In Soweto, South Africa, during Apartheid, a 13-year-old boy named Hector Pieterson was killed by White South African police during youth protests in 1976. While the August 9, 2014, killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by the White Missouri police officer Darren Wilson did not happen while Brown was protesting, but as he was walking to his grandmother’s home, the brave young protestors who have emerged seeking justice for Brown, remind me of the fearless youth in Soweto, who sought justice against an unequal education system more than three decades ago.
These brave young (and older) African Americans in this Midwestern St. Louis suburb of about 21,000 residents are holding steadfast. Steadfast for justice, and for fairness. They want to be treated like human beings instead of like animals whose lives have no meaning and whose attackers, no remorse and thus far, not being held legally accountable for their actions.
It took more than two decades of persistent protesting led by many civilian organizers to finally topple the Apartheid system of government in South Africa. I was there when it finally happened, covering the first democratic election of President Nelson Mandela as a TV news reporter, and witnessed the official abolition of Apartheid in 1994. I stayed in Johannesburg for several years, and had many eye-opening experiences, witnessing firsthand how a 5% White population controlled a Black/Colored majority population by limiting their movements without ‘legalized’ permission ‘passes’. Similarly, it’s disturbing to learn of a 29% minority White population in Ferguson, controlling the Board of Education and official local government positions, including the police department by a 50:3 ratio (White:Black officers), in a town where African Americans make up nearly 70% of the population.
But the similarities continue. Just as in South Africa, many journalists have been arrested in Ferguson simply trying to do their jobs and report on what some are describing as the “terrorism” by the Ferguson police against the civilian protestors exercising their First Amendment rights.
A year after Pieterson’s killing, a young law student and Black Consciousness leader named Steven Biko was killed by the White South African police, which drew international attention. The U.S. government and other foreign governments became involved — as it is after Brown’s death and protests in Ferguson. President Barack Obama has now addressed the nation twice since the shooting, left his summer vacation to meet with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and ordered a federal investigation into the death of Brown. Foreign media from Britain to Germany, to Turkey and China have covered the story, and one German reporter was detained in Ferguson. Both the Egyptian and Russian governments have sent critical messages to the U.S. regarding the right to peaceful assembly by the protestors, which received a swift response from the U.S. State Department. People around the world are watching Ferguson.
But when will these kinds of situations change?
I reminisce now on the initial conversation I had with my son Jonathan when he was 8-years-old about being cognizant of his behavior when he was in stores, telling him that the smallest actions could be perceived as ‘suspicious’ by the store security. I had another discussion when he was older and stopped by white policemen in a predominately White community where we lived. I warned him to never talk back to an officer, like I knew he could. “Do what you’re told,” I said. “And keep your hands where they can be seen at all times. No sudden moves.” It’s unfortunate that I, and other Black mothers, must have these talks with their young sons, but that is our reality.
Perhaps the steadfast protests by these fearless youth in Ferguson will help to begin bringing about some much-needed change in how black men are perceived and treated. Their voices are being heard, embraced and echoed by young and old alike from around our great nation. They need to know, Michael Brown’s family needs to know — they are not alone.
Here are five tips for the Ferguson protestors.
1) Know Your Rights: Police have no right to confiscate your cell phone or anything else you’re using to record their behavior without a warrant. Change your phone settings so that all images and video you capture will immediately go to the Cloud or an online server that you can access anywhere, should the police illegally seize your footage.
2) Avoid violent inciters: There have been several reports of outside groups in Ferguson stirring up trouble and trying to incite young protestors to violence. Avoid them. They are not there to do you any good so don’t allow yourself to interact with them in any way.
3) Prioritize voting in local elections. Replace out-of-touch elected officials with people who care about you and your agenda, and those who will advocate on your behalf. Find out information on upcoming local, state and national elections, and let your voice be heard at the ballot box. Ensure that you and your community are properly represented on the school board, in influential government positions, and on the police force — for a more just and fair future.
4) Stay innovative. In the wake of Mike Brown’s killing, a 14-, 15- and 16-year-old created an app called Five-O to help people report police brutality. Keep up that innovative spirit, and figure out how technology can help make your protests more effective. Let the world know how to help you.
5) Stay vigilant. The road leading to positive change can be long and challenging, but remember: you are not alone! People around the world are feeling your pain and your angst. Continue sharing your stories on social media to expose in equities. But also make sure to take time to rest and take care of yourself. Unplug when you need to. Listen to your body. We need you in good health with a focused spirit!
Until next time… May the shadows of life keep you aware, the progress of love push you forward — and may love of life keep you living — FEARLESSLY.
Julia A. Wilson is the CEO and Founder of Wilson Global Communications, an international public affairs consulting firm founded in South Africa in 1994 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. A U.S. Department of State Fulbright Grant recipient and international lecturer, Wilson has lived, studied and/or worked in more than 13 countries. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaWilson_dc.