accountability, this coalition presents a new space for members of the community to raise community-specific issues. In this capacity, Hands Up has been active to get more books for the black community, also hosting a program to provide meals and books for everyone who is interested. Working with art therapists and psychiatrists, Hands Up gave children of the community a platform to express themselves through art. Support for this organization comes from many sources including a software company and the Congolese human rights activist Kambale Musavuli.

There are also Brittany; Ashley; Zakiya; Larry; and Alexis, who have banded together as Millennial Activists United (MAU) and have as their slogan: “Building Grassroots Power and Leadership to Create Strong, Sustainable Communities.” This collective found each other through Twitter and have been a driving force behind the protests in Ferguson through a commitment to grassroots organizing. Besides being ever-present on the streets, they have also been holding town hall meetings where community members, especially women, can address their concerns. In one instance, they helped to bring counsellors to schoolchildren after the shooting.

As the quote by Rev. Jones at the beginning of this post suggests, churches have also been a key institution that advocates its members to get active in their neighbourhoods. Similar to Hands Up United, churches connect the local with the national and in a focus on police brutality, both of these institutions seek solutions on both levels and firmly believe that, as the civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton points out, “Ferguson is to this battle what there was in Selma to the voting battle.”

As we zoom out again, both spatially and historically, and return to a picture where Ferguson is one part of a larger movement, we begin to see that a civil rights struggle depends on many actors working together: grassroots organizations on the local level, supporting organizations on a national level, and leaders to unite all the small communities across the land. While new grassroots groups like MAU have to prove they are in it for the long haul, churches and organizations such as Hands Up United have the right support to stay once the media vans will have left the streets. While a leader has yet to emerge, and Al Sharpton has the pedigree to take on this role if he so chooses, to tie the communities together, it is clear that in Ferguson, there is already a system being put in place to ensure the community keeps fighting its own small battles and working towards a sustainable community.

Timo Schrader is a PhD student in the American and Canadian Studies department, where he is writing a dissertation on sustainable activism in the Puerto Rican community in New York City. He is a member of the Race and Rights research cluster and PG reading group.

Image: Handwritten message on a Ferguson store-front, late August 2014, photograph circulated by Hands Up United.

Posted in American and Canadian Studies