While many of the activists who have sustained the Ferguson resistance movement over the course of the past year found themselves taking on that role for the first time following the death of Mike Brown, there are also long-time freedom fighters that have played a critical role in this movement. One of them is Montague Simmons, the Executive Director of the Organization for Black Struggle, one of St. Louis’ oldest Black activist organizations. We spoke to the St. Louis native about how the past year has changed OBS and what he wishes he had done before August 9th of 2014.
EBONY: How long have you been in your position?
MS: I’ve been the chairman of OBS since 2010. I officially became the executive director January this year. I actually joined in 2004. I’ve been up here forever, I did college here. Born and raised here…And a friend of mine from college actually introduced me to the work as volunteer experience because we’d been active in college together. She knew I wanted to do something. But wasn’t sure where. Even a lot of the young people now had a real distrust of organizations but she knew Jamalah Rogers [one of the founders of OBS] and she introduced me by way of volunteering. And what I thought was going to be a volunteer experience turned into a long-term experience.
EBONY: Is this your full-time work at this point?
MS: As of January this year, yes. Before that, I was working full-time [elsewhere] actually, doing financial services. And then as I got closer to becoming the chair of the organization, the work was already kind of building and escalating and I left my job that at that point. It’s been a year of going through savings and picking up contracts where I could and hustling. OBS started last year with maybe $20,000 or $25,000, just sustaining the building, working in the field, but we never had staff. And when August 9th happened, I was actually working for a union. Working with the SEIU full-time and they were leasing me to help do the organizing from August all the way thru the end of the year.
EBONY: What was the day-to-day work of OBS like prior to August 9th?
MS: Prior to August 9th honestly, a lot of it was making sense of the terrain. During that period, a large focus of our work around police issues had been concentrated in [the City of St. Louis] in part because in the city it’s easier. You have literally one target in the St. Louis Police Department. Governmental structures that are easy to navigate and you know who’s accountable to whom. Versus in [St. Louis] County, as we all learned this fraction because there’s multiple municipalities. There’s not a line of accountability for the work and what it means to be police throughout the county. So you may run into Pine Lawn, you may run into Jennings, you may run into Ferguson and you may run into the County police and all those are separate institutions.
For us, organizing against that was much deeper and would be a much more long-term project. So I, had been confronting police issues in the City which took the place of one long-term campaign for civilian oversight review. We just actually got that passed. Before that, there was a campaign to bring local control of the police back to the City. The St. Louis City police had actually been in control by the state since the Civil War. So we returned the power of the police control.
Another side of the work was on economic justice. So when August 9th found us, we’d just completed a recent canvassing project, where we were looking at all the dilapidated and abandoned housings and abandoned lots. It connected back to crime. It connected back to the way police were showing up. It connected back to the way youth existed. Because I want to say there’s close to 2,000 abandoned houses just in this area and about half as many abandoned lots and most of them are owned. The owners are not really taking the responsibility.
Some of the other work had been really economic justice work. We did a lot of work with the “5 for 15” Campaign. There were recent pushes to increase minimum wage and put caps on payday loans, we supported that and then underneath OBS was Sisters Talking Back, a lot of gender justice work. And we also have a youth organization. It’s a separate non-profit institution but it has the same timeline. It’s been around just as long as OBS, the Youth Council for Positive Development meets every Saturday, and they’ve been cultivating youth for years. By both doing education and I know they’ve been working specifically on some policy engagement over the last few years as well. So it’s enough work but there’s never enough of us to do the work that needs to be done.
EBONY: Has your membership grown since August 9th?
MS: It has. We’ve recruited some folks, some of them have stayed around. Some of them haven’t. We’ve got a lot of new folks that are very interested in the stuff that has been happening directly in Ferguson and a lot more that are still rooted in what’s been happening in the city. The active membership we have right now is somewhere between 60 and 100. We’ve still got our supporter base which is probably exponentially even more than that.
EBONY: Where were you when you found out that this young man had been killed? And at what point did OBS become officially involved?
MS: On August 9th, [members of OBS] were actually downstairs in like the main room of our community center… we started getting reports about what was happening and we had someone who was actually living in Jennings at the time, which is adjacent to Ferguson. She went over there and she began to report back more and more of what was going on. Then, later that night, we got a call…So we went up there and some other OBS members were already up on the scene and, as the evening wore on, close to 200 or so people showed up. That was also the first night I met Tory Russell from Twitter and we were talking about what was going on and he pushed to actually get in the police station to talk to folks…the chief of police had made a promise that he would talk to folks but he snuck out of the building without talking to anyone…we came back the next day and that next day…With people still agitated, we started organizing actions in Ferguson and Clayton. From then on, we’ve been in it. I think right after the Clayton action is when we really did put a call out for folks…By this time, the events that happened on West Florissant had already taken place. The first wave of the destruction that happened, the police responses were intensifying.
We had to get organized. We were trying to figure out how, since none of us have that experience, besides Jamala. She grew up in Kansas City, and she had experienced something similar in her childhood. But as an organizer, that wasn’t anything that I had any direction in… So we did outreach to people we’d been working with and we started coordinating…The beautiful thing was the people kept coming. Every time we had action, more and more people showed up, and they were willing to act, to be organized and to press strategically and that had been unprecedented. The year before that, Cary Ball, Jr. had been shot 20 some odd times in the street and we were lucky if we could get 30 people out for any given event. So to see that kind of response was amazing.
EBONY: There are some activists who believe you cant work within the political system, and some who believe that change can only come via voting and policy. It seems like OBS is somewhere in the middle.
MS: OBS has always been that way. Our practice has always been “as above, so below.” We knew that in order to bring some substantial political change, you have to actually find some ways to move the system. Especially when we’re talking about transforming individual people and their perspective. For most people, the most direct way they can express their power outside the system is to either vote or find ways to participate. But at the same time we also recognize that if the system is rigged against you, that you have to build and transform an external to that system. And that’s always been the analysis, it’s like even though we all are studying revolutionary and transformative theory and trying to apply it and build alternative systems, that doesn’t mean we exist outside of it. And we recognize the fact that if you’re actually inside a system you can’t mute the effect by designing something external to it. Especially if you don’t have the capacity to fully replace it. So our track has always been that we want revolutionary change, we want transformation but part of that transformation has to actually it means getting people activated to actually express the political power they have while we’re building the system that we actually want.
That’s been one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had. And there are some folks that, like you said, not only don’t want to vote but believe in a whole divorce from the political system. Don’t get me wrong, I aspire for full self-determination and that’s something that we’re fighting for. But at the same time, when you sit under the boot of the folks waging war against your community, you can’t concede that field.
EBONY: So would you ever consider running for political office?
MS: No. I think the power always lies with the people. So in terms of fundamental change, I’d like to be there and I think they can hold me accountable from there. I worry with the current political system, as it is that it’s almost impossible to be inside it without being corrupted by it. The influence of money and corporate power—let alone military institutional power—upon it makes it very difficult to operate effectively and to get real change…I would like to believe that we can kind of build some kind of parallel system of accountability before even thinking about getting in there…Now, if they deploy me at some point after we’ve achieved that, then I’ll serve where I’m needed. But right now I don’t see it it’s very hard for me to even grasp what it would be like for me to even function in that way.
EBONY: To what extent has OBS supported individual political candidates?
MS: We’ve endorsed candidates before, we’ve actually even had a member elected as a City committee person…We’ve actually been involved, but we just don’t believe you will find any salvation in political office. You can find accountability there, but we can strategically push for legislation by strategically applying power in our accountability to people. You can get some things done but that system’s not going to rescue us. That’s not where it’s going to happen, it’s going to have to be outside of those offices.
EBONY: What do you think about African-American police officers?
MS: It’s not just a situation where you have a few bad apples, it’s a situation where you’ve got a corrupt tree. We don’t have a tree where we can actually effectively groom people who can be accountable to the community or specifically the black community the way we need them to be. And don’t get me wrong, we’re actually in a relationship with some black officers. In the City, we work with the Ethical Society Police for years pushing for accountability… But there’s still part of the institution [of law enforcement] that’s fully out of the relationship with the community. When they’re deployed, they’re not deployed in response usually to robbery or abuse, they’re deployed to identify, to detain and in many cases oppress people and protect property. They’re not actually deployed to provide safety for our people…Safety is in shifting that budget that you just set up for the police department to deal with the heroin epidemic, it’s shifting it to the Department of Health or the Department of Social Services. It’s a very different thinking about what safety has to be in our community. And just putting more black people in there isn’t enough because unfortunately they get in those departments and see that there is a dissonance between their value systems and the way that they’re being forced to practice usually they part ways. One of our most valued allies has been Redditt Hudson [a national organizer for the NAACP.] He’s a former police officer. Part of the reason he left was because of the brutality that he witnessed directly on the job.
EBONY: What sort of systems can we develop to sustain or keep our communities safe so that we don’t have to call the police when something happens?
MS: I think the most basic responses is a ‘cop watch’ program. Having our own system to be able to see what’s happening in there. But I don’t think it stops with just recording, I think it has to take another step in terms of really identifying who those officers are, tracking where they are so even when they don’t know who fired the shot, we have enough data to say “At this time, Officer X is on patrol, it’s Tuesday he should’ve been there it would’ve been him that responded and if it wasn’t him, he can tell us who did”…We also have to begin developing our own emergency response teams so that we’re just not always calling 911 for everything. We can do de-escalation, we can do conflict resolution on our own without having to interact so often with police.
EBONY: Does OBS have any sort of plans for de-escalation or emergency response programs?
MS: Not just with OBS, [the] Don’t Shoot [Coalition] has actually been doing some of the training on de-escalation. We’ve been thinking about what conflict resolution theory could look like and how it could potentially be applied. We’d have to actually find a community that wants to do it.
EBONY: Do you know of a community that has successfully sustained something like that? A program where, say, I’m the mother of a mentally challenged son or I overhear my neighbors beating his girlfriend and I’m afraid if I call the police how they will escalate, and I can call on this group instead.
MS: I know they’ve been experimenting with systems like that in Jackson, Mississippi under the program Cooperation Jackson.
EBONY: If you could say anything to Mike Brown what would it be?
MS:I wish we could’ve done this earlier. I wish we’d been in the streets before August 9th. I feel like I failed Mike Brown, because I walked the same streets he did. I went to the same high school, the same junior high and dealt with the same persecution before it ever touched him. And I fault myself for not finding ways to resist more thoroughly, for not agitating other folks ambition to resist in light of these systems before it got to him.