The blood of Michael Brown has seeded the soil of a great American revolution—sprouting yearlings of new black leadership onto the political and public landscape. The Ferguson Rebellion has exposed deep-seated racism, hyper-militarized state forces, unabashed police brutality and the soul-crushing poverty that will come to define “the Age of Obama.” It also revealed the open hostility between many from a younger generation of activists and elites of the traditional civil rights, religious and civic organizations of the Black freedom struggle.
The extrajudicial killing of Mike Brown was followed by the lynching-like display of his body to his shocked and grieving community for over four hours. This sinister threat and clear provocation bred even greater contempt for the Ferguson Police Department, a department that is 94 per cent white, charged to protect and serve a community that is 67 per cent black; a department that has issued arrest warrants on two-thirds of its black population. The hyper-militarized police response included teargas, rubber bullets, tanks, drones, an unrelenting assault on the freedom of the press and a globally televised attack on First Amendment rights and peaceful protests. This in turn, fomented a rebellion led by poor and working class black youth.
Meanwhile, traditional civil rights institutions and religious leaders failed to understand the foment of the younger generation. Older leaders called for protester restraint and highlighted black-on-black crime, affirming popular notions of black pathology. Many condemned the vicious policing during the Ferguson Rebellion as an afterthought – further alienating a dispossessed generation. On more than one occasion high profile black leaders denounced black youth who took to the street as thugs, rioters and looters. A significant portion of Rev. Al Sharpton’s sermon during Mike Brown’s funeral service was devoted to criticizing a generation of young blacks, painting them as gun-toting thugs who have “ghetto pity parties”. The NAACP was silent for nearly three days following Brown’s killing and the subsequent social unrest. The venerable civil rights’ organization’s first comment on the ugly affair came in the form of a quickly deleted tweet: “When someone outside of our race commits murder we want upheaval, but we need same for all murder.” This ill-fated statement resulted in a swift social media backlash, further underscoring the distance between the historic civil rights organization and a younger generation.
By placing the emphasis on respectability politics instead of on the visceral pain and rage so eloquently articulated on the streets of Ferguson, traditional leadership attempted to shame the courageous yet maligned young folks who forced the nation to acknowledge their humanity in face of inhumane treatment by law enforcement. Diminishing Mike Brown with that same chimera of ‘respectability’ – and the popular obsession of the absent black father – obscures the fact that Mike Brown had four loving parents (step and biological) and was part of an intergenerational community.
It is clear that that neither a nuclear family nor voter registration drives will save black folks from state violence, but many Black leaders appear to wilfully deny this. To this end, both Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton were booed by young Ferguson activists who found their presence wanting, even self-serving. David Whitt, a Canfield resident, shouted down Rev. Jackson during a rally. “Why are you here?” Mr. Whitt wanted to know. “We need folks in the streets not giving speeches,” he admonished the visibly ruffled civil rights icon. Whitt’s vocal dismay harkened back to the 1965 Watts Rebellion when inconsolable youth lambasted Martin Luther King, Jr. for being a tool of the white establishment. Unlike King, Sharpton and Jackson have not responded adequately to young Black leadership rooted in the plight of poor blacks.
Equally, the tone-deaf response of the Obama Administration and other elected officials merely confirmed to young activists that they were on their own in their quest for justice. As the President and First Lady wined and dined with elites on Martha’s Vineyard, black youth were attacked with tear gas, rubber bullets, and the full weight of what must surely be one of the most militarized small town police forces around.
The vast majority of the Congressional Black Caucus is also culpable in the brutal and unconstitutional response by police after they overwhelmingly voted for the deployment of such weaponry in our communities. Nearly two weeks after police killed Mike Brown and cracked down on protesters, Attorney General Eric Holder came to Ferguson and lauded Captain Ron Johnson and his troops as a model of community policing, a matter of hours after Johnson had unleashed tear gas on children several hours before the ‘curfew’ was due to begin. Having witnessed scenes from Missouri that reminded him of his days as a SNCC activist, Congressman John Lewis called for the National Guard to be sent to Ferguson to protect the right to freedom of assembly and the press. This was the case in some of the most intense civil rights struggles in the 1960s. In recalcitrant places like Alabama, federalized National Guards would protect civil rights activists. In an ironic turn of events, the Missouri Army National Guard was not federalized. When the tanks rolled into occupied Ferguson, they were ordered to protect the militarized police who were guilty of denying the protesters their right to assemble, to cross the street in their own town, or to access their own homes and businesses. Even to stand still in Ferguson became an arrestable offense.
The failure of traditional Black leadership to acknowledge the power of youth outrage and organizing, a callous White House, a suspect Justice Department coupled with an out-of-touch Congressional Black Caucus, Ferguson’s electoral apartheid and a national epidemic of police brutality set the stage for the emergence of a new black leadership. Self-organized poor and working class Black youth sit at the center of this new crop of leaders, part of the mass of young folks who took the nation by surprise and demanded justice for Mike Brown.
Many of them reside in the Canfield Green Apartments where Mike Brown’s lifeless body lay in the sweltering summer heat. Incensed by the police response, devastated by yet another of their own being shot for the ‘crime’ of walking while Black, and galled by the disrespect shown to that young man’s body, they began to march and – having no place to express their discontent – some began to damage property. In Ferguson, one-fourth of the population lives below the poverty line and unemployment has doubled in the last decade, making it a daily struggle for some to meet the most basic human needs. Much of the meager bounty taken from stores was redistributed for free to the needy by a complex network of various street organizations (gangs) who called a rare truce in order to seek justice for Mike Brown.
Of course, it was the destruction of property—not Mike Brown’s death, the bungled police response, or the transparent and ongoing smear campaign city hall launched against Brown and his peers—that seized media attention and thus the public imagination, creating the space for sustained debate over the role of militarized policing and brutality. Mr. Whitt, a father of three, organized in partnership with Copwatch a campaign to give video cameras to local youth so they can document police harassment.
It was the continued – and overwhelmingly peaceful – presence on West Florissant Avenue that pressed media outlets from around the world to pay attention to the unrequited cries of the young, poor, and Black. Taurean Russell and St Louis rapper Tef Poe are amongst the new cloud of witness that have emerged from the billowing smoke that saturated the August night air. They have been a constant presence on West Florissant as well as working alongside national organizers such as Phil Agnew and the Dream Defenders— one of the most significant developments in the aftermath of the death of yet another unarmed black teen, Trayvon Martin. Lost Voices, a mostly teenaged collective, has camped on West Florissant since the rebellion’s earliest days. While young activists could clearly not depend on national politicians to come to their aid, local politicians—Ferguson’s Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes, St. Louis City Alderman Antonio French, Missouri State Senators Jamilah Nasheed and Maria Chappelle Nadal —were in the street with the young people and subject to the same repressive measures. While there is a palpable distain for many national civil rights leaders, there are exceptions. The new generation of leaders has some deep intergenerational ties. Local veteran activists, Jamala Rogers and Zaki Baruti are central figures in a heavily youth–led broader coalition, Hands Up United, one of the many that have swiftly sprung up seeking justice for Mike Brown.
Characterized by grassroots organizing and righteous indignation, these young activists hold a distrust of clergy. Most do not attend churches regularly and are suspicious of the bBack church at best. During those long summer nights their suspicions were confirmed, when Gestapo-esque troops descended upon the peaceful protest, night after night, while clergy opened Captain Ron Johnson’s post-teargas press conferences with solemn prayers. These (predominantly) men of the cloth thanked God and blessed police who had been aiming machine guns with live rounds at the heads, faces and chests of protestors just hours before.
However, a minority of religious leaders supported youth activism offering shelter in the time of storm—standing between heavily-armed police garrisons and inconsolable youth. They risked arrest and suffered police violence. Rev. Renita Lamkins bares the scar of a rubber bullet that she took on the streets. Rev. Tommie Pearson offered his church, Greater St. Marks Family Church, as an organizing refuge only to have police wielding assault weapons storm their house of worship in a failed attempt to intimidate organizers. Not only were PICO Network’s Rev. Nelson Pierce, Jr. and Rev. Alvin Herring on the frontlines protecting the marchers, the Rev. Michael McBride was amongst those willing to risk arrest in solidarity with young activists demanding a meeting with U.S. Attorney Callahan. Long-time St. Louis activist and Nation of Islam stalwart Anthony Shahid was a constant presence on the frontline and was one of the first organizers in Canfield as Mike Brown’s body lay in the street. SNCC veteran Rev. Dr. Ruby Sales remained on the ground training young activists in nonviolent civil disobedience. Along with Rev. Traci Blackmon, Pastor, Christ the King United Church of Christ, Dr. Sales organized a radical revival and teach-in to train religious leaders to undergird youth leadership.
Hip-hop generation organizers, activists, and artists stood alongside Ferguson activists. Rappers Talib Kweli, Jasiri X, David Banner and J Cole were among those who paid their respects at Mike Brown’s memorial and marched in the streets with the people. Former Green Party Vice Presidential candidate Rosa Clemente, poet Jessica Care Moore, activist Carmen Perez and organizer Thenjiwe McHarris worked diligently to highlight young women’s voices whose keen insight on gender politics will only strengthen their movement. These women represent a dramatic shift from the male centered clergy and agendas, thereby broadening the perspective of young activists on the inherent link between domestic and state violence. Queer activists and organizers Darnell Moore and Patrisse Cullors co-organized the Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride over Labor Day weekend. Over 500 riders from across the country left determined to confront state violence and repression in all it’s forms—while pushing the Black community to confront homophobic and gendered violence.
Many brave people, named and unnamed, took to West Florissant Avenue and confronted raw state power. They continue to protest and press the state to acknowledge their humanity. Their refusal to line up behind traditional leadership and police tanks has ushered in a new era of black leadership that refuses to bow down. This new generation has an intersectional analysis, grassroots legitimacy, intergenerational connections, social media savvy, and above all prophetic rage. They are willing to risk life and limb for the project of freedom. Indeed old things have passed away.