On August 20, 2014, my wife and I joined the protests against police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. Every year around this time I think about writing about our experience. In years past I have found too many excuses not to, but this year is different.
First, I thoroughly acknowledge that this post comes from a place of privilege. We were outsiders in Ferguson and have not had to deal directly with the ongoing repercussions in that community and elsewhere throughout our country. Even my reason for being in St. Louis shows privilege: before returning to my graduate program in Durham, NC, I was teaching a short course to graduate students at Washington University.
We had spent the summer living in an AirBnb in Oakland, CA. (Our BART stop was West Oakland, about five miles from where Oscar Grant was killed by police in 2009.) We would have been paying attention to the Ferguson protests anyway (they were all over the news, and all over my Twitter feed), but knowing that they were taking place just a few miles north of where we were staying made it feel more urgent.
So that evening we drove from Wash U toward Ferguson. Police had the streets blocked off in both directions, so we parked just off of Florissant Road and walked toward the demonstration. We could hear the protesters long before we saw them. The most popular chant by far was “hands up, don’t shoot,” repeating the alleged final words of Mike Brown before he was killed.
When we joined the crowd, we all walked counter-clockwise in a loop up and down Florissant Road. Most of us were holding hands in small groups with those around us. Police and National Guardsmen (male and female) lined the street on both sides, some in armored personnel carriers and all with body armor. Observers from Amnesty International were set up in a small area near the McDonald’s on the south end of the protest area. An older clergyman preached the value of nonviolence to the crowd, but that felt unnecessary in this group–we were there to demonstrate our outrage, not to hurt anyone or anything. At the time I thought we were inconveniencing the police but in retrospect I realize that they were probably satisfied with earning overtime while watching a peaceful group walk in circles and shout.
Shortly after we arrived I noticed some of the Guardsmen putting on gas masks and this made me extra thankful for the observers. Tear gas had been used on previous nights but was not deployed the night we were there. Overall, the night was rather peaceful. According to the Philadelphia Daily News, only six protesters were arrested that night compared with 47 the previous night. The next day the Missouri Governor withdrew the National Guard. The continuous streak of daily demonstrations was broken when Mike Brown’s family asked for the crowd to stand down out of respect for his funeral on August 25.
It did not escape our attention that only about 10 percent of the Ferguson demonstrators that night were white. That was the first time I felt that the color of my skin made a political statement, and I quickly came to appreciate that for most of the people around me that this was part of their daily reality.
With three years of retrospection, are there any lessons we can draw from those protests? I’m not sure. Certainly police killings of unarmed black men have not stopped, though they now receive a great deal more attention in the news. If anything our country feels far more divided on racial lines than it did then.
All Southerners, and probably all Americans, ask themselves at some point which side they would have taken if they had been alive in 1960, or 1860. Obviously no one can answer this beyond a shadow of a doubt, but I would like to think that our actions now are the best indicator of how we would have acted back then. Would you have joined the Freedom Riders or would you have been part of the mob throwing punches? Or would you have sat on the sidelines, shaking your head?