Missouri continues to be the epicenter of a burgeoning civil rights movement that is also taking hold across the country. In the two months since police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, and in the wake of the October police shooting of Vonderitt Myers Jr. in the city of St. Louis, Missouri has been the site for marches, protests, and defiant acts of civil disobedience. These events not only draw attention to the stark injustice surrounding Brown and Myers’s deaths. They also underscore the ongoing potential for collective action to combat the systemic racism that supports and promotes this state-sanctioned violence.
These protests also highlight the powerful rebirth of a contemporary civil rights movement, lead by fearless youth of color. And this “new” civil rights movement is one that borrows from the past, while also boldly forging a new path into the future.
Earlier this month, there was a powerful “weekend of resistance,” which saw acts of civil disobedience across Greater St. Louis. For example, more than 1000 peaceful protestors shut down an intersection by silently marching and playing children’s games such as jump rope, before staging a sit-in at St. Louis University. Protestors also occupied three Walmarts in the St. Louis metropolitan area in protest of the shooting death of unarmed Walmart shopper John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio.
Next was “Moral Monday March and Day of Civil Disobedience.” Echoing the work of the Moral Mondays Movement that has taken root across the south, activists and faith leaders from across a variety groups and organizations came together in peaceful protest, marching from a local church to the Ferguson Police Department in hopes of sharing their demands with the police chief Tom Jackson. They called for an indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown. They also marched in protest of the rampant police violence that is a scourge in communities across the nation, asking for body cams to be standard issue gear for police. Finally, the protestors called for repentance from law enforcement while faith leaders “created a sacred space to hear confessions.”
Rev. Jim Wallis noted that this invitation to repentance is “not just about admitting wrongdoing but also committing to making changes that prevent further harm from being done, and there has not even been any admitting of wrongdoing yet by any of the powers that be in Ferguson.”
However, the local law enforcement was not yet ready to atone for their sins. Instead, the protestors were met with police officers geared up for battle in riot gear, armed with pepper spray and batons.
Scholar-activist Cornel West marched in solidarity with group, vowing that he was “not here to give a speech.” Instead he claimed he was there “to get arrested.” And arrested he was, alongside dozens of other clergy, including Rev. Jim Wallis and Pastor Michael McBride, director of PICO National Network’s Live Free campaign, and youth activists after Ferguson’s Moral Monday March.
While the arrest of powerful frontline allies such as West, Wallis, and McBride is significant, the fact remains that much of the activist work on the ground is being done by young people in Ferguson, by millenials sometimes dismissed because of their youth and seeming inexperience by a civil rights vanguard that appears increasingly out of touch with the pulse of today’s generation.
These youth leaders are open to intergenerational coalitions, but are also unafraid to challenge their elders, especially when pressed to rely on methods that seem outdated, at best, and certainly ineffective for the specific concerns of today. For example, tensions were clear at an interfaith rally at St. Louis University this past Sunday. Several young people in attendance bristled at what they saw as the timeworn platitudes that were being offered instead of plans of action that would amount to significant change. Rev. Traci Blackmon noted that, “We have been fooled all these years into thinking that when a few get through the doors all is well. Our generation has been guilty of confusing access with ownership.” The youth at the frontline of Ferguson recognize that access and ownership are not the same and are actively agitating for systemic change that would mandate accountability for law enforcement.
The youth of today are seeking new ways to achieve the perennial goal of liberation for all people. They are collaborating with experienced leaders, but are also spearheading a movement that reflects the realities of life today. They are changing the face of civil disobedience and reigniting the spark of revolution.