Not a moment, but a movement

October 13, 2014

Trish Kahle reports from St. Louis as thousands gathered for protests, action and organizing to carry on the struggle for justice for Mike Brown and so many others.

"WE LOST another brother to the beast. His name was Vonderrit Myers."

St. Louis activist and hip-hop artist Tef Poe was addressing a crowd of thousands who converged on St. Louis for Ferguson October--a four-day-long organizing summit scheduled to coincide with the two-month anniversary of the murder of Mike Brown, gunned down on the streets of Ferguson on August 9 by yet-to-be-arrested police officer Darren Wilson.

The culmination was an October 11 march that brought an estimated 3,000 people to downtown St. Louis. With contingents ranging from student and youth groups, to international solidarity activists, to union members, the crowd showed the diversity and determination of the movement against racism and police violence that re-emerged after Mike Brown's murder.

The demonstration gained a new urgency just a few days earlier--when St. Louis police killed another African American youth: Vonderrit Myers, who like Mike Brown, was only 18 years old when his life ended in a hail of police bullets.

Thousands of people came to St. Louis for Ferguson October to continue the struggle against police violence
Thousands of people came to St. Louis for Ferguson October to continue the struggle against police violence (Bob Simpson)

Myers had just bought a sandwich at a Shaw Market convenience store in South St. Louis when he was confronted, chased and shot down by an off-duty St. Louis police officer. The officer--still unnamed and, like Darren Wilson, now on paid administrative leave--fired 17 shots at Myers, emptying his clip. Myers was struck between five and seven times.

That night and after, there were confrontations with police in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis, even as protests continued in Ferguson, a dozen miles to the north.

Myers was the third Black man killed by police in St. Louis County in two months--and like the lies they told about Mike Brown and the excuses they made for the shooting of Kajieme Powell a few weeks later, police were quick to spin the story of Myers's death. In fact, they were spinning so fast, they couldn't get their story straight.

In some accounts, Myers was supposed to have turned and shot at the officer while running away. Lt. Col. Alfred Adkins then claimed that, no, Myers had actually ambushed the officer from behind a bush--except there are no bushes on the street where the "ambush" was supposed to have happened. In yet another version, given by St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Chief Sam Dotson, claimed Myers had approached the officer in "an aggressive manner, and the officer told Myers to surrender," before "struggling" with him.

Pastor Willie Kilpatrick, speaking for the family, set the record straight during the October 11 rally in downtown St. Louis: "Our son was not involved in a shooting with the police. The police shot him. There wasn't a 'shootout.' There was one shooter. That shooter was the police officer who shot him six times."

The convenience store owner who had sold Myers a sandwich backed up the contention of the family: "Like six minutes after I sold him the sandwich, he got shot," Berhe Beyet told a Los Angeles Times reporter, "He wasn't armed when he was here."

THE FERGUSON October convergence, which had been planned for weeks, took on new significance after Vonderrit Myers' killing--and in the aftermath of an escalating struggle to win justice for John Crawford, who was gunned down by police in Beavercreek, Ohio, in the aisles of a Walmart, where he had picked up a toy gun.

The urgency of the fight against police terrorism was expressed by almost every speaker at the rally, and was the topic of almost every conversation. "I'm going to do like Stokely Carmichael," a youth organizer explained to the crowd. "We must organize, organize and organize."

Among the other questions on everybody's minds is what it will take to force the authorities to hold someone accountable for these murders. "We've been out here for 64 days," Tef Poe said. That's how long it's been since Mike Brown was killed--"and not a single person, not a single individual has been held accountable," Poe said.

Cheyenne Green, a young organizer from St. Louis, spoke for many among the protesters in expressing anger about the double standards of the criminal justice system. "I've been arrested three times," Green said, "and I've spent more time in jail than Darren Wilson. That's ridiculous. And so we're here under this arch, and we're not going anywhere until they stop killing us. And they will stop killing us."

Activists from around the country echoed the Missouri organizers. Marshawn McCarrel, a student organizer from Ohio who helped lead the occupation of the Beavercreek Police Department earlier this month to demand justice for John Crawford, told the crowd: "There's one rule in power and that's that power has to be visible. Let's let them know that they can't just do whatever they want with our lives and our bodies."

That power was visible on Saturday, as people converged on the downtown for the march and rally. A number of contingents packed Keiner Plaza: youth and student organizations, a Palestinian delegation and, critically, a strong showing from the labor movement, and the Fight for 15 struggle in particular. Nurses staffed a first aid station, and day care workers operated an activity tent for young children, so their parents could participate in the multiple organizing meetings that followed the main rally.

The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists came out strongly in support of the protests. Mark Esters, vice president of the St. Louis chapter of CBTU, remarked, "If we believe in the democratic process, then we have to say that this is what democracy looks like."

A strong showing by the Palestine2Ferguson contingent strengthened the already powerful bond between Missouri protesters and Palestinian solidarity--a connection born instinctively when the video footage of police repression of Ferguson demonstrations matched the images of Israeli soldiers cracking down on Palestinians.

As Suhad Khatib of the Palestine Solidarity Committee said, "Palestinians and Palestinian allies have traveled from all over the country to be with you today in unqualified solidarity because we recognize that none of us is free until all of us are free...and because we know that Black liberation in this country will lead to the liberation for all. This is our freedom summer, and we will win."

LOW-WAGE workers from the Fight for 15 struggle have traveled to Ferguson from across the Midwest over the past two months to show solidarity.

To Tyree Johnson, who has worked at a Chicago McDonald's for 21 years, the connection between the fight for a living wage and the struggle against police terror is clear. "We can never back down from anything--can never stop until we have justice," he said. "How can we have our $15 an hour if we can't have justice? That's why justice for Mike Brown and $15 minimum wage are the two most important things on my mind right now."

For many of the youth and low-wage workers gathered at the rally, poverty wages are yet another mechanism to devalue their lives.

Fast-food workers organizing with Show Me $15 in Nashville, Tenn., convinced Bobbie Love to make the five-hour bus trip to St. Louis for the march. She had been keeping up with the Ferguson protests via Twitter, but had yet to get involved herself. She said her experience on Saturday showed her "that people's hearts and minds have been in the right place but we have to do something about it." Upon returning to Nashville, she plans to start an organization with her friends to organize young people to fight racism.

Speakers evoked the urgency for spreading organization by referencing the legacy of civil rights movement leader Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture. Montague Simmons, a leader of the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS), based in St. Louis, put it this way:

This moment only becomes a movement because of you. Stokely had it right: You don't do this without organization. You can't do this as an individual. You can't do this by yourself. If you're from here, there's OBS and other organizations on the ground to join. If you're not from here, and there's an organization in your city, you must join it. If there's not one in your city, you must start one.

If this moment is going to become more, it takes you getting organized and activated, and it takes every one of you in the streets...We've got to make the cost of Black life too high for them to take it.

AT ONE point during the rally, four men lifted a casket made from mirrors to their shoulders and walked from the plaza, chanting, "You shoot us down, we shut shit down." They were headed toward the police station, and hundreds of people followed them. Soon, we filled the street.

When we reached a broad intersection, the pallbearers stopped, and the marchers gathered around the coffin. "We're going to have four and a half minutes of silence," one of the men carrying the coffin said. "One minute for each hour they left Mike Brown's body laying in the street."

Hundreds of people remained completely silence for the four and a half minutes, but even without sound, the air was filled with anger. While many protesters had their hands raised in the gesture associated with the "hands up, don't shoot" slogan, many also had their fists raised. A few people looked to the ground, but most kept their heads up, and the moment become one of connection as well as reflection.

When the minutes of silence were up, a young man walked to the front and began to chant, "You can't stop the revolution!" The chant carried for a block, until the police station came into view. The march went silent once again and proceeded past a line of police officers--all white--guarding the station.

The protesters are demanding that the city investigate the killers on their police force, rather than slander the people killed by them. Pastor Carlton Lee, the president of the Ferguson chapter of the National Action Network, says local officials have it backwards. "The mayor of this city is afraid of what the police unions and the police officers may do if he institutes police review boards," Lee said. "But he should be afraid of what we will do if he doesn't."

In front of the station doors, victims of police violence and relatives spoke out. The first was Toni Taylor, the mother of Cary Ball Jr., who was murdered by St. Louis police in April 2013. Ball was an honor roll student at a local community college with a 3.86 GPA--on the day of his funeral, he was supposed to be receiving an honor at a ceremony for emerging scholars. But days before, police gunned him down, shooting him 25 times, even though his hands were in the air.

Taylor described the torture the police inflicted on her family. No one notified her of her son's death. "I saw his corpse on the news," she said. "I had to be the one to call the police station."

When she went down to the station, they refused to let her see her son's body. Instead, they told her to take two hours and "get some breakfast." In the end, she was not allowed to see her son's body until his casket was opened at the funeral. Later, police taunted Taylor, turning their sirens on while driving past her, rolling down the window, and saying "Hi mom."

"They think it's a game, they think it's a joke," Taylor told the crowd, who chanted back in anger.

Speaker after speaker told horrifying stories: about being forced into gladiator-style fights at the city's workhouse, about having the police follow them for no reason, about being harassed so much by cops for going into certain areas of the city that better jobs are closed off to them.

K. Walker, a 20-year-old woman from St. Louis, described the anguish that takes a particular toll on Black women, something that is too often missing from discussions about police terror:

You work hard to get something, and you don't see your kids. Or you work hard, and then you lose your kids. I'm very familiar with [Toni Taylor's] son because I saw the posters last year, and no one paid attention to her son being killed. I go to work 11 to 7 every night, and I never see my son--he's four. I'm so hopeless for him...

It's so heartbreaking. Her son made it to college. I know she thought she made it, that she was done. That's the happiest thing, that's what we wait for. And then it got taken away anyway.

I MET Michael Nelson, a Ferguson resident and a participant in the protests, outside the kitchen where his twin brother works.

When I ask him about the class composition of a particular suburb, his response is telling. "It's not wealthy," he says. "It's Black." Poverty and race go together in his mind, and everyone else's.

Nelson described how everyday policing, even when it doesn't result in cold-blooded murder, keeps the African American community in St. Louis poor. "The cops pull you over for everything, and they give you a ticket," he says. "But the ticket is always due on the first of the month, and no one can pay it then. You have to pay rent. So then they issue a warrant, and they can take you to jail and tow your car. Then you have to pay even more money to get the car out."

Such experiences are consistent with the statistics--for example, African Americans are 86 percent of the drivers stopped for traffic infractions even though they are about 63 percent of the driving population. Put the two together, and you have what Michael Nelson aptly describes as a well-oiled system for stealing money from the Black population of Ferguson.

K. Walker made sure to tell us that it wasn't only the police who made day-to-day life unbearable--it was also the system the police represented:

Even when I try and work hard, I can't make it. When you go to work, you have to pretend to be something you're not if you're going to the white man's job. Then, when your real personality comes out, they say, "Oh, it's not working out."

I just went out and tried to apply for welfare, and they said no because I make over $600 [a month]. I made $605 that month. And I pay $600 in rent.

I'm 20, and if I look up to someone who's 35 and think they made it, but they didn't. They don't have nothing. They're still struggling. There's so much more we should have been protesting about. The only work we can get is where? A fast-food restaurant. You can't make it doing that.

Being Black is more than race. It means you have no place in this world. We don't even own anything. People tell us to work hard, but we work hard, and we got nothing.

BUT IF life in St. Louis demonstrates the structural inequalities and daily degradations that characterize racism in the U.S., a member of the Palestinian contingent at the Saturday rally gave voice to another truth: "The people of Ferguson are the heartbeat of resistance, not just in this country, but all over the world."

Tef Poe, the St. Louis hip-hop artist, wanted everyone to know that the people in Ferguson are just like everyone else. "When this situation happened, we were just regular people," he said. "We didn't know what had to be done, but we knew something had to be done."

Those same "regular people" have learned something about themselves: Unified, they are capable of important things--standing together in the face of a highly militarized police force that carried out an assault on them and their rights, night after night; building organizations in the face of that repression, organizing a successful national convergence in a matter of weeks.

As darkness fell on Ferguson Saturday night after the rally, people gathered at the shrine to Mike Brown in the middle of Canfield Street, up in Ferguson. The residents have rebuilt it since cops watched it burn down in late September.

While the demonstrations in Ferguson have continued every night, this Saturday's is particularly important: The family of Michael Brown will be leading it. More than 1,000 protesters line up behind them for the two-mile march to the police station.

On the way, we pass the darkened, high-security parking lot where the Ferguson police have parked their armored trucks and other military-grade equipment. Soon, a debate erupts about whether or not to proceed all the way to the police station, particularly because there are so many young children in the crowd--and obviously, the police can't be trusted to restrain themselves.

When the marchers finally decide to continue on to the police station, the sense of unity is stronger than ever. People begin chanting, "This is what democracy looks like"--a slogan that has just become incredibly concrete for more than a thousand people, many of them new to activism.

Turning the corner onto South Florissant Street, a line of police cars waits. The marchers lift their hands and chant, "Hands up, don't shoot!" Tef Poe points out that it's important people don't confuse the hands-up gesture with surrender. "We're here to fight back," he says. "This is the front line of resistance. I heard people saying that hands up means surrender. This doesn't mean surrender. If it meant surrender, I would be at home. That's surrendering."

Michael Brown's mother stands her ground at the entrance to the police station. Then she turns around and tells everyone to sit down. Everyone sits. "Four and a half minutes of silence," she says. And for four and half minutes, there is silence as the front line of police officers shift uncomfortably.

"Get up!" she yells. The people in the crowd help each other to their feet and begin chanting, "We are all Mike Brown."

The nighttime crowd in Ferguson is almost entirely young people. Tef Poe make it clear that while they're learning from the lessons of the past, they're building a new kind of movement. "I'm not going to tell you to calm down--you got the right to be angry," he says. "I'm not going to tell you to go home--I don't want you to go home."

He turns back to face the police: "Stop killing us, motherfuckers. We don't got the guns. You got the guns. We aren't shooting at you. You're shooting at us. And we're sick and tired of it."

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