Rosemary Rivera’s Final Message from Ferguson, MO

According to Wikipedia, the official Missouri state motto is “Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto”, Latin for “Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.  This is ironic after the week I spent in what some call the “Bible Belt” and others call “Brick City” due to all the beautiful brick homes.  With more than 80% of the population being White and only about 11% of the population being African American, I guess that motto is only meant for the majority of the residents of Missouri.

Missouri is a beautiful state.  The brick homes are beautiful and the city and surrounding areas seem pretty clean to me.  Yet despite these facades, there is a sense of desperation witnessed in most poor communities.  You witness this predominantly in the counties as the mix of people in terms of socio-economic backgrounds and race covers the desperation.

The “Bible belt” is an apt name as the most tough and rough still seem to have a strong faith that allows them to feel that no matter what, everything will be all right.  I personally feel conflicted about that.  The lull of the promise of a future in the after life while also thinking that everything is “meant to be” kind of a pre-determined destiny because that is the way “He” wants it.  I am not knocking faith, I think it is beautiful, but I have subscribed to the mantra that faith without action is dead.  Yet in Missouri, what I felt is that monumental action is necessary.

Missouri is a state with 91 counties, according to the political establishment I spoke with (Wikipedia says there are 114).  Each county has its own police, government, etc.  Ferguson itself is a really small community.  It made me think that consolidation might need to happen here.  It is also a purple state.  It has a Democratic Governor and a Republican Lt. Governor.  The state legislature is dominated by Republicans and it seems that most Dems can sell out in a moment’s notice.  One particular billionaire, Rex Sinquefield has ties to almost every politician.  Rex

is a man who wants local control of the police.  He is someone who supports the charter school movement, and also someone who a lot of people, including the Democratic politicians, work for directly.  That has led to some distrust from the people. Some of the residents expressed to me that the Democrats have sold them out with a stroke of a pen due to the big money interests and ties to the wealthy like Rex Sinquefield.

Democratic Governor Nixon has not handled the situation of the killing of Mike Brown and the racial tension in his state very well.  Missouri is a state that uses capital punishment. On September 10th, they are putting another man to death and yet, the Governor stays strong in his support of capital punishment and his lack of support for those who suffer first hand from police aggression. They have executed 9 men, one a month, in the last nine months. First of all, Nixon is termed out so he is apparently not trying to make too many waves.  On top of that he pulled a fast one.

The Don’t Shoot Coalition is the local coalition working on the issues arising out of the Mike Brown case.  (The national coalition is called Hands Up United).  Anyway, this coalition called a press conference to ask that the prosecutor, Bob McCulloch step down and an independent special investigator be assigned to the case in order for there to be a chance for justice.  Although he had the power, through executive order, to remove him, he rescinded this power in order to now say, his hands are tied.  Overall, the Governor is not doing very well in handling racism in his state.  He is, and should be, a constant target for those working on this.

The progressive organizations of Missouri seem to be a lot like the ones we are all comfortable and aware of.  The only one that seems really different to me is Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE).  I sat down with Jeff Ordower, the Director of MORE and what they have is actually an organizational experiment in the making.  They are helping to set up more progressive organizations, have steered away from the constraints of being worried about themselves, and are very clear on what the risks are, but figure something different needs to be done.  I was impressed with Jeff from MORE.  I was also impressed with the chair of the Organization for Black Struggle, Montegue.  Montegue is someone who is in high demand, remains humble, and keeps at it because the established organizations know that he is in a good position to be the lead in this moment.  Although OBS has been around a while, it seems that they have been more of a club than anything else…that is until now. Things changed when Mike Brown was killed and OBS was propelled into the spotlight as an organization that deals with Black people and its struggles. They were the authentic voice although had not gotten much traction prior to this.  MORE was able to raise enough money so that they now have a full time organizer.  More also has been able to provide stipends to some of the leadership they have seen rise from this crisis.  We have a lot to see happen with OBS and I look forward to it.  They are strategic, their youth are ready for the fight, and I think they are well respected.

Ferguson is in for a real challenge.  It seems that all movements are born from crisis, but this is one crisis that can easily escalate. What is on everyone’s mind is what will happen if the court system comes back without an indictment also called a “no bill”.  I can tell you right now, jail support is going to need a lot of bail money if that is the case.  My only hope is that the violence doesn’t escalate to the point that more lives are lost.  In October, the nation will once again turn it’s attention to Ferguson.  it seems clear that there is energy and a desire for a national convergence on Ferguson.  The grand jury is expected to make a determination by mid-October so in response Ferguson is calling for a mass convergence the weekend of October 11th to keep the pressure on.  They are calling on all organizations to send folks down so if you would like to participate or know an organization willing to do so, please contact me.

While Mike Brown, the unarmed youth whose last words were, “Please don’t shoot” is only one instance.   Many of you haven’t heard of Kajiem Powell.  This was another black man that was killed on August 20th, about four miles from where Michael Brown was murdered.  The police made some proclamations and although the young man did have a knife, a recent video of the killing makes it clear that the police once again mishandled the situation and actually lied..  The guy was shot about 12 times and after seeing that he was dead, turned his body over and tried to handcuff him.  To see the video, please go here (insert later).  Please note that many think that his statements of, “Shoot me now” were in direct response to the activity that was happening with Mike Brown.  I bet he really didn’t think they would actually shoot him.

The reality is that the police in St. Luis with a population that is predominantly white, is out of control.  The race issue is out of control.  I have been involved with countless peaceful protests and have not experienced the kind of hostility I saw there.  Now let me tell share some examples through anecdotes I heard and some that I witnessed:

On Wednesday, the Lost Voices, a group of youth who are keeping the visibility up, did an event called “Shut it down” inviting the community to come sleep in tents with them to help keep the moment alive.  The response was really good and even the Senator, Maria Chappele-Nadal, joined us.  The next day we had group discussions that were really heartfelt and as real as I will ever experience.  During that discussion we found out from the Senator that the youth would be evicted the next day.  The youth had a decision to make.  Do they deal with the police and use it as a strategic move to call more attention to the cause or do they avoid the police and move their location.  The youth decided to move.  They didn’t want to deal with the police.  These youth march every night at 7pm down W. Florissant.  Nothing new.  They have been doing so everyday without cameras, simply because it is the right thing to do.  Now since they decided to move, the police came to the march that night and why did they arrest two of the youth.  One for “Manner of Walking”  something that I hadn’t heard of before.  Of course my response was, “I guess you were walking with too much swag!”  We looked up the charge and you are not supposed to get arrested for it.  You are supposed to get a ticket.  The police were overly aggressive and the woman I stayed with asked, “Is this normal?”  Apparently so.

Here are other examples.

  • Police throwing bananas at residents and telling them to go home when they were protesting.
  • Police tasered a young lady (she is from the new Black Panters) and no one did a thing to stop it when she was simply trying to cross the street with her sign.
  • Community members who refused to serve the youth and pointed to me and said, “If the white lady wants something, she can get it but the rest of you have to go.” (I was there and it still drives me nuts). What happened is that we went to get something to eat. The man at the register quoted a price that seemed to high. Dante, one of the spokespersons of the Lost Voices, took out his calculator and asked the man to give him the price for each item. The man refused. Dante told him it was his constitutional right to know how much he was paying for each item. The man in turn said, “NO, that is 12 items. Why don’t you all leave, but if the white lady wants to buy something, then she can.”
  • Feguson Brew House.  Lost Voices went in to get some drinks.  They asked for Bud Light and were told they didn’t have any.  They asked for other beers and told they didn’t have any. Finally they asked for water and the establishment told them they didn’t have any.  The youth decided to tweet about it and Ferguson Brew House decided to take it upon themselves to bring the youth lunch.  The youth denied it and told them they had wanted to spend their own money and now that they were confronted with their racism they thought they would be bought by lunch?  Yeah. Right.
  • Police responding to a complaint that someone;s house was broken into.  The woman, an African American named Alice, was interrogated and although she was at work, they decided that she must have set this up for insurance money and threatened to arrest her.  Clearly, even when you are in your home and the victim, you are subject to being under suspicion and accused of committing a crime.
  • A pregnant woman was taken to jail when 8 months preganant for assaulting a police officer.  They said she “ran and jumped” on the police officer’s back, when she could barely walk and her stomach was too big to jump on anyone! (we were able to get her a lawyer from the St. Luis University thank goodness)

But for the organizing community, the established organizations, I have one question:  Who are the disenfranchised you say your helping.  At the end of the day, the truly marginalized are going to go back to a very bleak situation and if they, for lack of education, or because of the way they look, cannot change, then they are stuck   Are we a movement of the elite left?  The articulate, the strategists, the ones who know best?  Do we lock out and impose our issues and our thinking of HOW you need to get things done. Some of the long time activists and organizers who understand strategy and what it takes to move the movement, sought to build bridges with groups like the Lost Voices. Groups that do have the directly affected on the frontlines are successful at growing the leadership, and there was some of that going on in Ferguson. There is some ageism, classism, and educational elitism that happens within the progressive left and we aren’t calling it out enough. ‘

This is why I love the organization I work with, Citizen Action of New York. If we lose some of the middle class because they are too uncomfortable with the people we are bringing in from communities of color, well so be it. We are transforming ourselves to do the hard work. We get the people who are really affected to do action.

There are certain basic elements of organizing that hold true no matter what campaign and what movement, but they don’t all look alike.  So, back to the Lost Voices, let me give a clear example.  Without any “official” training, these kids got 500 flyers printed out and had them all distributed in hours.  They are the ones with the visible voter registration table.  They are the ones who continue to march daily to keep the momentum alive.  They are the ones who figured out how to build a structure, who decided to give roles to their members, and figured out that people were ripping them off.  They trust none of the establishment.  They claim that they only come when the cameras are around (particularly faith leaders despite the fact that they all have such strong faith).  They figure all of this was happening way before Mike Brown was shot and that the established organizations turned a blind eye and allowed things to get to this point while they only enriched themselves and created power for themselves.

Do we benefit when established organizations have a victory that affects us?  Yes.  Are the established organizations needed?  Yes.  Are they creating space for those who don’t look like them, don’t act like them, and are really the directly affected?  Sometimes.

The movements of the past will no longer come again.  We won’t have another civil rights movement the way it looked in the 60’s.  .  That was a tipping point with a different kinds of leaders.  I bet that during that time there were people who doubted them as well, who thought they knew better than the Malcolm X, the Panthers and even Dr. King.  They were probably many who were judgemental of them at the time.  This new movement might be full of tatted up youth busting a sag and hip hop blaring.  Perhaps if we can put aside our own differences and see the value that each organization, person, crew, whatever brings, we might be in a better position to have a united front.  But, we have a long way to go before we sleep…a really long way, and I only hope I have enough stamina to take the journey.

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