Interviews from an Uprising, by Sarah Coffey
This essay appears in the current print edition of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, N. 28 on Justice, available from AK Press here.
In the United States, the cops and the courts are essentially the same thing. Witness Ferguson, Missouri, 2014, a typical but nonetheless shocking systemic failure of justice—starting with the execution of an unarmed 18 year old Black man by a police officer, escalating into a secret trial manufactured to protect the killer by a cop-loving prosecutor1, culminating in a military exercise in the modern police state with more felony prosecutions than any protest scenario in the last 20 years2.(by Jacob Crawford)
In the Ferguson/St. Louis3 area and across the country, people are pushing back against the systems of injustice and white supremacy that maintain societal control in the hands of the powerful few. Because the issues underlying the tragedy of August 9th go to the heart of systemic oppression in the US, the popular response has broad implications for the political future of the country.
In St. Louis, the spirit of the movement continues to be as deep as it is broad. From what I’ve seen in the last six months on the ground, the young people and people in the streets aren’t looking for a charismatic leader to guide them, nor do they prioritize electoral politics, despite the best efforts of pre-existing, established organizations or Hollywood4 to “educate” them. The uprising in St. Louis has given us a glimpse through a window of opportunity to substantially change the order of things in the US.
Through interviews with people in the St. Louis/Ferguson area who have fought on every level to bring justice for Mike Brown, we reflect on what justice means in a society where police kill with impunity, courts are partial to the white and rich, and prisons overflow with black and brown bodies. Another key point of reflection is how a national movement led by radical people of color can put strategic weight on the side of a paradigm shift in how power operates globally. As we’ve seen demonstrated by signs of life popping off like synapses firing in different parts of the country weekly after Mike Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths—young, radical, authentic community leadership is omnipresent.
(by Sarah Coffey)
Fertile moments like this can give birth to new ideas, at a time when our national psyche is ripe for change. Many people don’t trust the police or the government and are tired of symbolic protest, empty reforms, and sellout politicians5. In addition, communication through the Internet has facilitated mass mobilization, dissemination of accurate information and foiled some of the patented state controls that are traditionally used to contain popular dissent. While directly confronting the militarized police state, people in St. Louis and around the globe have been doing the organizing and intellectual work of creating our own real solutions and building foundations for how we achieve praxis6 in the day to day functioning of justice in our lives.
A-1 From Day One
Abeba Lake and Jawana Wilkins are sisters by marriage and both mothers of teenage daughters. They grew up in vastly different families, but both have relative success and stability. However, both of their lives have been marred by the justice system and by poverty. Abeba’s unarmed uncle was killed during a traffic stop by a police officer, and her brother is doing 30 years in prison. Jawana came up hard, “living in cars and sleeping in vacant buildings and like that, not having water or electricity.”
I met Jawana on the street walking back to West Florissant from an event. Her voice was almost a whisper, raw and hoarse from so many consecutive days of chanting. She was carrying a sign calling out the convenience store footage of Mike Brown released by the Ferguson police the previous day in a devious attempt to bait-and-switch the public narrative. It just said, “Mike Brown is not on trial.”
Abeba and Jawana possess striking qualities, which were also suffused in the streets during those crowded early days of the uprising—the intensity of their commitment, their bright minds, their fierceness of heart, and the richness of their spirits are humbling. They not only show up day after day after day and do the work; they also lead by example.
On August 10th, they knew immediately that something was different when they went out and saw the vast number of people in the street on West Florissant. Jawana observed, “Black men get killed every day. Black kids get killed every day. Like, everybody ain’t out here just because a black kid got killed. That shit happens every fucking day.”
“Normally they do it under the shadow of dark, but this time it happened in such a bold way. To a point, we all like to think of ourselves more highly than what we are, and our situation in the most positive light as we can, especially when it comes to the situation of racism. Most white people would like to say they don’t have a racist bone in they body, which is a fucking lie.
“At one point in your life you had a racist thought or said something racist even if you didn’t know it. So that’s the same way Black people are. We recognize racism, but we don’t want to be looked at as expendable, so when they kill us, as long as they kinda do it to where we can be like, ‘Well we don’t really know what happened,’ we feel a little bit safer.” Jawana continued.
“But when it’s put in your face like this, it’s like a fight or flight reaction. It takes you back to the 60s; it takes you back to before the Civil Rights Movement when they was lynching us. Like, damn, at least we thought now we had some progress. I mean you know they still doing it, but they had to hide that shit. But when it’s like ‘I’m doing this because you not worth what I’m worth, and I’m going to do it in front of your whole community.’ How could you ignore it? It’s more than a slap in the face.”
Abeba commented, “And I’m going to leave your body out there for four hours like they did when they hung Black people.
“They assassinated him, and they put that man on display.” Jawana affirmed. “So I think that’s why it had the impact that it had—because it was harsh, vulgar, eye opening, disrespectful, shameful—just all of that in one made people react the way they did.
(by Associated Press)
“Then the numbers just got deep. There wasn’t even room for people to sit on the hood of your car driving down the street,” Abeba said, describing the wall-to-wall people and cars cruising up and down West Florissant. “There was a guy ghost-riding his whip. His car was going and he was just walking next to it. The power was in the people. We had strength in numbers. There was nothing the police could do. So I guess we was out there that day when the movement got started.”
Abeba described the deep community connection that happened in the street on August 10th, too. “We were sitting there talking to different people, people in the street praying together, there was just a bond. I’ve never seen nothing like that, no whole community just bond together like that.
“When night fell, Mike Brown’s mom walked down and we all hugged her in a circle crying, all our arms wrapped around each other. Jawana said a prayer with her. I told her, ‘Don’t stop fighting for your son.’”
“She [Leslie McSpadden] lit candles, and then she walked off. She was crying. After she walked off, it was just strangers. It was me and Jawana and this girl and this guy and we were just holding each other, crying, rubbing each other’s back. I’m not that type of person where, you know, I’m not gonna hug a stranger. But everybody was just so hurt. It felt awkward at the time, but I’ll never forget that. There was this guy rubbing your back, you know, you don’t even know him, and this girl hugging you and rubbing your back, crying.
“Then we walked out to West Florissant and walked all the way down the street to the Schnuck’s to get some water because it was so hot then, even at night. We said we ain’t buying nothing in Ferguson, we boycotting Ferguson, we weren’t going to buy anything in the municipality.”
Abeba continued, “We walked all the way down the street, and my best friend called me and was crying, and was like, ‘Where y’all at? I’m ready to go. They trippin.’ And I walked back down, and that was when I saw the dent in the police car. Then we got blocked. They came and blocked us in with the riot stuff. But even in that, there was community bonding. There was people walking up to us with Tequila 1800, “Hey sister you want this?” There was still a bond—there was nothing to fear! It was a community, ‘Eh we got this, go get this, here’s some lottery tickets, do y’all want this?’ There was no violence against one another. It was still a community bonding even through that!”
We Out Here — Copwatch
David Whitt had been living with his wife and three small children at Canfield Green for almost two years when Mike Brown was shot dead in the middle of the two lane street bisecting their apartment complex. As masses of protesters and police began swarming over their neighborhood, he and other residents posted up on Canfield Drive to keep an eye on things. His near constant presence in the street put him in close contact with a wealth of concerned citizens and organizers, one of whom came from Oakland, CA with We Copwatch. Together, the two of them quickly raised money and distributed over 210 body cameras7 for free to neighborhood residents.
“It wasn’t peaceful [in Canfield] before the Mike Brown thing; the stage was set…People were angry, people had lost jobs, people didn’t have money.” David pushed his former life aside, quitting his job and dedicating all of his time to designing workshops, refining his camera skills, and organizing his neighborhood to defend itself by documenting police behavior.
“This situation really changed things. The cops did not expect that to happen. They expected everything to blow over. The police made themselves a target, and now there are two main groups of people: those people who think the police are ineffective and those people who think we need the police. But almost everybody hates the cops. The majority of the people know that the problem is something bigger than the police.”
David Whitt, along with Sharon M., David Royal, and other Canfield Green residents formed the Canfield Watchman, which has been organizing and training community members on how to document police encounters and assert their constitutional rights. Their project recently acquired office space in the Center of Hope and Peace, another local project started in the wake of Mike Brown’s death.
The Canfield Watchman are continuing to offer a free series of classes on copwatching, and body cameras to participants who complete the series.
(by Sebastiano Tomada)
Beat the Heat
On the third day of protests, the police started grabbing people, and one organization volunteered its landline to accept calls from jail. Their hotline snowballed into a collective jail support effort that mobilized over 100 volunteers and raised over $185,000 for bail, warrants8 and other legal costs.
It was typical for the legal collective to have to pay off multiple warrants in myriad municipalities in order to secure the release of arrestees. Many suburban municipalities outside of St. Louis City raise large percentages of their budgets from tickets9, so bench warrants are ubiquitous even though the underlying tickets aren’t for criminal charges. Even the Department of Justice10 has condemned Ferguson and the surrounding municipalities for rampant corruption and racism in their police and court systems.
Molly Gott is an organizer with MORE (Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment), the umbrella under which the jail support and legal collective formed. When the police are snatching random people off the street and charging us with the highest crimes they can concoct, Molly is the kind of person I want getting my back. Her skepticism of the US justice system is as sharp as her critique of capitalism. At 24, Molly has a bedrock grounding in basic humanity that undergirded the structure and functioning of the legal collective.
She and many others spent sleepless night after sleepless night answering calls from jail, paying bail and arranging rides home for arrestees, teasing out solutions to messy and complicated legal dilemmas, locating sympathetic lawyers to represent arrestees in a Republican wasteland11, and staying in front of the avalanche of coordination and work associated with trying to free people who had fallen on the front lines—and keep them free.
Some elements within the movement sought to distance themselves from perceived ‘thugs’ or people not engaging in classic nonviolent protest. Molly and other legal collective members weren’t swayed by the opinions of reformists and liberals and continue to provide support regardless of charges to everyone arrested during protests. The collective maintains that just because the police charge someone with a crime it clearly doesn’t mean the arrestee did it.
“Particularly a lot of the people we were working with were most vulnerable because they weren’t connected to organizations, they weren’t public faces, they had records previously. All these things made them at greater risk, and made it easier for the police state to come back on them even harder. They were out there fighting these things, and now their lives are being cannibalized by those same forces they had been out there protesting,” said Molly.
“In some ways the movement hasn’t been outright anticapitalist, but I think the prison industrial complex is so immediately tied to capitalism. Many of the arrestees that I’ve met with have been so historically rooted and really clear in articulating prisons are slavery. And that’s what it’s really about and what we need to start addressing. I have no idea how we’re going to do that. It’s a huge thing. But there are small things that we can start doing, like going after Global Tel*Link12 and figuring out what corporate targets make money off of putting people in cages. We can weaken that system and build from there.”
Nabeehah Azeez attends the oldest mosque in St. Louis, and when she began volunteering with the legal collective, she was working as a probation and parole officer. In preparation for the non-indictment announcement from the grand jury, she helped the legal collective organize squads to distribute know your rights cards with the jail support number on it and write the phone number on people’s arms with sharpies.
“I graduated in May of 2013, by September I got hired as Probation and Parole Assistant One, but in the facility I was working in, I was basically a correctional officer. I did that for about six months before I got promoted to Probation and Parole Officer. I worked in a release center, so I had parolees usually coming straight from prison who didn’t have anywhere to live, and probationers who were out in the field on probation but were getting into trouble, so they sent them to me.”
“I had different types of clients coming in both ways, but I started studying criminal justice because I wanted to work in a helping field. I had always wanted to be a doctor, but then I realized there were others ways to help. So I went into criminal justice to have an impact on my community and to change the system. The more I studied, the more I realized how horrible the system was, and I just hoped that somehow I could impact the system from the inside.”
However, based on her experiences working for the state, Nabeehah acknowledged the legal system’s default is to send Black and brown people to jail, so when MORE offered her a paid position to work with the legal collective, she quit her job with the state and accepted the position. The collective is working to abolish the bench warrant system, close the notorious Hall St. City Workhouse jail facility, and support arrestees through trials, and it continues to collaborate with the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) to provide jail support for protests.
No Justice, Just Us
St. Louis has seen a flurry of civil actions in regard to the conduct of the state and its agents. Jerryl Christmas, a former Prosecutor for the City of St. Louis, and Maggie Ellinger-Locke, the current President of the St. Louis chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, joined forces to secure an investigation into how Prosecutor McCulloch handled the grand jury in Darren Wilson’s case. Christmas is representing several protester cases and the family of Vonderrit Meyers13, and Elliger-Locke has worked to coordinate NLG legal observers and volunteer criminal attorneys, as well as representing cases herself.
“We have not had due process in this situation at all,” said Christmas. “As a former prosecutor, I know this is just not how the system works. I think what’s happening is that we have prosecutor’s offices taking advantage of the public’s ignorance of the grand jury process. When the public hears that we’re going to bring everybody in, including the defendant, not knowing how the grand jury normally works, they think, ‘Ok they’re doing the right thing.’ But what they don’t know is that…it never works that way.”
Christmas went on to explain that normally grand juries only hear evidence that proves probable cause to move on to a trial, never exonerating evidence. “When I was a grand jury attorney, we probably indicted 99% of the cases. It’s such a low burden, and to be honest with you, the grand jury does what the prosecutor asks them to do. There’s nobody in there but me and them. It’s not an adversarial process at all. And then it’s just probable cause, so we’re not determining guilt or innocence at this level. What Bob McCulloch did was have a mini trial in the grand jury, orchestrated by the prosecutor’s office.”
Maggie Ellinger-Locke described the basis of the lawsuit they’re bringing as bad faith and arbitrariness on the part of the Prosecutor’s office. “It’s arbitrary to present every shred of evidence to the grand jury,” said Ellinger-Locke. “Normally, the only evidence presented is probable cause for indictment; you don’t present a self-defense argument as happened here. You leave that for the actual trial and for the defendant to do for themselves. McCulloch presented evidence for an affirmative defense and allowed Darren Wilson himself to testify to the grand jury. This is a huge departure from how grand juries are normally conducted.”
Chirstmas interjected, “Even Justice Scalia commented. Everybody was like, ‘I’ve never seen anything done like this before.’ That’s the main reason why we have to attack it, because we don’t want this to be precedent setting. I think it did, unfortunately, allow the prosecutor’s office in New York to follow their play book and do the same thing with the Eric Garner case.
“We believe he acted in bad faith by letting the grand jury hear perjured testimony,” Ellinger-Locke continued, referring to Witness 4014. “He also treated witnesses differently—handling witnesses that supported probable cause hostilely, and witnesses that supported Officer Wilson’s story favorably.
“McCulloch also failed to address inconsistencies between Wilson’s prior statements and physical evidence and his grand jury testimony. So Wilson’s original statements to the police and to the press shortly after the Mike Brown shooting are very different than the story he shared with the grand jury, and that also includes the difference between fifteen feet and 100 feet where Michael Brown was shot in proximity to the car.
“We also believe McCulloch showed bad faith by demonstrating a bias for the police in his personal life. He’s a former president of Back Stoppers, which funds police in St. Louis County for various things. He’s also famously called the victims of another police shooting ‘bums’ about a decade ago.”
In a move that may have confused jurors, directly before Darren Wilson’s testimony, the prosecutor gave an incorrect jury instruction about the use of deadly force, leaving the impression that the only legal requirement for Wilson to kill Mike Brown with impunity was his belief that he was in danger, without the additional requirement of probable cause for such a belief. “A notable issue that the press hasn’t picked up on that the final jury instruction that was actually given to the grand jury has not been disclosed to anybody. We don’t know what that jury instruction says and that’s huge. They released the transcripts and all sorts of information, but that was not shared.” Ellinger-Locke concluded.
“Another misleading thing,” Christmas said, “is they have the public believing that it’s all over with, there’s nothing else that can be done. They’re fully aware that double jeopardy doesn’t even apply at this level.” Christmas explained that another grand jury could still be convened, and gave his theory of why McCullouch wanted this particular grand jury. “When the Michael Brown case happened, it was the end of this grand jury’s four month term. It was time for them to be released. But instead, what they did was to start a new grand to hear new cases and they held this grand jury over to hear the Darren Wilson case.”
Christmas described how prosecutors develop a rapport with jurors, getting to know them and how they’re likely to vote. “When I worked in the prosecutor’s office, they had a term for it. They said, ‘Every now and then they’ll go rogue on you.’ That’s what they call it when a grand jury doesn’t do what you want, ‘going rogue.’ New juries are more likely to go rogue, so I think that’s the reason Bob McCulloch held this grand jury over: because he knew what to expect.”
Christmas asserted from his personal experience, “The prosecutor’s office and the police department have such a close relationship that, especially in police shootings, you have to have special prosecutors on these cases. The relationship between the prosecutor’s office and the police department is so close it’s incestuous. It’s like asking you to prosecute your dad or your sister. What you’re asking them to do is really not logical because, based on human nature, there’s going to be some bias. They work together every day on these cases, day in and day out, and then you ask them to turn around and prosecute these people? You can’t really look at them and get to the bottom of what’s going on without having a special prosecutor.”
This lawsuit is making its way through the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. McCulloch’s office has filed a motion to dismiss.
Bigger Than Fairness
Academics are not the first people associated with confrontational frontline struggle, but St. Louis University School of Law professor Justin Hansford was a regular at the daily Ferguson PD protests and out on West Florissant, as well as legal observing15 with the NLG and assisting in various negotiations that occurred with law enforcement. Justin has a warm smile and grounded, kind presence that is rarely perturbed and invites openness. He co-organized a trip to the United Nations16 last November and recently received a Fulbright Scholarship to study in South Africa.
“If you ask me now what justice looks like, for me part of it means instilling the fear of penalties in police. That’s what the impunity thing is about. There has to be a penalty that they’re afraid of for racial violence. If you had asked me a year ago what I think about when I think about the word justice, I would have thought about economic justice. As opposed to Libertarians, I had much more of a leftist critique that everybody should have a certain standard of living, everybody deserves certain basic economic benefits—the idea that people should get what they deserve.”
“People have this idea of poor people and people of color like they’re lazy, they’re not working. Most of them work twice as hard, twice as many hours at absurd times. That’s unjust right? That’s injustice. Before this I would have thought about fairness, and how we reward people in society. But now, I think more and more about being willing to hold the powerful people accountable. You could probably abstract that. In the streets, it’s the police that have all the power. In society, it’s probably the 1%. Who would ever have the heart to talk about penalizing the police, penalizing the rich, penalizing people in government for decisions that create global warming and war?
“In the police environment they’re almost always working with violence,” Justin said in response to whether he could envision society transitioning from punitive systems of justice to restorative17 or participatory ones. “I just don’t see how behavior gets changed without something drastic, like fear of a severe penalty. I just don’t see it, I don’t see it. If you’re the police, and you know you’re going to have a restorative justice outcome, so you can kill this kid and just have a bunch of dialogs, but you’re part of a culture that values being tough and taking that kid out—you’ll probably get a pat on the back and an ‘I am Darren Wilson’ bracelet afterward. So in that environment, it’s hard for me to justify a nonpunitive approach to justice. Maybe a better way to think of it is a more particularized approach around violence.”
While there is scant similarity between the violence of the state against the poor and people of color and violent crime, they pose an essential question. Is there a way to hold people accountable in a way that’s about growth and healing, even when the harm is serious? Hansford reflected on his studies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission18 in South Africa.
“The problem with it, there were a number of different dynamics. You had Desmond Tutu and you had this view that there was no other option besides bloodshed. And there was a lot of bloodshed before. So the process was a fascinating thing. On both sides there were people who refused to participate. The majority of people did participate, and the majority of people were left unsatisfied,” Hansford explained.
(by Redwest Drum Core)
“African unity is still bitter, you know how it worked right? The Afrikaners who participated got amnesty, and so people were and still are highly upset about that. And on the other side, the Afrikaners who spoke out, their families broke up because of it. Some of it happened because people found out that their family members had committed these atrocities; they never dreamed their husbands or sons participated.
“However some of their reaction was like, ‘Don’t bring this shame upon us. Just keep it to yourself—they’ll never find out. You’re so stupid.’ The process itself, however, did avoid the catastrophic race war that could have happened. Even though people on both sides were deeply unsatisfied and deeply hurt, it kind of did work. It kind of did do what it set out to do, which was just to allow them to go forward and give people a sense of closure. It wasn’t satisfying. It was almost like a break up—it wasn’t like you’re happy now and everything’s great. You want to get to a closure where it’s no longer just dominating your mind, and things move forward. And I think that did happen.
“Now if that could happen here that would be amazing, right? You know, I guess it could be possible if people in power on both sides forced folks to the table. Both sides would leave unsatisfied, but then they could move forward with a whole new structure. It may not be enough to have a system that penalizes cops so it costs them a lot to brutalize youth. Before that, we may have to have a Truth and Reconciliation.
“But I don’t know, it’s a question of whether that process was fair. The thing is, of course, before and after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, people who commit murder spend their life in jail. Murderers spend their life in jail. But here in this window, people got killed, they got tortured, they admitted it, and there was no penalty for them. They were brazen about it; they talked about it casually. There wasn’t one day of prison for them. Was that fair?”
Q – No, definitely not fair, but I think the question of justice is bigger than fairness. The question is, does it transform people, does it change the way people understand their own hearts? Does it make people better humans? Does it bring about systemic change in the world? There are a couple of things there in looking at real justice—this structure that perpetuates power in the hands of the few and uses violence to enforce that system on everybody else, and also there’s the human thing, where we internalize that system, and we perpetuate it in our personal relationships, in our organizational relationships, and in the world. Normally, we validate these types of unjust power relationship every day in big and small ways. Again, we can come at these problems from both the inside and how are we changing the systems of power so that people inside traditional power structures fear acting in fucked up ways, and how are we evolving society into new, more democratic and participatory structures? How do we affirm all of our humanity? How can we all be human beings in each other’s eyes?
Justin responded, “Go out in front of the police department and ask yourself, ‘How do you change the hearts of people who are playing their role?’ Like that Stanford Prison Experiment19, that’s what’s happening on a more profound scale. They go and play that role everyday. Could we change the role and see how that changes how people perform their role? That’s probably the best short term answer if we’re talking short term answers. Change their incentive structure.
“Ultimately to change the heart, it’s hard to know how that happens. We can change the culture and the norms; we’ve seen culture change in our lifetimes around LGBT rights. So cultures can change and do change. I think those are things that are malleable. The role of restorative justice in that, I don’t know.
“It’s interesting to me that when it comes to the police, I revert to punitive justice. If you try to think in those terms with the police, like you said earlier, how do you make them more human? How do you make them flourish? Because flourishing isn’t violence based on racial grounds. Flourishing is more about the ability to be the best you can be and have your ideals fulfilled, and I honestly don’t think most of the police have an ideal to kill black youth. I don’t think that’s the greatest thing they aspire to. I don’t think that’s true. They fall into that.”
“That’s the question, how do you help them to fulfill their human ideals? It’s a hard thing to grab at. What is an ideal for a police officer—what is an ideal that a young recruit wants to become in twenty years? Do they want to become Sgt. Joe Friday from Dragnet? I don’t think many say, ‘I want to be the killer of unarmed youth’.”
Q – To me, if we’re in this window where system(s) change is possible and happening, having a youth of color-led movement for justice and the democratic way that we’re organizing is creating that possible future where things don’t run along the typical power lines. Maybe we can never get the cops to act right, but we can change society. We’ll surround it, basically, and work our way in. I believe there are people on the inside working their way out, and there needs to be more people on the outside working their way in. Do you see anything like that manifesting in this moment? Do you even think that’s possible?
“People use the word performative. I sort of think we’re performing an anti-hierarchical reality, with youth as opposed to elders, people of color as opposed to white people, women as opposed to men, LGBT folks as opposed to straight folks, putting them at the forefront is performing an anti-hierarchical reality,” said Justin.
“I can see where you’re going with that. It’s good, but I’m a little skeptical. Because America is pretty much a youth-centered culture. It’s youth-obsessed. And it’s really elders, to me, who are marginalized in American culture. In traditional Chinese culture where the elders are revered and the youth are sort of looking up to them, it would be revolutionary in China to have a youth-led movement. But in the US, it’s really what we expect after the ’60s.
“I do think it’s revolutionary to have people of color who are also youth and not well off, who are leading and seen as legitimate. It’s not there right now. Right now it’s like ‘looters,’ it’s outside agitators, and ‘pull your pants up’. That’s part of this narrative. I don’t think that there’s been some sort of revolutionary change if we’re talking about the legitimacy of poor young Black people as leaders.
“When the media talks about violence they talk about youth of color as the violent actors. The reporters who come, they’ve even told me, they come for the violence. Two things sell: sex and violence. When they talk about the police, some of them have critiques of Darren Wilson, some of them have critiques of the governmental structure as either ineffective or bumblers, people with good intentions but who are unskilled. But none of them see the police or the government as the initiators of violence. They see the youth as the initiators of the violence. That’s opposite of the reality that we see on the streets.”
Q – Maybe that’s what this moment can be. Like how Occupy was a referendum on the economy, maybe this can be a referendum on state violence?
“That’s what we have to push for.” Justin stated. “We have to push until people acknowledge violence initiated by the state. Maybe that’s what this moment is about, which would be great. I can’t really say that it’s happened yet but I do think one of the more hopeful things is that a lot of youth have been invested in this.
“You’ve seen it, veteran organizers have come in three or four days at a time, a week at a time, and we’ve poured training into the youth, poured resources into them. Some of them have been able to travel. How often do young community organizers from St. Louis get a chance to go to places like Geneva, or places like New York and LA and Chicago for workshops and panels? It’s great. I’d love to see where these youth are going to be in ten years, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five years old after having had this as a formative experience.
“So that’s probably the most hopeful thing that I’ve seen come out of it. But the story’s not over yet. How we think about justice has to be informed by this experience. And the way we’ve thought about justice in the past has to inform what we do.”
Q — In these moments when things are shifting and fertile, it seems important to reflect on our actions to come up with new ideas about how we operate. I’m so swamped doing the practical work that I’m not really doing the intellectual work, but it’s so critical. The other thing is that in New York, LA, Oakland, Minneapolis, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and on and on, youth of color are watching what’s happening here. And if they see, “Shit, they’ve got it in St. Louis!”—that could be a pivotal moment when people say “We’re going to change the way power operates in this country.”
Justin agreed, “That’s real. It can create a new norm.”
Go Straight to the Boss (Yourself)
Like so many in the movement, the intersection of Damon Davis’s artistic talent and political analysis is fertile ground. To me he’s a walking, talking St. Louis example of the phrase, “When we free ourselves, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”20 Damon makes art out of what’s around him, drawing on materials and content as they arise.
As shop owners were boarding up their windows in Ferguson, Damon got one, then two, then many to allow him to paste up huge photographs of hands in the air all over barricaded West Florissant. But Damon doesn’t rest comfortably in the art world. During the months of insanity that ensued after Mike Brown’s death, he diligently represented at invite-only, influential organizing tables where he was frequently the only young Black man from St. Louis in the conversation.
“I think justice is going to take the people in power to give, and that’s not the cool thing, that’s not the status quo, to give something. Or it’s going to take the people out of power to take it. That’s usually how revolution happens, and it’s usually not non-violent or peaceful when that happens. We have an opportunity to do something that humanity hasn’t done, to actually be empathetic towards people and to fix things the right way, without bloodshed. Are we ready for that? Can we really make that happen? I don’t know. But I think that’s where we’re at. We’re at a point of evolution right now where we could actually evolve, or we could just stay where we at.”
Q – I think that’s true, but I don’t think we can stay where we’re at because everything is changing regardless. Really, it’s a moment where things are being redefined, and traditional power is consciously redefining them in the most fucked up ways. But maybe there are other options. There’s the thing you were talking about, where they give or we take, but maybe there are other ways where things evolve, where we actually use our brains to really problem solve and cooperate even though that sounds like the wildest science fiction. I think that’s possible, though, because I’m watching it all around me. I’m seeing people creating their own solutions.
“I like the small revolutions where people change the way they think about people they were afraid of. Where they go out and feed people, or they talk to children about facing their fears, or they make something that they give to people. That’s what I think a movement is—a movement is not just a moment in time when we were all standing outside. The movement is actually changing your everyday life to be more compassionate and more caring towards other people. That’s not a program or a group or anything I see that’s got all the answers to fix everything.
“I don’t think that exists and I don’t think it should exist because that takes responsibility out of our hands to do what’s right and to stand up for each other. I’m much more interested in day by day work. Because the problem is power. Power in anybody’s hands, the monopolization of power is where we get all these problems from.”
Q – If we’re looking historically at this moment, I’d propose that it’s not just about race. Like you say, it’s also about power. All the constructs that oppress people, if you break them down to the simplest form, are about power using power over other people to dominate and control. We’re in a moment where everything is fluid, where the future structure isn’t set, where things are still being contested and people are awake and paying attention and can quickly communicate because of technology. The mechanisms of societal control are all fraying, so we have an opportunity, like you’re saying, in our daily lives to change how power manifests. There’s the stuff that’s happening here, and it’s really deep, and also it connects out across the country and around the world. How can people connect the dots?
Damon suggested, “Let’s just talk as far as the Internet, because that’s the biggest communication tool that we have. It’s probably the biggest one in human history. In the same way that it decentralizes power, it also isolates people and takes humanity away from people. So you sit, and you isolated and you don’t look at each other. It takes compassion out of the equation to a degree, and I think at the same time that it’s a great communication tool.
“I think the fact that we so locked in allows those things to get worse and worse, and manifest the same culture of fear and the idea of scarcity and all that. That’s the one thing that worries me. We have to be very mindful of what technology is and the proper uses of it. Because it’s a new tool, it’s going to be very hard to forecast. But I think the isolation that all this technology generates also hinders the fight for true justice and democracy, because even with all these messages at once how do you disseminate them? How do you know what’s right and what’s wrong? So you still pick whatever you were trained growing up to pick. You still either lean to one side or the other.”
Q — On the topic of power, I think of justice as inextricably linked to how we organize society. Ultimately, it comes down to power and how we orient ourselves around power. Our current justice system is organized to psychologically make you think about justice as something that exists outside of you and is designated by an outside authority. People used to have an orientation toward power in this traditional way, where you’re trying to climb the ladder or whatever. I hear all these young people of color talking about leaderless movements and I’m wondering, what you think about that?
“I think power is given, on most levels. And I don’t think somebody gives you the power, you give them the power. People give money power, like a piece of paper. We all had to agree that paper money is worth what it’s worth. That’s agreement. And we also had to agree to who holds the power. We always think with things like power and justice we need a middleman to get to it, but we need to stop talking to the middle man and go to the boss, which is yourself. You go straight to yourself and if you want justice, if you live in an idea and a culture of justice for yourself, you’ll give it to other people and that will give you freedom.
“Be free inside yourself. Stop asking these people. If you don’t like the laws, if everybody stop abiding by the law, it’s not a law anymore. They can’t enforce everything, but we agree to it. We agree to it. If you don’t agree with it, stop doing it. If everybody acted like that, there ain’t enough cops. There isn’t a government big enough, there isn’t a religion big enough to go police all of these people and tell these people we going to keep doing this. It wouldn’t work. If we don’t like this corporation and what they doing, and everybody stops buying from them, then they go under.”
“There are certain power structures that right now affect my life that I can’t do anything about, but I think we start to get true justice and true freedom inside. Once we understand what that is, then we can stop doing shit. It’s not passive—that’s an active way of doing something. Deciding not to agree with certain principles, certain social structures. If we don’t agree with it, it can’t hold water. People agree to these things by being silent; they comply to it by being silent. And that’s why this shit keeps perpetuating itself over and over again through our history. They changed the names, but it’s the same shit, over and over again. I think that’s what it is—cut the middle man out.”
Q – Do you think we need the police, under what circumstances, what kind? At all?
“I think a lot of people see black and white and I think the world is mostly grey. There’s not really much black and white,” Damon replied. “The police is another grey area. What do you do when there’s a really violent crime? I think violent crime is a place where police are useful and necessary. And by violent, I don’t mean property damage and all of that. But if the people who are taking care of that perpetuate the problems, then they not really effective. So it’s like, I think the drug war is a bunch of shit to fuel budgets, that’s just a war on poor people, a war on certain people, a class war. I don’t think they’re necessary there. But I also know police who have helped people.
“So maybe we should redefine what police are. Maybe we don’t need people in uniforms.
Maybe everyone should be accountable to protect their neighborhoods and help each other. People think it’s somebody else’s job to do something. That’s why they’re so amazed when people stand up and do something, when you just help people yourself. And that’s what a community is.”
(August 9th, 2015 by Sarah Coffey)
“Police sit outside of the community, legislation sits outside of the community, because none of these people actually do things to help people. I don’t think police as what they are right now are necessary. I think it’s an archaic idea, and I think it’s time to reevaluate what policing is and maybe it should be a more communal thing than a designated job. That’s the next step. We should be having those conversations.”
While any amount of progress is good and should be supported, body cameras, sensitivity training or diversifying police forces21 won’t change the fact that the powers that be aren’t invested in building safe communities; they’re interested in keeping the poor and people of color destabilized. If anything, instead of becoming more accountable to and integrated with our communities, the police are becoming more militarized and hostile22. A small but telling example occurred at a meeting this January regarding a Civilian Police Oversight Board where Jeff Roorda, the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, sported an ‘I Am Darren Wilson’ bracelet and assaulted an African American woman associated with the Mike Brown protests.
FTP — Free the People
The St. Louis Black Souljahz are a group of young people who didn’t know each other prior to August 9th. They met in the streets and clicked because of their radical analysis of power. Emmaculate Jones, 21, and Dhoruba Shakur, 24, both agree that reform will not address the root problems that brought so many people of all ages into the movement.
“The mainstream are the ones controlling things, and they’re the ones who are liberals. We’re for the community,” said Jones. “We’re for the people because we are the people, and we act like the people. We’re not doing shit by laws that have been set by the state. 501(c)3s and 4s are confined by the laws. We’re not. This is a leaderless movement and a leaderless organization, so we all stay in our lane. We all got our own things going, but we all help each other out in the process.”
Shakur shared a similar sentiment, “I don’t believe those methods, but if we can use those to heighten the contradictions then it would be a good thing. But we haven’t been able to do that. I don’t believe in the legislative change they keep pushing.”
“The pre-existing Left and non-profits aren’t broad enough; they aren’t inclusive enough, yet they have all the resources. The advantages we have as youth is that we aren’t stuck in our ways–we’re creative and we have the numbers.”
The damage done and the healing needed is profound, but possible. A step in that direction is to stop putting our best energy into reacting to the justice system or trying to fix it and instead concentrate on disrupting it and working outside of it to create viable alternatives. By following the lead of those most affected by injustice and organizing democratically we can create real solutions for ourselves and our communities.
Sarah Coffey is a white person who lives in Detroit and is part of a Beloved Community. She went to Ferguson August 14th in response to a call from the National Lawyer’s Guild for Legal Observers and stayed for six months to help strengthen and maintain movement legal support.
- Peter James Hudson, “Who Killed Robert McCulloch’s Father?” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 18, 2014; Frank Vyan Walton, “Darren Wilson’s freedom was ensured by fatal errors made by the St. Louis D.A. and police department,” Daily Kos, November 27, 2014. State of Missouri ex inf. Montague Simmons, et al., v. Robert McCulloch, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney.
- Over seventy people are being prosecuted for felonies stemming from protests in the St. Louis region. In 2008 at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, 159 people were charged with felonies but fewer than two dozen were prosecuted. In 2000 at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, forty people were charged with felonies. In 1995 in San Francisco, 100 people were charged with felonies at a Free Mumia protest, but the charges were eventually dropped.
- Ferguson is one of over ninety municipalities in St. Louis County. The issues at play in Ferguson exist throughout the region, so this article refers to St. Louis, even though #Ferguson is the hashtag.
- Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and screenwritten by Paul Webb (2014: Paramount), Film.
- A frequent refrain heard at protests was, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.” Mumia Abu Jamal, “Mumia: What Was ‘Unsaid In Selma,’” Black Agenda Radio, March 16, 2015.
- Praxis is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized.
- Veho MUVI™ Mini Cam.
- The legal collective no longer pays warrant fees that are not associated with protests.
- Thomas Harvey, John McAnnar, Michael-John Voss, et al, Arch City Defenders Municipal Courts White Paper, August 4, 2014. Lawyers from St. Louis University, Arch City Defenders and Equal Justice Under Law filed a class action lawsuit in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri against seven municipalities alleging illegal charging of fees, February 8, 2015.
- United States Department of Justice—Civil Rights Division, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, March 4, 2015.
- The Missouri State Senate and House are both controlled by Republicans, the Democrats are conservative, and the progressive legal community is small. For example, Missouri State Representative Jeff Roorda-D raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Darren Wilson on GoFundMe, an online fundraising site. The National Lawyer’s Guild St. Louis Chapter and National Office, St. Louis University Legal Clinic, Ferguson Legal Defense Committee, Mound City Bar Association, and Arch City Defenders all assisted with lawyers for protesters.
- Global Tel*Link (GTL) makes $500 million a year from providing phone services to jails and prisons. Liliana Segura, “With 2.3 Million People Incarcerated in the US, Prisons Are Big Business,” The Nation, October 1, 2013.
- Robert Patrick, “Private Autopsy Suggests Vonderrit Myers Was Shot While Fleeing St. Louis Officer,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 24, 2014.
- Stephen Deere, “Witness 40 In Michael Brown Case Raises Questions About Grand Jury Proceedings,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 2014.
- Justin Hansford, “I Went To Ferguson To Protect The Protesters. I Got Arrested Instead,” Vox, October 24, 2014.
- Justin Hansford, Jessica Lee, Jeena Shaw, Meena Jagannath, Written Statement on the Police Shooting of Michael Brown and Ensuing Police Violence Against Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, Submitted to 53rd Session of the United Nations Committee Against Torture, November 3-28, 2014.
- “What is Restorative Justice?” Restorative Justice Online, 1996-2015. http://www.restorativejustice.org/university-classroom/01introduction. “Common Justice,” Vera Institute of Justice, accessed March 21, 2015. http://www.vera.org/project/common-justice.
- “Truth: the Road to Reconciliation,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2009. http://www.justice.gov.za/trc/.
- “A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted at Stanford University,” Stanford Prison Experiment, 1999. http://www.prisonexp.org/.
- Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles,” (New York: HarperOne, 1996).
- “The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing,” COPS: Community-Oriented Policing Services, March 2, 2015. http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/policingtaskforce; Donovan X. Ramsey, “Police Reform Is Impossible In America,” Gawker, February 3, 2015.
- Reena Flores, “Missouri Has Spent $11.7 Million Policing the Ferguson Protests (So Far),” National Journal, December 5, 2014. ACLU Report, War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing, June 23, 2014.