Two months after a white cop shot an unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, and the police responded to angry demonstrations with a military-style assault, there was a mass four-day protest called “Ferguson October”.
The four-day action centred not only on Michael Brown, but on an epidemic of similar police killings nationwide.
Ferguson is part of the greater St Louis area, and marches and other events were also held in the city.
On the evening of October 8, two days before Ferguson October began, there was another cop killing of a young Black man in the Shaw section of St Louis.
Eighteen-year-old Vonderrit Myers was murdered by a white off-duty cop who was patrolling the neighbourhood for a private security firm. That night, and the next, there were clashes between angry protesters and police, who used pepper spray.
That a private security firm was conducting armed patrols in a Black neighbourhood reveals the institutionalised racism that characterises present-day America.
Police said Myers shot at the off-duty cop first, who then let loose a fusillade of 17 shots, killing Myers.
But the young man’s family says he did not have a gun. Instead, they say he was holding a sandwich when he and two friends ran away from the patrol.
“The police are lying,” said Myers’ grandfather.
The police then investigated themselves and — surprise — came to the conclusion that Myers did have a gun and fired first.
During Ferguson October, 17 people were arrested for staging a sit-in at a gas station near where Myers was gunned down.
The four-day protest was partly held in cold rain. On October 10, hundreds of racially mixed, but largely Black, protesters marched under umbrellas on the office of the St Louis County prosecuting attorney, Robert McCulloch. They chanted “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” — the slogan that has characterised the Ferguson protests.
They demanded McCulloch step down and an independent prosecutor be appointed. McCulloch has refused to charge Mike Brown’s murderer, Darren Wilson, referring the case instead to a grand jury for a likely whitewash.
On October 11, there was a march of thousands in the city of St Louis. The bulk of participants were from the local region, but there were contingents from many other cities.
The march was loud and angry, with shouts of “No Justice, No Peace!”, “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” and “Fight Back! Fight Back!”
One of the speakers repeatedly called out: “This is our Freedom Summer!” The crowd responded with “And we will win!”
This was a reference to the Freedom Summer in 1964, led by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi. Students from across the country came to fight for Black voting rights. Attention has been drawn to that time, as this is its 50th anniversary.
Some of the marchers were interviewed by Democracy Now! on October 13. Carl Dix said: “The police kill Black youth all the time, too often.
“Usually people get mad, and then it dies down. Here in Ferguson, the youth stood up. They stayed in the streets.
“They didn’t let tear gas or rubber bullets or National Guard mobilisations or curfews stop them. And because they stood up, it forced the whole country to look at this and even opened it up to the whole world.”
Alicia Garza said: “I’m with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. We are here to stand up for justice, to lift the burden that women of colour and immigrant women bear when one of our children is murdered by the police or vigilantes.”
Linda Sarsour came from Brooklyn, New York, and made the connection between the recent Israeli mass killings in Gaza and the military-style police attack on protesters in Ferguson.
Tory Russell said: “I’m with the Organization for Black Struggle and Hands Up United. The people came out [in response to our call]. This is where you bring your energy, and you’re going to take it back home.”
Alexis Templeton said: “We get all these young people to protest for the right to live, the human right to protest, and we get arrested, maced, tear-gassed and rubber-bulleted.
“I’ve been arrested three times. I’ve spent more time in jail than Darren Wilson.
“We are sick of it … and we want St Louis to know, in front of [the famous St Louis] Arch, that we aren’t going anywhere until you stop killing us.
“You will stop killing us. And we mean that.”
Pastor Derrick Robinson said: “I’m a local pastor in this community. What is going on today is that the people of this country ... we are tired of it not being justice for all.
“We’re here to make a stand, that either we get justice or we shut the street down.”
Lew Moye, president of the St Louis chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, said: “We have asked for an independent prosecutor.”
Moye added: This situation has shined a spotlight on other issues, the economic situation … Sixty Seven percent of African American males between 19 and 24 years old here are unemployed.”
Melanie Wilkerson said: “I came with a team from Massachusetts. We drove 18 hours … we regard ourselves as allies to give whatever kind of support the community needs.”
Another march was led by Montague Simmons, the chairperson of the Organization for Black Struggle. With a casket at its head, it went to the police headquarters. There they stopped for four-and- half minutes of silence, symbolising the four-and-a-half hours Brown’s body was left by the police on the ground, with even his family barred from covering him with a sheet.
There were many events on October 12, including an anti-racist hip-hop concert, workshops, an interfaith meeting, civil disobedience training, and a gathering for women activists.
On the final day, October 13, there was a wave of civil disobedience actions. One, at a police station, resulted in 43 people being arrested, including well-known African American professor and activist Cornel West.
Others unfurled banners inside city hall, chanted in a shopping mall, and marched to a university campus with a small group staying all night.
That evening, the St Louis Rams played a National Football League game in the city. Activists unfurled a banner in the stands, reading “Rams Fans Know Black Lives Matter” and “Racism Lives Here”.
Activists also shut down three area Walmart stores, in a solidarity protest over an earlier police murder of another young Black man in an Ohio Walmart.
In that incident, John Crawford was looking at a BB gun in the store. Someone called police with a report that a Black man was pointing a real gun at people. Police burst into the store with weapons blazing and killed Crawford without even trying to find out the reality.
An October 13 New York Times article said: “These carefully staged events, one by one across the St. Louis region, made up the largest and most organized acts of civil disobedience” since Brown was murdered.
The whole four-day event was well organised and featured broad endorsements, including the big civil rights groups, churches, and significantly the AFL-CIO, the largest labour federation.
Richard Trumpka, AFL-CIO president, issued a statement emphasising that by endorsing the protests, the whole federation was standing in solidarity with its Black members.
Also of note was the role of young Black people as organisers of the four-day event.
One of these was Ashley Yates, a poet and artist from the area. She said the first demonstrations agaist Brown's killing were spontaneous.
“People were just angry,” Yates told Democracy Now! on October 7. “We had seen too many Black lives gunned down at the hands of police. So we just took to the streets to show our resistance to the system.
“As the weeks passed, then the organising really started. It was just people getting together with those they had been on the front lines with and saying, ‘How can we move forward?’
“And that’s why we formed our organisation, Millennial Activists United.”
Another organiser was a young St Louis rapper, known as Tef Poe, who recently wrote a column for Time magazine headlined “Barack Obama Has Forsaken Us, But We Will Not Stop Fighting Injustice”.
He says he met “Ashley and other youth organizers, and we formed a united front and moved forward”.
He used his performances to draw more young people in. One week before Ferguson October, the police unsuccessfully tried to shut down his show.
Poe said: “I told a police officer once, ‘You can only do two things to me. You can kill me, or you can lock me up.’ Once you get past being scared of either one of those, a brand new world opens up.”
These young organisers have shown their courage and determination. The well-organised events are also a testimony to their leadership qualities.
[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]